• Ciara Pollen MSci

Stop your dog doing things you don't like: the dead man test

So often as a dog trainer my life revolves around helping people stop their dogs from doing things. Whether that's pulling on the lead, barking at other dogs, jumping at visitors, or stealing food, it's almost always about what people don't want.

How do I stop this behaviour? How do I teach her not to do that?

My answer is always the same.

"Well, what do you want her to do?"

This always surprises people. Isn't it obvious? But this is likely the first time they've thought about the problem in this way. By focusing on what you don't want to see, you make it impossible to work out what you want from your dog. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things that my dog can do, so which should they choose when they're told not to do something? If you don't know, your dog definitely doesn't, so just telling them off or 'correcting' the behaviour brings them no closer to understanding what to do. It just causes you frustration, and leaves your dog confused and unsure. In fact, we know that punishing your dog can actually slow their learning and create more unwanted behaviours (1).

There is a concept in the behaviour world called the dead man test, created by Ogden Lindsley in 1965 (2). He found that teachers were often analysing schoolchildren's success based on what they weren't doing, and quipped,

"we should not spend valuable school funds teaching children to play dead".

From this, he developed Precision Teaching (3), which was heavily influenced by another scientist, B. F. Skinner. But I digress.

Put simply, if a dead man can do what you're asking, then it isn't behaviour. Behaviour is defined as the way in which someone acts - essentially, it's something you do. You're reading this article. You're breathing, blinking, and focusing. You're not screaming at the top of your lungs (I hope), but neither is a dead man.

So imagine that you want to teach your dog not to pull on the lead. A dead man can certainly do that. He'll never pull on that lead no matter how many cats or squirrels race past him! But he's also never go in the direction you want him to. In fact, he'll never do anything.

He can't.

He's dead.

A better way to frame this behaviour problem is by what you do want. For me, I want my dog to focus on me around distractions, and move with me without putting tension on the lead. This passes the dead man test, because a dead man can't focus. A dead man can't move.

Perfect! We know what we want our dog to do. Now what?

Whenever they do a behaviour you want, reward them! A reward could be a treat, a game with a toy, or even unclipping their lead to let them play with their dog friends. A reward is anything that your dog is motivated to get. Food, fun, fuss, and more.

When training our dogs, we're essentially building up a bank of behaviours that we like, and showing our dogs alternatives to what they already do that we'd really rather they didn't. This builds their confidence, because they always know what works for them. If there's something they want, they know what behaviours they can offer in order to get it.

So challenge yourself to re-frame your dog's behaviour using the dead man test. Let me know if that makes your training conundrums any more streamlined.

If you're still not sure how to tackle your dog's behaviour, why not send me an email at venturedogstraining@gmail.com and I'll see if I can offer some advice.

You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, if you want to hear more from me on dog training and behaviour!


  1. Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE-POTTERS BAR THEN WHEATHAMPSTEAD-, 13(1), 63-70.

  2. Claypool-Frey, R. (2009). Precision Teaching Hub and Wiki / The Dead Man Test. [online] Precisionteaching.pbworks.com. Available at: http://precisionteaching.pbworks.com/w/page/18241123/The%20Dead%20Man%20Test [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].

  3. En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Precision teaching. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_teaching [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].

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