Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I always flinch a little bit at the use of the language of emotions when talking about training. So even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust.” It sounds so…I don’t know…California. (I can say that because I’m from there.)
The thing is that most of the people who are out there talking about magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior analysis because they drive observable behavior.
So considering a dog’s emotional state is not the sign of a wimpy cookie pusher, you know, those mythical trainers who train with fairy farts and rainbows and whose dogs knock over grandma and run into traffic. Considering a dog’s emotions is the sign of a thoughtful and prudent trainer. Because not all emotions are tender and sweet. Of course we want our dogs to have joyful and fulfilling lives. But there’s another reason to concern ourselves with dogs’ emotional states. They are predators with mouths full of teeth. Many of them are powerful enough to kill a human. Any of them with half their teeth can do damage.
An animal with those types of weapons front and center can be dangerous, even deadly when afraid. That’s an emotion we definitely need to notice.
It’s Not All About Flowers and Rainbows
The emotions we need to pay attention to in our dogs go beyond joy and happiness. They also include anger, fear, and anxiety. We should care about whether a dog is upset, both for the dog’s sake, but also because upset dogs may hurt people. Upset dogs can be dangerous to us, to our human friends and family, and to the guy on the street. If your dog is demonstrating any of these intense emotions and the heightened arousal of the sympathetic nervous system that goes with them, the dog could be dangerous. I don’t necessarily mean as a character trait; I mean at that moment. Dogs are animals, and except for people who have been seriously bitten by dogs, most of us don’t know or can’t keep in mind what they can do to us.
If a dog is hiding or giving you a hard stare, it’s not a good time to get out your clicker and treats and work on “sit pretty” or “roll over.” Neither is it a good time to get out a choke collar and practice competition heeling, for that matter. But more on that later.
What Is It Time For?
The respected trainer Jean Donaldson says that the first question we should ask ourselves when beginning to work with a dog is, “Is the dog upset?”
If the dog is upset, we work on that first. For most of us, this means finding and hiring a qualified, positive-reinforcement based trainer. Then “working on it” may include leaving off behavior training for a few days or weeks. It can mean limiting ourselves to only indirect and non-demanding interactions if the dog is brand new to her situation and scared. It can include activities designed to help the dog feel secure in a new environment. It can include desensitization and counterconditioning: techniques designed to ameliorate and remove fears. It can include gentle, easy training games when the dog is ready. It can include psychotropic drugs for dogs who can’t get out of a state of heightened anxiety without that help.
Doing these things is not coddling the dog. Such a plan is both empathetic and practical. A wise use of desensitization, counterconditioning, and positive reinforcement training can help an animal become happy and comfortable in the world. It’s a win/win because it’s also safer for the human.
There’s another way to look at it, of course. We could ignore what we know about physiology and the central nervous system. We could buy into a bunch of discounted theories about why dogs do what they do. And we could use punishment-based methods to suppress the hell out of the dog’s behaviors. If you carry a big enough stick, you can usually hurt the dog into submission when it is exhibiting reactive or aggressive behaviors. But given that most such behavior is born from fear, punishing a fearful dog for aggressive or threatening behaviors is a very bad idea. Punishment based methods have been shown to correlate with increased aggression from the dog .
An infamous TV personality who purports to train dogs has a video in which he aggressively approaches a dog who is minding her own business and eating. He bullies, prods, harasses, and corners her until she bites him. He then exclaims, “I didn’t see that coming!” Leaving aside the fact that getting dogs to aggress appears to be one of the goals of the show, let’s pretend like his goal really is to train the dog. In that case, he would have done well to observe the dog’s behavior with the goal of detecting her emotions and building that information into a training plan.
A Modest Example
Here’s an old photo of my beloved rat terrier, Cricket, with a chew toy. Her body language and eyes are saying, “If you try to take this away from me, I will likely bite you.” At that time I didn’t know how to change a dog’s emotional response to mitigate resource guarding. I just mostly avoided the issue. (I did know the risks of getting into an object custody battle with a terrier, even a very small one.)
I could’ve made a moral issue of it. The dog “shouldn’t” guard things against me because I’m the boss. I could have battled Cricket for her chew toys and gotten bitten and hit her for biting me. I could have made her submission my goal. Then I could have done that with subsequent dogs.
I didn’t. Instead, now I teach my dogs that if I walk by them when they have something of high value, I will toss them something great in addition to their main prize. This is not about sticking my hands in their food, taking their stuff away, or even “trading,” at least in the beginning. The first few dozen times, all I do is give them something. After a while, I will occasionally “borrow” their item, then give it back with interest (something great). Then if that time comes when I need to take something away for real, they will get the best thing I have with me in return. And since the taking away only happens a very small percentage of the time, they stay relaxed about it.
I did this as a prophylactic measure with my next three dogs after Cricket.
I don’t want to imply that it is always that easy or that resource guarding isn’t serious. I was lucky with my dogs that I didn’t have a hard case. I just did some work on the front end and it was effective. It can be a different story with a dog who is already guarding or is genetically inclined to do so. Again, that’s a situation where it is imperative to call in a trainer.
Here’s a photo of Zani chewing on a beef tendon in my office. Pretty different from the Cricket photo. Does she look worried that I’m is going to take it away, even though I’m standing right over her? Nope! But paradoxically, I could do so with little upset on her part.
Changing our dogs’ emotional response to things that could upset them is not about rainbows and fairies. It’s not about indulgence or coddling. It’s a pragmatic approach that is the only road to a win/win situation. The dogs were afraid or worried, and now they’re not. We all have less stress, and they are much safer to be around.
- Dog/Dog Resource Guarding
- Which Dog Is Resource Guarding? (even though you now already know the answer!)
- Shut Down Dogs 2
- Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Could Be Flooding Your Dog
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson