Want to vs Have to: Part 1

February 27, 2019

I can be a bit of a homebody. I enjoy my own space and find it exceptionally relaxing to watch the dogs play through my window or sit in my garden while the kitties play underfoot. Being in a house full of animals though, means that there is constant chaos and dirt everywhere, all the time. I am sure there are many people that would cringe at the muddy pawprints all over the floor or the inevitable dog hair that ends up in my morning coffee, but I have accepted all of that as just a part of my happy little homelife.


Lately, we have had a lot of people in and out of our house. Family and friends have come to stay with us, and we have hosted a few gatherings and parties. I feel like we have been constantly cleaning to prepare for the next guest. “Oh, ______ is coming over, you have to [vacuum/do dishes/put away laundry/etc]”. Now, obviously, house chores are just a part of life, but the difference between cleaning the house because I have to prepare for the next guest, versus, cleaning the house because I want to have a clean house, is significant.


House chores likely hold varying emotional associations for different people. Some people find house chores therapeutic and thoroughly enjoy their cleaning time. Some people find house chores to be the worst endeavor they could possibly imagine undertaking and avoid the tasks at all costs. Some people (me included) procrastinate house chores, then all the sudden their brain is not able to function until All The Things have been cleaned. Tangent: One time, I came home after being gone all day, and Zach (my other half) had deep cleaned all the bathrooms because the actual task of caulking the bathroom baseboards “couldn’t” be completed until all the tile was sparkling – Ha, I can totally relate!


Now, what in the world does this have to do with dog training? Let’s look at a task that maybe your dog is not in love with… maybe nail trims, for example. Most dogs probably don’t find this task therapeutic and probably don’t thoroughly enjoy their nail trimming time. However, nail trims need to happen, for the health of the dog.


Throughout most of Bindi’s life, when I presented the nail trimmers, she would start trembling. Her head would lower, her ears would go back, her eyes would look up at me with the typical “puppy dog” look that we now know is a common way for dogs to show stress, and she would slink over to me to proceed with the terrifying trimming experience. This is a “have to” response. She didn’t have the option to leave, she had to participate because I said so, and her only tools were to exhibit numerous stress signals to communicate her discomfort. It really is amazing, looking back, that she wasn’t aggressive in these moments. (This is likely because I had previously suppressed aggressive behavior, but more on that in a later post.)


One day, I realized, she shouldn’t have to tolerate getting her nails trimmed, she should want to participate in nail trims. #Epiphone

Now, when I present the nail trimmers to Bindi, she follows me around the house with her ears pricked and tail wagging. She literally pushes the other dogs out of the way to be first in line, and when I tell her she’s all done, I need to put her in a down stay or in another room, so she doesn’t jump back into trimming position while I am working on the other dogs. This is a “want to” response. If she could choose nail trims or fetch, she would probably not choose nail trims, but if nail trims are the best option at the moment, she is willing to voluntarily participate. If I could go sit in my garden or clean my kitchen, I would probably not choose to clean the kitchen, but if cleaning the kitchen will help me feel better about my homey little space at that moment, then I will voluntarily do that task. Plus, I will feel much better about it if I am not being pressured into the “have to” mindset of cleaning for impending guests.


Let’s move away from force in our training. Let’s move away from telling the learners that they “have to”. Let’s move towards teaching our learners to “want to” participate. Eager to learn how? Check out Want To vs Have To: Part 2.

Kelsey Weber