Want a positive relationship with your dog? Then look to the “negative space” for training help.

The following is a repost of an article I wrote a little over a year ago titled “Learning to move in the negative space.”  After spending some time observing my fellow dog owners in a recent training workshop, I thought it might be a good time to revisit this concept.

Which did you notice first in this photo? The crazy creature jumping in the air, or the calm dog in the background standing nicely with “all four on the floor”?

Every discipline includes a number of fundamental concepts that help guide both novice learning and expert practice in the field.  Mathematics teachers know that students must understand the properties of real numbers before algebraic thinking is possible, and history teachers know that understanding a concept like attribution is essential for those learning the work of an historian.  Those of us working in teacher education know that prospective teachers must acknowledge and understand the role of “prior knowledge” in their students’ learning, if they are ever to be successful as teachers themselves.

In art and design, one of these fundamental concepts is the idea of “negative space,” meaning the background shapes or contrasting spaces created by the primary images or shapes on the page.  For example, in the picture below, the primary objects in the photograph might be two dogs standing on a chair.  But the negative space around them created by the windows offers additional shapes and spaces to focus our attention on, particularly if we found the shape of the dogs to be too difficult to draw.  If my preconceived notion of what dogs “should” look like is getting in the way of my drawing, then I can instead focus on drawing the shape the windows are making and, in doing so, draw the dogs correctly.  Instead of focusing on what’s right in front of my face, I can focus on everything around it as well.

A picture of Peaches and Buster guarding their posts? Or is this a picture of a view out the windows with the shadows of two dogs?

What is known as the “Vase/Faces” exercise is one of the more common ways that the idea of negative space is introduced.  The optical illusion created by the picture below–is it two faces or one vase?–is intended to help students experience some confusion or conflict in how they see things in order to help facilitate the shift from left- to right-brain, allowing them “to see” and work as an artist does.


Betty Edwards laments the connotation suggested by the word “negative” given the positive aspect of the concept, but reminds us that “negative spaces are just as important as the positive forms.  For the person just learning to draw, they are perhaps more important!” (The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, p.118)

Emphasizing that focusing on negative space can be counter-intuitive, Edwards goes on to say the following:

Art teachers often laboriously try to teach their students “the rules of composition,” but I have discovered that if students pay close attention to negative spaces in their drawings, many compositional problems are automatically solved. (p.119)

Applications in dog training

This type of “counter-intuitive” thinking is profoundly useful in the world of dog training.  By simply focusing on the “negative spaces” when we manage and train our dogs, oftentimes the undesirable behaviors decrease if not vanish completely, replaced by more desirable default behaviors.

Very similar to those learning to teach, those new to dog ownership and training find themselves eternally preoccupied with the question, “What do I do when my dog does x, y, or z?”, meaning how do I fix this undesirable behavior, whether it be pulling on leash, jumping up on people, or barking like there’s no tomorrow.  The answer:  Stop focusing so much on the primary object on the page–or the bad behavior–and start looking in the negative space.  Meaning, start looking for contrasting positive behaviors, however small or insignificant, and encourage those instead.

For example . . .

PROBLEM:  Several months ago, our typical morning routine at our house was to let all of the dogs out first thing in the morning to do their business and and play for a little while, and then bring them back inside.  Once inside, mass hysteria would unfold.  All four dogs would gallop, leap and bound all over the house, creating a pandemonium unrivaled by the rowdiest of prison breaks. How do I address this?  Rather than trying to correct that behavior as it’s happening, I need to find behaviors I’d like to replace those with, and encourage them to do those instead.

SOLUTION:  I place four or five small dog mats around the perimeter of our great room.  I then spend the next several days and weeks “catching” the dogs on the mats (sitting, standing, laying down, whatever) and rewarding them for being there with a treat.  I’ll even randomly leave treats on the mats to be found by whomever should stroll by the mat.  Within a few days, they have caught on that heading to their mat and quietly laying down will produce a treat.  As they do it more often, I up the ante and offer fewer treats, essentially engaging them in a dog treat lottery:  they know that once in a while, they’ll get something great for going there, so they might as well keep doing it as often as they can. (Most of the fundamentals of this mat work came from one or two simple training workshops with Michelle McCarthy.)

Morning chaos, organized

The end result.  Now in the morning, when the dogs come inside, instead of pandemonium, I get four dogs who quietly head to their dog mats and lay down Buddha style.  Not once did I ever attempt to “correct” the crazy behavior (no yelling, no physical abuse, no punishment, no collar grabbing, etc.).  I simply looked in the “negative space” for a more desirable behavior and then proceeded to capture and shape that, and in doing so created the original behavioral scenario I was trying to address.  Most folks only notice when their dog is misbehaving, but rarely bother to notice or reward their dog when he’s doing something right.  We need to shift our mode of operation from obsessing over bad behavior while ignoring good behavior to capturing and rewarding good behavior while ignoring and minimizing the bad.

I have yet to attend a dog training class where at least one (if not all) of the other dog handlers present failed to fully grasp this concept.  Which is understandable, because it requires letting go and accepting a certain lack of control in an unfamiliar environment, and oftentimes in front of unfamiliar people.  On the first night of a drawing class I took at the Ann Arbor Art Center last year–in front of a class full of strangers–we were asked to perform several blind contour line drawings, which is a fundamental warm-up activity concerned with developing an unselfconscious approach to line and drawing.  It requires you to let go, to not be concerned with what your drawing looks like, and to instead just be in the moment in order to rediscover your powers of observation and awareness of your subject matter.  You literally have to sit there, look at whatever it is you’re drawing–a vase, a bowl of fruit, etc.–and draw for minutes on end without ever looking down at your page or making any corrections.  You just have to keep your pencil moving.  It’s incredibly uncomfortable because it requires you to not care about the end result, to not care about what others think of your drawing, and instead just let go.

A common scenario

I’ve seen owners in class who try futilely to get their dog to stop barking and lunging at another dog, but then completely ignore the dog during the 3-second period of time when they actually stopped barking and calmed down.  I’ve watched owners get frustrated while their dogs pull away from them on leash, but then fail to catch and reward them when they’re just quietly sitting next to them.  They’re so busy focusing on drawing the faces correctly, that they fail to see how useful it might be to draw the vase instead.  You have to look for those momentary negative spaces, however small, when a slightly better behavior is being offered, and grab that.  Reward that. And then slowly build up from there.  (I’ve also observed plenty of dog rescue volunteers struggle with this concept because they’re too busy operating from a reactive standpoint rather than a proactive one with regard to the dogs in their care.  Taking in more dogs than you can comfortably and adequately care for usually doesn’t allow for thoughtful, proactive approaches to behavioral modification. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a reality.)

Challenging your thinking and owning your discomfort

Plenty of people say, “Hey, that’s great but I don’t have weeks or months for my dog to calm down.  I need him to chill out NOW!  It’s way too inconvenient to have to take the time to do all this positive reinforcement training.” And then they go buy a Cesar Milan book and a choke chain or sign up for training with a trainer who uses electric shock collars and leash corrections.

It’s also really inconvenient to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk and acknowledge the presence of homeless people rather than just running them over or stepping on them.  But taking the appropriate course of action there is what, theoretically, makes us human.  Right?  New things, foreign concepts, unfamiliar contexts are uncomfortable.  But they become less and less so when we give in to that discomfort for the sake of our own learning.

A list of negative space examples for the dog owner:

  • Problem:  High energy dog won’t stop barking or lunging when on leash, particularly during training class when you’re trying to hear the much-needed advice from the trainer.  Solution:  Reward/treat any time the dog is laying down, momentarily quiet, staying by your side or moving around in a calmer fashion.  Quickly capture those moments, however brief, and reward them over and over again. Being calm becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog constantly follows me and bugs me all day.  Solution:  Start looking for the rare moments when the dog is laying down and occupying itself with a toy and give them praise and treats (even if it’s only once a day to start).  Entertaining himself becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog has acted nervous or even growled a few times in the presence of a child.  Solution:  Start giving the dog treats EVERY time he is near or even just looks in the direction of a child.  The presence of the child becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog barks nonstop when outside.  Solution:  Start giving the dog treats or Kongs full of food or peanut butter to keep them busy while outside.  I like to take dry kibble or treats and scatter them around the yard for my dogs to busy themselves with for a while.  Being quiet outside and focused on a task becomes associated with something positive.

Obviously these are simple scenarios that might have an infinite number of additional details and potential solutions.  But the point is to notice that in none of these cases is the problem behavior addressed head on, or focused on at the time that it’s happening.  It’s about working in the spaces around that behavior in order to replace it.

Another useful parallel in the English education world:

Most students hate learning to write because traditionally their essays and other papers are returned to them slathered with the stereotypical red pen of the English teacher (or really any teacher for that matter), highlighting grammatical and spelling errors, incomplete thoughts and sentences and unsupported claims.  It’s no wonder students don’t want to keep writing when all they’re shown is what they’ve done wrong over and over again, instead of someone capturing and highlighting what they did right again and again.

About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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16 Responses to Want a positive relationship with your dog? Then look to the “negative space” for training help.

  1. This one is a lovely post; the pics are nice. What i can say is dogs are more affectionate than humans like us. They give their love to you even if you hurt them.

  2. Absolutely wonderful blog. Enjoy the art analogy.
    While reading Sue Sternberg’s Train-to-Adopt program, I came across the “Nothing” Exercise – the same thing you’re writing about. While in a shelter environment, time spent with humans is at a premium so the dogs are overstimulated by much-needed interaction. Putting the “Nothing” Exercise into play, the dogs are rewarded for doing nothing but being calm, hanging out and enjoying human company. I have added this exercise into my regular training classes. At first, the dog parents look at me like, Huh? You’re kidding, right?, but when they see how their dog starts to calm and refocus, they become believers. 🙂

  3. Donna Baker says:

    Great article, thanks. This is a concept that I strongly support and believe should be reinforced by all dog trainers from the very beginning of a class or any other training opportunity. Focusing on what the dog is doing that is desirable rather than undesirable makes teaching and learning so much more enjoyable (not to mention successful!)

  4. Melissa Victoria says:

    I recently noticed my dog was walking amazingly on a flat collar/loose leash in the middle of midtown NYC (her harness is giving her heat rashes this summer). I’ve been rewarding that behavior immensely. Every time I catch her looking into my eyes unrequested, more rewards. Our loose leash walking manners are tip-top these days. We both understand the expectations we have of each other in public, she walks next to me and doesn’t pull or drag, I take her hiking in Central Park 🙂

  5. Judith Steinbrenner says:

    I like this…. as I struggle to train my reactive dog, how this works with NILiF (nothing in life is free) I would have to understand that sitting quietly is an action that gets rewarded……simple said but harder to put in action. I’m trying. no trainer or class she has taken yet has worked. I have changed her training often enough she probably needs talk therapy by now.

    • Hey Judith! Thanks for the comment and the sincere thoughts. I completely empathize. I actually had a reactive foster dog a couple years ago that was the catalyst for me learning pretty much everything I know and use today in relation to dog behavior and training. And it was only because I sought the advice of certified professionals who actually knew what they were talking about. Also easier said than done, right?

      My absolute #1 recommendation to you is to purchase the book “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt. In the behavior community, this is one of the most popular go-to resources for reactivity of all kinds. Most people hesitate because they think it’s an agility-focused book. But it’s really not. It’ll introduce you to concepts like working under and over threshold, and instilling default behaviors. One of the biggest things it taught me was that reactivity can actually be addressed without having to work around other dogs, triggers, etc. (at least in the beginning). I can’t recommend this text highly enough. Read it from cover to cover and utilize all of the great exercises and recommendations in it. I promise they’re worth every penny and then some. Emma Parsons’ Click to Calm is also a good book to read in relation to this topic, even though you may not be dealing with aggression.

      Eventually being able to have your reactive dog calm and comfortable, and manageable, in a class setting should be the goal, not the starting point. That’s the tough thing to learn for most folks trying to address this issue. At least it certainly was for me!

      All the best and happy to make other resource recommendations if you need them!

      • Judith Steinbrenner says:

        Emily, thank you so much for the recommended reading. I will do that! My husband read your article here and he also really likes it.

  6. Reblogged this on pawsforpraise and commented:
    Thanks for the reminder. Great post deserving of viral sharing.

  7. Karnes Debra says:

    Great article, however when working with a very small dog they get full so quickly, any advice?

  8. Hope says:

    Great article. Applicable to older Jewish men too.

  9. Hi Emily,
    I read your above blog a couple of weeks ago and started to apply the concept to my two very energetic male chessies. They clicked into it so quickly and it was a much less stressful training tool than I had being using before.
    I’ve reblogged it on my page.

  10. Reblogged this on riverrunchesapeakes and commented:
    I apllied this concept a couple of weeks ago when attempting to teach better line work on blinds. It worked really well.

  11. I blog quite often and I really thank you for your content.
    Your article has really peaked my interest. I will take a note of your blog and keep checking for new details about once per week.
    I subscribed to your Feed too.

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