Newton’s Reaction

June 22, 2009 at 4:45 am 2 comments

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction


Sir Isaac Newton illustrates the third law as he reacts in panic to his dog's wild misbehavior

Sir Isaac Newton had a Pomeranian named Diamond who he referred to as “the constant but incurious attendant of his master’s researches”.  Newton doted on his little dog and rumor has it that Diamond was a wee bit spoiled.

In The Pawprints of History, Coren and Bartlett write:

“This story was told in a letter that Newton wrote to explain why his publication of the treatise that contained his law of gravity would be delayed. Newton was working on the final revisions; he was making significant progress and was feeling quite good about the work. He had worked all day, and when the sun went down needed to light some candles to continue with his calculations. As usual, Diamond was sleeping nearby. A knock on the door called Newton out of the room, and apparently Diamond awakened to the sound of talking, which included voices that were unfamiliar to her. Her protective instincts were immediately aroused, and she tried to get to her master. Unfortunately, Newton had closed the door to his study, so she was reduced to running wildly around the room, barking in excitement. On one circuit of the room Diamond apparently collided with the leg of Newton’s small writing table, and the shock of her collision caused the burning candle to tip over, directly onto the manuscript. In the resulting fire there was actually little damage to the room, but the manuscript that Newton was working on was completely destroyed.”

As Newton discovered, a wild, out of control dog can wreak unimaginable havoc on your life. I’ve known people who went to extraordinary lengths to keep their dogs from destroying their homes, yards, cars and relationships.  Stuck with problems they didn’t think they could solve – they gave up on training and resorted to avoiding problems instead of fixing them.

This much-too-common situation arises when an inattentive or inexperienced owner gives his dog more freedom than it’s ready for.  The dog is then free to engage in self-rewarding misbehavior (like Newton’s dog racing madly around his study) — and his owner is stuck with the much less entertaining work of being the equal opposing reaction.

When this happens the dog controls the momentum of your relationship and it leads to a paradoxical situation where, while your dog initially thinks leading you on a wild goose chase is great fun – he eventually develops an increasing sense of frustration.  Two completely diferent problems – both derived from the same simple equation.  Let’s look at the variables involved:

Leaders act; followers reactWhen you consistently respond reactively to your dog – you are telling him in very clear language (dog language) that you are a follower.

Given enough practice, a pushy dog who enjoys thinking he’s in charge may start to feel that he’s entitled to call the shots and become annoyed – or even aggressive – when you refuse to follow his lead.

Having a reactive owner can be an even bigger problem for a nervous or insecure dog.  This kind of dog isn’t comfortable making decisions – and when he is too often put into situations where he feels he has to make decisions he’s not prepared for, he’ll become even more anxious.

Restraint breeds frustration. A chronically misbehaving dog is a pain in the ass.  He’s the kind of dog that can never be safely left alone in the house, allowed to run off leash or otherwise permitted to enjoy a bit of (well-earned) unfettered freedom.  This is the dog who must constantly be managed.

Excessive restraint and management has a tendency to make a dog’s misbehavior further escalate because incessant restraint creates intense frustration.  Frustration reduces the dog’s attention span and self-control, makes him hyperactive and can even lead to aggression.

While restraining your dog may help prevent a problem from occurring in the moment — it doesn’t give him an opportunity to learn how to behave properly.  Excessive restraint is the force that leads to an endless, frustrating feedback loop of canine action and human reaction.

The Solution.  The key to solving this action / reaction equation is a change in momentum!


Instead of helplessly waiting for your dog to misbehave and then trying to stop him – simply reverse the terms and take a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to living with your dog.

Here’s what you’ll need to solve the problem:

Provide Supervision.  There are no short-cuts or substitutes for focused and sustained attention in dog training.  You can, however use baby gates, a drag line or a waist lead to help keep the dog in an area where you can see and hear what it is doing. When you can’t supervise this dog –  keep him crated or kenneled.

Limit Temptation. The next thing you need to do is reduce the number of temptations in the dog’s environment.  Instead of locking your dog up because he’s obsessed with stealing socks – pick up your socks.  Give the dog freedom with fewer opportunities to make mistakes.

Be Fair. Choose distractions carefully. The perfect distraction is one that will get your dog’s attention without making him go brain dead.  A distraction that will take his attention off task while still allowing you to get it back quickly.  

Use Obedience.  Instead of just setting the dog free with an unlimited opportunity to react to distracting things, use commands like ‘SIT’, ‘COME’ AND ‘HEEL’ to add structure to the exercise.  For example, put your dog in a SIT, set up a mild to moderate distraction and watch him very carefully.  The nanosecond the dog begins to alert to the distraction – correct or redirect him before he breaks.  You must then immediately praise / reward him for maintaining the SIT so he learns that ignoring the distraction is the goal of the exercise.

(Note: there is an excellent description of this process in Connie Cleveland’s book  Dogs Are Problem Solvers.)

Of course it’s impossible to raise a dog without restraint and management – the key is to remember that these tools are training wheels that support you while you teach your dog to cope successfully with more freedom.  A very young pup or newly adopted adult dog might need to be handled with 90% management and 10% training, but if you’re still using significantly more management than training a year later – it’s time to do your math, change the momentum and get on the path to a better relationship with your dog.

Entry filed under: dog training, dogs, science.

American Poultry Hound The Anna Karenina Principle

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Luisa  |  June 24, 2009 at 7:12 am

    This is terrific. You really have to supervise and pay close attention, make the right things easy and the wrong things hard, etc., but the payoff is wonderful: your dog will be reliably house-trained; he’ll lie down quietly while you blog grade papers; he’ll be a well-adjusted, responsive dog with skillz, a dog that knows something about the learning process and enjoys learning, etc., etc.

    Did I mention that Smoky is zonked out on the living room floor right now, probably dreaming of squirrels? He’s quite wonderful ;~) The border collie bitches may have had a bit to do with his education…

    Unfortunately, for a lot of people all it takes is a chewed-up sock and Pup is an “outside dog” for the rest of his lonely, bored existence.

  • 2. compare dog food  |  March 31, 2010 at 4:16 am

    compare dog food…

    I’m glad I came across it….

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