Springsteen Lyrics, Dog Training, and What They Have in Common
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
The other day I was driving in my car, and I turned on the radio. Of course it was set to its usual position on Sirius XM’s EStreet Radio, which is where it remains whether I’m running down the backstreets, if I’m going to drive all night, and especially when the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
In fact, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Springsteen ever since my parents bought me my first Springsteen record in 1986. And before you think it was Born in the USA that set this obsession in motion, it was actually the Live 1975-1985 boxed set that swept me up into this thirty plus year love of all things Bruce. I am an old soul and a creature of habit musically, happily jamming out to concerts that were recorded when I was just a young Jerseygirl, playing on the swing set in Sparta, New Jersey with our dog Snoop by my side.Basically I have been living with a Labrador Retriever by my side and a Bruce Springsteen song on the radio for the majority of my life.
The other day I was cruising home after a meeting, music cranked up as loud as it could go (the dogs were waiting at home for me) and singing my heart out to one song after another, with all of their complicated lyrics flowing from my brain and voice without a single mistake. This is of course a regular occurrence that happens literally every time I go somewhere, but in the middle of singing I started laughing as I realized I had cruised right past the healthy pet food store and I desperately needed to replenish our supply of dog treats.
“How on earth can I remember every single word to a massive catalog of songs with super complicated lyrics yet I cannot remember to stop at the store for one single thing that’s been on my to-do list for a week,” I mused to myself.
Then it occurred to me. The same reason I knew the words to nearly every single Springsteen song is the same reason my dogs know that when I put certain shoes on my feet it means that I am taking them outside versus going somewhere without them. The same reason I know all of the special nuances I am listening to the live version of a song is the same reason the dogs know where to turn to head for home when we go for a walk.
That reason is repetition, repetition, repetition.
Nearly every training article you will read about dogs mentions the importance of repetition anytime you want to teach your dog something. It is through this exact method that I can sing you the complicated lyrics of a song like Jungleland but I cannot repeat the directions my husband just told me on how to get from location A to location B or remember to pick up some Fruitables for the dogs. I have sung that song hundreds of times in the last thirty or more years, correcting myself when I made a mistake; I have only heard the driving directions from my hubby once. As for the dog treats, I suppose that is an outlier from these examples because dog treats are on my shopping list all the time.
Repetition is what has those lyrics stuck in my head when the directions were gone the moment my husband spoke them. Repetition is the reason why my dogs know that the act of me checking to make sure the back door is locked does not necessarily mean that I want them to do anything, but the act of me checking to make sure the back door is locked paired with grabbing a dog treat from the counter means that they are going into their crates.
Now this is the important part: your dog is watching your actions and learning from repetition whether you want him to or not. This means that you might be teaching your dog to do things that you do not want her to do, entirely by accident. The best example of this in our own home is Jackson’s “bad” habit of stealing things from our living room side tables when he wants to play with me. It goes all the way back to puppyhood when he was in the puppy version of the terrible twos.
If you’ve ever raised a Labrador Retriever puppy, you know the age that I mean. It’s that time when your puppy has become comfortable in his or her new home and is getting into everything with their razor-sharp puppy teeth and a seemingly endless amount of energy. It’s that portion of puppy rearing when in one short minute they might do things like bite down on your Achilles tendon with the force of a velociraptor, chew on the leg of your favorite table, attack your throw pillows, grab onto your shirt sleeve with all their might, and then stare you in the face as they pee on the floor just five minutes after their last potty break outside.
Jackson was particularly crazy and brazen at this age, and I spent hours each day redirecting his attention, telling him “no” when he tried to destroy our worldly possessions, thrusting a toy or antler into his mouth telling him “yessssss, good boy” whenever he had a dog friendly item in his mouth, and then engaging him in a play session for as long as his attention span would allow it until he went on to locate the next contraband item to test with his mouth.
Eventually Jackson figured out through repetition and a lot of trial and error that he was not in fact allowed to destroy our home and that he had his own toys and chewy things always available whenever he wanted to play or chew. Now, if you’ve read my blogs before, you know that I refer to Jackson as being “Sheldon Cooper smart” and that if he was a human he would probably have a PhD, studying string theory or dark matter somewhere. But, he is a dog, and instead of figuring out the universe, he has used his magnificent brain to figure out that any time he wants to play with me or get my attention, all he has to do is be naughty. And if you guessed that he learned through repetition, you are correct!
In retrospect, I probably should have removed myself from the play session when he needed to be corrected during those formative puppy rearing days, more like what a mother dog would do, but redirecting his attention from the contraband item and engaging him in play with an appropriate toy worked so well that I never questioned what I was doing. Plus, I’ve never had a dog so freakishly smart as this one. We used the same method with Tinkerbell and she has not developed this knowledge of how to get my attention. She just walks up to me and drops a toy in my lap if she wants to play.
Jackson, though, at six years old, still jumps onto the sofa, grabs the nearest thing he can, and starts to destroy it as he watches me with a side eye to see if I am going to come and stop him. He’s snatched up pens, books, magazines, catalogs, bottles of hand lotion, several remote controls, and even a picture frame. Of course I’ve tried to outsmart him by removing all objects from the side tables, but when I did that he grabbed a table lamp and tried to steal it. He also only does this when he wants me to play with him. He has never once done this when my husband is with him or to get the attention of any of our teens. Only me.
Of course I take full credit for accidentally teaching this to him and I am working hard to un-teach this behavior. Whenever he jumps up onto the sofa to grab something from the side tables, I tell him a firm no and force myself to not engage in fun playtime with him as a result of his demands. It is not easy, though, as he throws himself onto the ground with his legs in the air and his big otter tail wagging, waiting for me to rub his tummy as if he’s saying, “Ok, momma, I stole the stuff, now it’s your turn to come play with me!”
Now I wait fifteen or twenty minutes after he’s given up and then invite him back over for a tummy rub and some Jackson/Momma time. It breaks my heart to ignore him, but he seems to be catching on bit by bit that I do not react favorably anymore. He is learning that all he needs to do to get my attention is to roll upside down for a tummy rub or offer me a toy without being destructo-dog.
I know that many dog owners struggle with bad habits that their dogs have picked up, but they do not realize that they have accidentally helped their dog learn the behavior. In the same way you know all of the lyrics to your favorite songs, your dog is learning from you and the actions that you are doing, whether you want them to learn that behavior or not. Just like with Jackson, some of those behaviors are favorable and some of them probably drive you nuts.
Fortunately you can change these behaviors with additional training so that they will stop doing the things that you accidentally taught them. As for myself and my love of Springsteen music, I am not as easy to retrain, much to the dismay of the non-Springsteen loving humans of my house who would probably give me all of the treats and cookies they could find if I would just stop the behavior that I learned so many years ago as I listened to my first Springsteen album with a Labrador Retriever by my side.
I have included a free printable worksheet for you to think through and identify some of those behaviors. If you are not sure about how to remedy an issue and if it is more serious than an annoying habit, always partner with a professional dog trainer. My favorite resource for finding a trainer is to start with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website: APDT Trainer Search. Click here to download your worksheet: Worksheet for Springsteen Lyrics, Dog Training and What they Have in Common