Lament for the “non-reward marker”, the underdog in dog training

I never thought I would revisit “quadrant hell”, as we used to lovingly call it at The Academy for Dog Trainers. My venture into this pesky topic was triggered by a lack of consensus regarding a humble training aid called the “non-reward marker” (NRM).

While its most famous “reward marker” counterpart – the clicker – enjoys a cult-like following, the NRM has an image problem. It seems the poor NRM has become the nerdy kid that few people want to be seen socialising with. Always rooting for the underdog, I’ll try to jump to the little fella’s defence.

The context: The four quadrants.

In short, the four quadrants are used to explain the processes of learning via consequences.

REINFORCEMENT

R+

Your dog comes to you when you call her and as a consequence you give her a piece of chicken. If, as a result, your dog comes more often when called in the future, the behaviour will have been ‘positively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of coming when called increased and positively because you ‘added’ something to make this happen (you gave the dog chicken).

R-

You say ‘sit’ and put pressure on your dog’s rear end until he sits. If, as a result, your dog sits more often when you say ‘sit’ in the future, the behaviour of sitting will have been ‘negatively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of sitting increased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped putting pressure on the dog’s butt).

P+

Your dog jumps on the couch and you hit him over the head with a rolled up newspaper. If, as a result, the dog jumps on the couch less often, the behaviour will have been positively punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour of jumping on the couch decreased and ‘positively’ because you added something to make this happen (you whacked the dog).

PUNISHMENT

P-

You play tug with your dog and she nips your hand. As a consequence you stop playing with her for a minute. If, as a result, your dog grabs your hand less often, the behaviour of grabbing your hand will have been ‘negatively’ punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour decreased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped playing with your dog).

What are the quadrants for?

Animal trainers use the quadrants in two ways. First, to choose which of the processes to use, based on what we hope to achieve and our individual philosophy. And second, to assess the outcome of our training.

INTENTIONS

You may wonder why I have colour-coded the quadrants and, yes, your suspicion is correct. I prefer to use R+ and P- because I consider P+ and R- to be offensive and fraught with danger. If you read through the four examples, you will notice that there is a common factor in R+ and P-: they deal with good things (stuff that the dog likes such as food, play etc.). P+ and R- on the other hand deal with bad things (anything the dog wants to avoid such as fear, pain, discomfort etc.).

Since my intention is to keep the dog happy when I train, I avoid the use of bad things. So it is my choice to use R+ and P-. But do my intentions lead to the desired outcomes?

We cannot know for sure what the dog experiences as punishing or reinforcing. So, when I choose a certain type of food for training, I’m simply guessing that it will work as a reinforcer. Once I witness the dog doing the target behaviour more often in the future, I can be confident my approach has worked.

OUTCOMES

Equally, if I remove myself from the room whenever the dog chews my clothes, I cannot claim I am punishing the dog (by removing myself) until the time I have firmly established that the behaviour of chewing on my clothes has indeed decreased because of my actions.

But wait, there’s more

DIFFERENTIAL REINFORCEMENT

So, one way to tell if reinforcement or punishment has occurred is to monitor the frequency of the dog’s behaviour we are concerned with. However, behaviour doesn’t only decrease when it is punished. It can also decrease because it is never reinforced.

A training technique called “differential reinforcement” strengthens one behaviour over others. By rewarding one behaviour but not others that occur in the same context the dog will likely perform the rewarded behaviour more often and other behaviours less often. Although other behaviours are decreasing in frequency, they have not been punished. The dog neither lost something they value nor did they receive bad consequences in response to engaging in those behaviours. They simply weren’t reinforced. If a behaviour never pays off, it is not worth engaging in.

EXTINCTION

We use the term “extinction” to describe non-punishment-based behaviour reductions. If a behaviour has a strong history of reinforcement, extinction can be very frustrating for a dog because it leaves a “behaviour vacuum”. This is unless we direct the dog towards alternative behaviours to build a new reinforcement history.

What are markers and why is one the superstar and another the villain?

REWARD MARKER

Sometimes it is helpful to “mark” the target behaviour we want to reinforce with a “yes” or a “good” or a click with the clicker. This is especially recommended when we are not quick enough to deliver the reward and the dog may therefore not make the connection between a specific behaviour, e.g. sitting, and the reward that follows. The marker stands for “your reward is coming” and therefore becomes a reward marker, a type of conditioned reinforcer. Reward markers, and in particular the clicker, have proved to be incredibly useful training aids and have been closely linked to the rise of reward-based animal training.

PUNISHMENT MARKER

Do markers also work for punishment? Yes, we can condition a sound, word or phrase to mean “you are about to lose something”. Usually that something is the company of people or other dogs, for example when giving a timeout for bullying another dog at the dog park. The marker is useful to inform the dog of the precise moment they “stuffed up”, particularly when getting hold of the dog may not be instantaneous and the implementation of the timeout is therefore delayed. After several repetitions of preceding the capture and timeout with a marker, e.g. “you’re gone”, the dog will learn that the marker predicts being removed from the fun. The marker becomes a punishment marker, or conditioned punisher.

NON-REWARD MARKER

And finally there is this thing called a non-reward marker. It is easy to see how it could be interpreted as being the same as a punishment marker but we’ve already established that the absence of reinforcement does not automatically mean punishment. If I let the dog know that they just made the “wrong” move, for example moving out of the position they were asked to stay in, am I telling them they are being punished? Am I telling them they are about to lose something? Or am I telling them the opportunity to earn a reward has just been delayed? I think the latter. We are not taking anything away from the dog that they are currently in possession of or enjoying, so there’s no case for P-. And, as long as the non reward marker is given in a friendly, non-threatening tone, there is also no risk of it tipping over into P+.

The training scenarios that have been presented as evidence that NRMs are “punishing” and decrease a dog’s enthusiasm for training were – to my knowledge – cases of using NRMs without a clearly defined instance of the “wrong move”. The NRM was given when the dog did not perform the desired behaviour. The NRM was apparently given to mark a whole range of behaviours, except the target one, as “wrong”. That would seem to me like a bad application of the NRM. From the dog’s perspective, there is no clear instance of behaviour to attach the NRM to. The risk here is that – after enough repetitions – the dog may well make an association between the NRM and a frustrating experience (“What am I supposed to do?!”), which could make the dog reluctant to take part in future training.

Compare this with a very clearly defined instance of “getting out of position” in case of a stay exercise. The dog is already doing the “right” behaviour but then breaks before the trial is complete. The information given to the dog by marking the break of stay is unambiguous. And if the break of stay doesn’t resolve itself quickly, we go back to a shorter duration to help the dog succeed.

Conclusion

A dog who has learned what to do by being rewarded for it (R+) will eagerly take part in training as training itself becomes rewarding. They want to be there and share the fun with you. If using a non-reward marker makes this less enjoyable for the dog, the problem is not the marker. If we leave the dog guessing as to what exactly triggered the NRM or if we use the NRM too frequently because our training setup is too difficult for the dog, we have only ourselves to blame if the dog quits.

RATE OF REINFORCEMENT

In my opinion, as long as the dog wins a lot, there is usually no need to aim for errorless learning. If the dog sometimes doesn’t get a treat because they haven’t done the requested behaviour, that’s perfectly OK. The anticipation of earning rewards and the social aspect of training is already reinforcing for the dog. Not always getting a treat is part of the game and raises the anticipation (this is exactly what we do to maintain behaviour once it is learned: we put it on a variable reinforcement schedule). There is no risk of frustration if the rate of reinforcement remains high enough for the dog’s level of skill in the required task, training experience and sensitivity. It’s the trainer’s challenge to take care of that and to know their students.

Phew! Now back to more entertaining things.

The almost unbearable burden of raising a puppy.

Have you ever had a puppy or are you thinking of adding a puppy to your family soon – maybe even this Christmas*? Living with a puppy can be loads of fun but at times even the most patient person might feel more than a little exhausted. But it is not the exuberant and impulsive puppy behaviour that we should be most concerned with. The biggest responsibility of raising a puppy is not to teach them “manners”, it is to ensure they have a bright future. And that future lies in your hands.

“Those first three months of your puppy’s life are just too important to be casual about.”

Guiding the young of any species through their most vulnerable time in life is always a bit daunting. So many things can go wrong. If you’ve never even thought about it, start before you venture down the path of getting a puppy or a kitten or any other young life that needs your care. Their total dependence on you gives you total power over them. And that is an enormous responsibility.

Your new puppy will have the first culture shock when they arrive at your home. Having been removed from their mother and siblings, now they are placed in a foreign place, expected to understand very different rules and forced to spend much time by themselves.
Up until then your puppy had never been alone. So what if you intend to leave your new puppy for eight to ten hours a day because of your work? What if you don’t want them in the bedroom and they have to sleep alone, maybe even outdoors?
Then there are all those normal puppy behaviours, like jumping and biting, that you try so hard to erase. For the last few weeks your puppy has been happily romping around with his mates. Now those playful behaviours are suddenly met with hostility? How will your puppy cope?

Trying to see life from your puppy’s perspective – as difficult as this is, being human – is a good first step to prevent any major traumas. Understanding what your dog’s emotional and physical needs are is even better. Those first three months of your puppy’s life are just too important to be casual about. Yes, your dog may grow up regardless and – if they are lucky – somehow muddle through life no matter what you do. They are an extremely adaptable species after all. But would it be better to give them the best start possible? You bet.

“We have adapted to living with anxious pets. They are everywhere.”

If our dogs’ poor upbringing resulted in more dog attacks than is currently the case, we would already have regulations around puppy socialisation, handling and training. But the fallout of our failings is hidden away behind the bars of countless animal shelters and the exorbitant number of young lives lost due to premature euthanasia. And that is not to say that the rest of them are happy and well-adapted dogs living in loving homes. Dogs largely suffer in silence. You rarely hear them complain. Their lives may be dull, riddled with anxiety or even barely livable, yet most of them just carry on. Why don’t we see their plight?

I believe the reason for our collective blindness to the prevalence of fear, stress and anxiety in dogs – as well as cats and other animals – is desensitisation. It starts in early childhood where we learn that it is ok to manhandle animals and make them do what we want. We either never learned what fear, stress and anxiety in animals looks like or it has been “normalised” in our minds. We have adapted to living with anxious pets. They are everywhere. Animals are being restrained and manhandled for grooming and veterinary procedures, pushed, shoved, strangled, hurt and yelled at in the name of training and left in solitary confinement day after day, year after year. If all this fear and anxiety in our pets would burst into aggression on a massive scale, we would have long learned to pay more attention.

“You have the power to make your dog happy.”

You – as a new puppy parent – can make sure your dog does not become one of the silent sufferers. You can prevent the mental and emotional distress that may one day prompt your dog to become aggressive. You have the power to make your dog happy. And the welcome side effect for you is a much decreased risk of behaviour problems and a more enjoyable life with your dog.

Being physically manipulated is one of the major sources of anxiety in our pets but something we can easily prevent or change. Dogs, and other animals, can learn to voluntarily cooperate with whatever needs to be done for their health and safety. They can be taught to enjoy all the groping and smooching we bestow on them.

You also have the power to prevent fear of strangers, children, noises, novel objects and situations in your dog – all potential sources of anxiety – by understanding what socialisation is really about and by doing the best job you possibly can.

 
So, here are some guidelines for the first twelve to fourteen weeks of your dog’s life to get you on the right track. You can print a PDF version to put on your fridge!

 

COMPANIONSHIP

  • Let the puppy sleep near you during the first few days and slowly wean them towards their own bed and ultimate sleeping location.
  • Keep your puppy company, especially during the first few weeks. If you work long hours, get someone else to help out. Gradually get your dog used to spending time alone.
  • Spend quality time with your puppy daily. Play with your dog using toys so they can chase, grab and tug.
  • Invite people to your house. Take your puppy to work or social activities (take a crate so the puppy can rest undisturbed at times).

 

HOUSE TRAINING

  • Invest the time to properly house train your puppy. Supervise, confine and reward. Never punish a puppy for eliminating where they shouldn’t!

 

SOCIALISATION

  • Take your puppy out into the world from the get go. If your dog only had their first vaccination, carry them on your arms or let them watch from the car.
  • The importance of socialisation cannot be overstated. Create positive associations with lots of lots of sounds, sights, people, other animals – anything your dog could possibly encounter in their lives.
  • Prevent fear of strangers by introducing a large variety of humans in a positive manner including children. Let the stranger give your dog treats, but be careful the puppy does not get overwhelmed. Do not allow people to simply walk up and handle your puppy. Always watch your pup for signs of stress and back up if necessary.
  • The primary time for you to socialise your dog is from the moment you get them to about twelve weeks of age. Everything your dog experiences during that time will have an especially deep and lasting impact. Make sure the experiences are positive. Do not waste a day! After that continue socialising your dog to maintain their skills and well-being.
  • Attend a well-run puppy preschool which includes off leash play.
  • If your puppy is shy, never force them! Allow them to explore the world at their own pace.

 

BODY HANDLING

  • Teach your dog to enjoy being touched, held, squeezed, poked etc. by starting with brief handling and gradually work up to more invasive handling. Always give a tasty treat after handling. The higher the value of your treats, the more the dog will enjoy being handled.
  • Allow strangers, including children, to touch your dog but supervise closely to make sure your dog enjoys it. Always follow the handling with treats.
  • Take your dog to the vet outside appointment times and give them treats in the waiting area, exam room and on the exam table. Perform mock vet exams to make them comfortable with various types of procedures.

 

TRAINING

  • Attend a well run puppy school which uses positive reinforcement training.
  • Socialisation is the most important thing at this stage whereas training can be done at any time. Focus on three or four behaviours such as sit and drop/down, stay or wait and ‘leave it’ and do lots of repetitions in different places.
  • Use rewards to train your puppy. Do not use coercive methods such as physical manipulation or raising your voice. Redirect unwanted behaviour towards alternative behaviours, e.g. ask the dog to sit or go fetch a toy in situations where they are likely to jump up.

 
 

LINKS

*A puppy is for life, not just for Christmas, so consider carefully if your family is ready for a dog. If you intend to get a puppy for your kids, remember that kids quickly lose interest in new things and you are the one to be left looking after the dog for the next 10 – 15 years. Only get a dog if you really want a dog in your life!

AVSAB Puppy Socialization Statement
RSPCA Puppy Info
PPG Puppy Socialization Info
Crosspaws Puppy Guide
Crosspaws House Training Guide

Random thoughts on human division and canine cognition

The last few weeks have been interesting. I travelled through Florida and attended a conference at the exact time the United States went through an acrimonious election campaign. The conference was hosted by the Pet Professional Guild, an organisation dedicated to force-free and science-based training and handling of companion animals.
While the country around me was going further and further down a path of divisiveness and hatred I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to the divisions in the dog training world. My focus this time though was not on the chasms between the major training philosophies but on the disagreements within the force-free and science-based community. And since we so readily find fault with each other, maybe it’s not surprising how quickly we jump to conclusions when judging our dogs. Science can help us out.

“[The environment we grow up in] does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species.”

Humans are emotional creatures and so are dogs. We know that emotions are triggered in the brain before rational thinking kicks in, so channelling our emotions into healthy, productive and appropriate pathways requires learning and practise. The environment we grow up in teaches us certain rules and customs that enable us to live in relative harmony with other humans. It does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species. Dogs and other animals have their own ‘codes’ for intra-specific behaviour. What is appropriate behaviour for humans and appropriate behaviour for dogs rarely overlaps.

“There is a real risk that we … increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.”

Research into the emotional and cognitive lives of dogs has recently been running on fast forward. There is an air of excitement that our dogs may be capable of more than we have ever thought possible. The quick turnout of studies however – often with small sample sizes and not always published in reputable journals – is not without danger. There is a real risk that we adapt new, and quite possibly misleading, ideas too quickly and increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.

Whatever dogs are capable of, either emotionally or cognitively, we can never compare their internal experiences with those of humans. Every time we suggest that dogs may feel guilt, jealousy, revenge, spite, empathy, love and more, we encourage their humans to make assumptions about what goes on in their dog’s head. Unfortunately, their judgement will depend on their own interpretations of and experiences with those emotional and cognitive events. We are trapped in our human brains. And unless we constantly remind ourselves of that fact, chances are we aren’t being fair to our dogs.

“The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons.”

Even science-based dog professionals are not always safe from the pitfalls when studying a different species. Currently there seems to be a sentiment of “throw out the old and bring in the new” among a growing number of trainers. Disparaging remarks about animal learning theory, an eagerness to adopt new training methods and the push to assign higher cognitive function to dogs than is currently the case have been popping up on social media and at the conference I attended. It worries me not because I believe dogs are less capable than we give them credit for, but because I fear that we risk sacrificing good science for the thrill of discovery.

Animal learning theory is the pillar of dog training and it has neither been invalidated nor does it prevent us from making new exciting discoveries about dogs. The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons. It should be remembered that humans also learn to a large extent and very successfully via operant and classical conditioning. There is no need to criticize these processes as dated or limiting. Science does not toss out a well-established model because it’s been around for too long. In fact, the usual process is to build on and possibly modify existing knowledge, rather than discard a proven scientific theory or law.

Breaking new ground is an essential part of science, but there is good reason that science is conservative. It is necessary to guarantee its objectivity and adherence to evidence-based facts in pursuit of the truth. Before a new idea is allowed credibility it has to withstand merciless and unbiased experimentation and scrutiny. Otherwise it will remain just an idea, and so it should.

“What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?”

I also do not believe that the respect we have for dogs and other animals should depend on how their cognitive and emotional intelligence compares to ours. With this, however, I am expressing my personal opinion and ethics and cannot rely on scientific backing.
For example, the granting of personhood to great apes because of their relatedness and similarities to the human species may help provide greater protection for these animals – which is a good thing of course. But to link animal welfare and animal rights to how close or distant a species’ emotional and cognitive capabilities are to those of humans is ethically questionable in my opinion. To differ from the human standard does not mean to be a lesser creature on this earth. No animal – no matter how ‘simple-minded’ according to human measure should be subjected to ill-treatment. Giving other animals the freedom to pursue their own happiness is what makes us particularly human.

In order to teach our dogs humanely and create a good life for them and us, I think we first need to stop trying to explain their behaviour from a human perspective. The mere fact that we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour in dogs shows our human biases. The definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is our call and therefore rarely does justice to the dog. Why do we think we have the right to force the member of another species to adhere to our rules and morals and think of them as ‘bad’ if they don’t fit in? What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?

The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.

Be it for scientific or ethical reasons, a shift away from a human-centric to a dog-centric perspective is necessary if we want to learn more about those fascinating animals we live with. Recognising and trying to avoid anthropocentrism is highly desirable in dog trainers, handlers and guardians but even more so in scientists who study dogs and anyone who relates the findings to the public. And I believe it is an essential step to truly appreciate our dogs, because it means we are ready to let them be dogs and set our own egos aside. We can keep arguing about how smart dogs really are, if they possess morality, empathy or theory of mind, but I don’t think it will get us far. The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.

 

LINKS OF INTEREST

The Pet Professional Guild, The Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals
Gorilla’s death calls for human responsibility, not animal personhood, The Conversation June 4, 2016
Why Fake Data When You Can Fake a Scientist?, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Nov 24, 2016

Stop the Pop. Harness the Love.

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to walk our dogs on leads? If they could just run free and make good decisions, such as not to run across the road to check out another dog or threaten to catapult a cyclist off her bike or jump on the man having lunch on a park bench.

It’s a nice fantasy that our dogs leisurely stroll alongside us without the need for physical restraint despite all those distractions our world has to offer. But it’s usually just as fantastical and risky as walking along a busy road with a toddler and not holding their hand. Since dogs are generally faster than toddlers and even less capable of understanding ‘appropriate’ (according to humans) behaviour, putting them on lead is usually the safest option. And of course in many places it is the law.

“Most walking equipment has the number one goal of stopping the dog from pulling, rather than considering the comfort and welfare of the dog.”

There are various types of equipment that can be used to walk your dog. The problem is that manufacturers and sellers generally don’t disclose potential side effects. This negligence is often not because they intentionally try to deceive, but because they are unaware themselves. Most walking equipment has the number one goal of stopping the dog from pulling, rather than considering the comfort and welfare of the dog. Perhaps it is understandable that we put human interests first, but the consequences can be dire.

“When did we ever forget that necks are sensitive parts of the body and need to be handled with care?”

Why someone came up with the idea that strangling a dog is an appropriate method to change their behaviour in the first place is concerning, but even more mindboggling is the fact that plenty of dog handlers continue to do this, even though there are much better alternatives around these days.
If your dog continuously pulls on a collar (any collar) or if you repeatedly “pop” the leash, so the collar violently pushes against the dog’s neck, the risk of injury and even death is very real. When did we ever forget that necks are sensitive parts of the body and need to be handled with care?

“A dog cannot make rational decisions, such as not pulling because it may compromise their health.”

Apart from physical risks, strangling and “leash pops” do nothing to create a pleasant walking experience for either you or your dog. Worse, your dog may associate you or anything they encounter on the walk, such as other dogs, cyclists, children etc. with being yanked or strangled and create emotions of fear, anxiety and even aggression. If your dog seems undeterred by the pressure on their neck and pulls despite coughing and gagging, it does not mean that your dog will not suffer physical or emotional damage. A dog cannot make rational decisions, such as not pulling because it may compromise their health. A dog makes decisions based on what they want at the moment and the history of reinforcement they received from getting it in the past. If they want something badly enough, discomfort or even pain may not deter them.

“It requires conscious effort to remember that dogs don’t do things to annoy us but because they engage in normal dog behaviour.”

Only yesterday I watched a woman angrily yanking on her dog’s lead several times while telling him off for pulling. The dog’s “crime” was that he rushed towards another dog while the woman was getting poo bags out of the dispenser, causing her to briefly lose her balance. She hauled the dog back, continued to fiddle around with the dispenser, then continued walking and THEN started the yanking and yelling spree which continued for at least 15 seconds. So, apart from the potential risk for life, limb and mental state, the woman’s actions had no punishing effect on the dog’s pulling behaviour anyway. Her yanking and berating started far too late for the dog to make any association with his earlier behaviour.

It was a classic example of how a person’s lack of understanding of animal learning and dog behaviour can lead them to be cruel to their dog. The woman seemed “offended” by her dog’s pulling as if he should somehow “understand” what she expected from him. Humans often make that mistake with other humans. Assuming to know what another person knows or thinks seems to be the default setting in our brains and it is very hard to break the habit. Unfortunately, it causes a lot of unnecessary distress and disharmony.
You would think it was less intuitive for us to make assumptions about what other (non-human) animals think. But our brains are just not wired that way. It requires conscious effort to remember that dogs don’t do things to annoy us but because they engage in normal dog behaviour.

“Take a deep breath and get a front-clip dog walking harness. Grab a handful of tasty treats and start training.”

So, before you get frustrated with your dog’s pulling on lead and reach for a choke chain or other grisly gadget, before you lose your temper and yank your dog around by the neck, take a deep breath and get a front-clip dog walking harness. And if this doesn’t reduce the pulling enough for you, grab a handful of tasty treats and start training.

 
 

PREVIOUS RELATED POST

Walking on leash: How to be in sync with your dog

MORE ON THIS TOPIC

One Jerk Can Cause a Lot of Damage, Dr Peter Dobias
Pulling on Leash (8 Common Dog Training Mistakes), Michael Baugh
Get Your Dog Into A Front-Clip Harness (The Easy Way), Madelyn Krkljus (Tails in The Valley)
Harness the Love – Tips for On-Leash Walking, Allison Wells (I Love Your Dog)
Do no-pull harnesses work? Ask a sled dog or two., Kristi Benson
Harnesses are a Great Choice to Walk Your Dog, Zazie Todd (Companion Animal Psychology)

Does your dog love food more than they love you?

Did my headline get your attention? Before you ponder your dog’s devotion to you, let me say straight away that it poses an unfair question. It is unfair because a) it’s the type of headline that blatantly aims to trigger an emotional response and b) it’s unanswerable.

“How confident are you that the information is accurate?”

The purpose of a headline is to pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to read an article. Unfortunately, all too often, a headline can become a standalone source of information. As you browse your social media or the daily news, a headline catches your attention but you might not have enough time or interest to read further. Even if you do, maybe you only read the first paragraph or you quickly scan the article trying to extract the gist of the story. And if you actually do read the whole thing: How confident are you that the information you take away from it is accurate?

Here is a recent headline: “Dogs Prefer Tummy Tickles To Treats According To Science”. Note the addition “According To Science”. That should give us confidence that the information is correct, right? The thing is: This headline isn’t any more valuable than mine. It presents a lure to draw the reader in and nothing more. This wouldn’t be so concerning if everyone understood that – unless a headline describes an irrefutable fact such as “Federer wins Australian Open” – it rarely tells the whole story and it can even be misleading. Not that this is necessarily the intention of the author. It is simply the way headlines are created in order to compete for the attention of readers. Sure we can blame individual authors or the media as a whole, but it may be more helpful if we relied on ourselves to read beyond the headlines.

“The results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as ‘dogs prefer praise over food’”

As it turns out, there was indeed a recent study* that tested the neural responses (specifically, the activation of the ventral striatum, a brain structure that indicates the experience or expectation of something pleasurable) in 15 dogs when they were presented with either a promise of receiving food or a promise of social contact with their primary guardian. But the study is a little more complicated than simply giving dogs a choice between food and praise. And the results cannot possibly justify a blanket statement such as “dogs prefer praise over food”.

The current research into the emotions of domestic dogs through “awake canine neuroimaging” is extremely fascinating and I’m sure it will add to our understanding of the unique human-canine bond. But we are not doing our dogs – and ourselves – a favour, if we hastily draw conclusions from an experiment that tests the neural response of dogs to specific stimuli under very specific conditions and then hail this as a significant contribution to the practical application of dog training. A common problem with translating scientific studies for the public is the misinterpretation of the study results and this has certainly been the case here.

The possible practical value of the study (and hopefully more studies with larger sample sizes to follow) is the detection of differences in individual dogs and dog breeds in regards to their tendency for strong social bonding to humans. Those differences may help with the selection of dogs for certain tasks such as assistance and therapy dogs. Dogs who showed higher ventral caudate activation in the experiment when expecting social contact instead of food are possibly more suitable for jobs that involve close cooperation and bonding with humans. However, to conclude that praise would have a better or equal effect on the willingness and performance of dogs when we teach them skills or try to create positive emotional responses is not warranted.

“It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.”

What a dog wants is influenced by many factors that continuously modify their current mental, emotional and physical state. The dog’s saturation with food, play, exercise and social contact is what largely decides the efficacy of a chosen reward or motivator at any given time.

In the neural response experiment the dog is alone in an environment away from the home they share with their human(s). In a typical training environment on the other hand a dog is either with their human or another person they are comfortable with (reward-based training wouldn’t work if the dog didn’t want to be there in the first place). The dog’s social needs are likely already met. In that scenario the trainer has to find out what the dog wants most at the moment. A motivator has to be potent enough to trump (apologies for using that word – it makes me cringe too) anything else that might be going on in the dog’s internal and external environment.

In a previous study**, which tested the responses of dogs (and hand-reared wolves) to food versus social interaction in a more realistic training setting, the results clearly indicated a preference for food over praise or petting. Even shelter dogs – who were deprived of human contact and could therefore be expected to experience social contact as highly reinforcing – responded better with food.

Before expecting your dog to perform behaviours for you “for free”, think about all the competing factors. Yes, your dog may waddle over to you for a belly rub when hanging out at home. But good luck consistently calling your dog away from their dog friends at the park or a possum in a tree with no other promise than that of a belly rub or praise.
It is the history of reinforcement that determines a dog’s future behaviour. Make sure that history is stacked in your favour by using memorable, high value rewards.

“Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills.”

Hopefully your dog gets plenty of belly rubs from you anyway. Rather than using social contact as a reward for behaviour, it should form the basis for cooperation. Social contact is a dog’s right, not a reward. Social bonding between dog and human is the best foundation to successfully teach your dog skills. A happy and cooperative dog is more likely to show enthusiasm during training. You can control this enthusiasm – and hence the learning outcome – through potent motivators.

 
Headlines that dismiss the value of food in dog training are concerning because they pander to some people’s expectations that dogs should perform behaviours simply because of their devotion to us. They fuel the idea that using treats in training is a bad thing, that it “corrupts” dogs and that it negatively affects the dog-human bond. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be highly detrimental if dog lovers avoided or abandoned food rewards in training due to the erroneous belief that praise or petting are suitable replacements. In fact, food rewards should be encouraged more and their value highlighted at every opportunity. No matter if you teach your dog a specific skill, modify a problem behaviour or want to help your fearful and anxious dog to feel better, dish out those tasty morsels, so your dog receives the best motivation and has the best chance to succeed in life.

 
 

REFERENCES

* Peter F. Cook, Ashley Prichard, Mark Spivak, and Gregory S. Berns.
Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access first published online August 12, 2016 doi:10.1093/scan/nsw102

** Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L.(2012). Relative Efficacy of Human Social Interaction and Food as Reinforcers for Domestic Dogs and Hand-Reared Wolves. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129

Train for success, not with stress

Undoubtedly the most common word directed at domestic companion dogs is “no”. There is no other more ubiquitous response to a wide range of perceived dog “misbehaviours”. But in most cases “no” is not a punishment – meaning, by definition, it does not make the unwanted behaviour less likely to occur in the future. “No” often serves as a temporary interrupter, only for the dog to engage in the same behaviour again shortly after or when you are not around. You may then resort to more drastic measures until your verbal or physical responses to your dog’s behaviour become indeed punishing to them and stop the behaviour, at least in some contexts.
Why does dog training still rely so much on punishment – in particular of the aversive kind – and why is this a problem?

The road to nowhere.

A firm “NO!” can interrupt your dog’s behaviour and reward you with immediate positive feedback: The dog stops doing whatever you didn’t approve of. This instant illusion of success may tempt you to believe that firm “NOs” are indeed a good strategy to control your dog. Here is the problem:

  • If your dog was merely startled by your exclamation, they are likely to re-engage in the unwanted behaviour.
  • Your verbal reprimand was not punishing at all or not punishing enough for your dog. The motivation to engage in the behaviour has not changed and your “NO” has not created a strong enough negative experience for the dog to stop engaging in the behaviour.

  • If your “NO!” was harsh enough, your dog may no longer engage in the behaviour in your presence.
  • The important part here is “in your presence”. The motivation to engage in the behaviour is still there, but your dog has learned that you turn into a scary person when they do the behaviour in your presence. As a result, your dog will only engage in the behaviour when you are not around.

  • If your frequent use of “NO!” is truly terrifying (and possibly the predictor of worse punishment to come), your dog may no longer engage in behaviour.
  • In this case, your dog has given up. Your dog may no longer willingly engage in any behaviour. The risk of punishment has eclipsed your dog’s active, playful and happy outlook on life. You have effectively “punished the dog out of your dog”. The constant thwarting of your dog’s drives and desires has rendered your dog helpless, depressed and shut down. This is a significant mental health issue.

Neither outcome is desirable. You will either have to keep yelling “NO” every time your dog “misbehaves” or you make your dog afraid of you – or both. Instead of coming up with a solution you resort to being reactive and negative. This is neither good for you nor your dog.

Setting your dog up to fail.

It may sound like a better strategy to punish your dog for unwanted behaviour and at the same time offer your dog an alternative behaviour to engage in.  But is it?

Many years ago I got lost in a remote part of the Australian wilderness on a cold and foggy winter’s day. After wading through a waist deep body of water my path was blocked by yet another expanse of wetland. Thinking I had taken a wrong turn, I backtracked and launched a new attempt only to arrive back at the same place every time. I was going in circles. In a moment of panic I decided to head off in the direction of a large swamp, believing it would take me out of the maze. Of course, chances are I would never have been heard of again, if I hadn’t quickly come to my senses.

Panic is not a good decision maker. Neither is distress. You may believe you offer your dog options with one path leading towards safety and the others towards punishment, but what does your dog experience? How can you hope – based on your human logic – that your dog will choose your preferred option?
Dog training that focuses on delivering bad consequences for unwanted behaviour relies on two possible justifications:

  • It expects dogs to make smart decisions about their course of action as if they could intellectually understand that they are faced with options and that only one of those options leads to a positive outcome.
  • This idea is anthropomorphic: All evidence suggests that dogs cannot possible make decisions based on what we call logic or foresight. Your dog simply engages in whatever behaviours come naturally (which generally are the ones we don’t like and therefore punish). It simply does not (it biologically cannot!) “occur” to a dog that you are punishing them so that they chose a different course of action.

  • It teaches dogs through repeated experience that only one course of action results in something good (or at least nothing bad) and all the other options result in something bad.
  • The second scenario – that a dog learns by repeatedly heading down the road to punishment and, if they are lucky, occasionally stumble across the safe option –  is the more logical one but it is disturbing. This approach has no trouble of potentially causing significant distress to the dog, even if the dog has no way of knowing that their behaviour leads to punishment. It also ignores the paralysing effect of fear and distress on learning and decision making.
    The dog is set up to fail so the trainer can successfully punish. Is this not a rather mean – and possibly even cruel – way to teach a dog (or anyone for that matter)?

Helping your dog to win.

Wouldn’t it be much better if you showed your dog how they can succeed from the start? This is easily achieved by first teaching your dog behaviours that you approve of. If these behaviours are incompatible with the behaviours you don’t like, bingo! Whenever the dog engages in an unwanted behaviour, e.g. jumping up on a visitor, ask them to do an alternative behaviour, e.g. go fetch a toy. The trigger that originally caused the dog to choose the unwanted behaviour can now become the trigger to do the alternative behaviour, e.g. visitor comes through the door –> go fetch a toy.

If you have thoroughly taught your dog alternative behaviours with high value rewards and in small enough steps and this is either not sufficient or simply not practical to extinguish an unwanted behaviour, there is one form of punishment that does not risk your dog becoming distraught*: Well-executed time-outs. Losing access to something rewarding can be a very effective penalty if used correctly and consistently. You either remove the dog from the action or you remove yourself for a set time. The time-out should never be accompanied by harsh physical handling or verbal reprimands; otherwise you are entering risky territory again. The only punishment is supposed to be the loss of whatever the dog wants at that moment.

Make smart decisions for the benefit of your dog’s welfare and happiness, your relationship with your dog and your own peace of mind. Help your dog get it right rather than set them up to fail. Don’t let your dog wander into a swamp.

 

 

* Fearful or anxious dogs may “panic” when put in time-outs, in which case this form of punishment is not recommended. Also, if your dog is easily frustrated, you might have to proceed in smaller steps and make sure your dog can “win” often before bringing time-outs into the mix.

Dogs can train us to live better

On our path from hunter-gatherer to modern human we have lost something rather important. It’s a bit ironic since everything we have gained – housing and heating, food security, career opportunities and global connectivity – should be proof that our quality of life is phenomenally better than that of our forebears.  But what many of us have lost or will lose at some stage in their life is a sense of happiness.

Anxiety and depression are widespread in modern societies as we worry about financial wealth and personal relationships. Our brains are constantly busy figuring out how to improve our lives according to the standards our societies dictate. We live and work predominantly indoors, eat food we don’t know where and how it was produced and exercise in indoor gyms, if at all. We take pills because our bodies don’t get enough sunlight and our minds never stop wanting and worrying.

It is bad enough that we have created a world where so many humans are set up to “fail” but we went even further than that: We dragged other species into this mess, in particular our domestic dogs.  Because they share their lives so closely with us, we have assimilated them into the modern human collective. It wasn’t intentional of course, just like we didn’t intentionally make our own lives so stressful. It just happened.

By now we should have realised though how assessing dog behaviour by human values and aspirations can only lead to drama. Their hunter-scavengers brains are geared towards an immediate-return value system similar to the workings of our ancient hunter-gatherer brains (which still lurk underneath our complex modern ‘circuitry’). Dogs don’t plan for the future, they don’t scheme or analyse and they don’t worry about things like money or power. When your dog stands on your feet while you are chopping food in the kitchen, it’s for the simple reason that they have learned to associate the smell of food or you being in the kitchen with being fed. To describe this behaviour as controlling, dominant or even manipulative shows just how much we believe our dogs think like we do.

How much better would life be – for us and our dogs – if we turned this around and thought a bit more like our dogs think? To not worry about the possibility of losing stuff or never having enough but to enjoy the here and now; to not try to control everything or everyone in our lives but to seek out what or who can add happiness to our lives; to not make assumptions about what other people – let alone animals – think or intend to do but to respond to what they actually do.

When we spend time with our dogs, we have the chance to forget about our daily worries and commitments for a little while. On a walk we could take in the sights, sounds and smells like our dogs do instead of dwelling on real or imagined problems or communicating with our mobile phones. Playing games with our dogs allows us to be silly and spontaneous but also to show teamwork. We can watch our dogs and try to understand the world a little better from their view. We can find a connection at a level that we both share: The joys of being here right now and being able to capture and value a moment with whatever senses we have.

Easier said than done, right? Modern human existence can be complicated, to say the least, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, trapped or powerless. We can have the best intentions but then life throws another brick at us or depression sucks us into a black hole. Or maybe we are simply too busy to even realise what’s missing from our life.  We pack our days with work and social activities, rush from here to there in order to feel a sense of achievement and suddenly middle age smacks us in the face and announces the passing of time. And no matter how much we think we have achieved, nothing can replace the time lost living.

Our dogs can help. They can teach us how to treasure moments that give us so much but don’t cost anything. Like the smell of rain or the taste of the sea or the feeling of sand under our feet. Instead of adding another stressor to our lives by trying to wield total control over our dogs and obsess about their obedience and docile behaviour, we can allow ourselves to be infected by their careless and opportunistic nature and gain some much needed relief from being a 21st century human.

Time for a walk.

 

 

Dog training: Respectable profession or weedy business?

If you have ventured a little further into the world of dog training, beyond watching the occasional TV show or asking your vet for advice, you are probably aware that there are differing views on the methods used.  This can give the unfortunate impression that dog training is akin to removing stains from your clothes or killing weeds in your garden rather than a profession like plumbing or dentistry.

If you have unwanted plants in your garden, you may choose to spend a Sunday afternoon pulling them out by hand while enjoying the sunshine and the birds and the rich smell of healthy soil. You could also prevent or smother weeds with pieces of carpet or plastic sheets or annihilate them with vinegar, baking soda or vodka (yes, I agree there is a much better use for vodka, especially after you have discovered that the toxic carpet chemicals have leached into your formerly healthy soil). Maybe you are more the strategic type who sends ground covering plants to the front line to fend off an invasion by unwelcome visitors? Or maybe you attack the perceived enemy with poison, either selectively or agent-orange-style. Lastly, you might have your own secret recipe and think everyone else is an idiot. All those methods seem perfectly valid. Are they equally valuable? You decide.

 
Actually, thinking of it … this does sound a lot like the current state of the dog training industry.

On the other hand, dog training is a field of teaching & behaviour modification. It deals with the behaviour of sentient beings and therefore must be governed by the scientific principles of animal learning, animal welfare laws and ethical considerations. A practitioner in this field cannot simply focus on an outcome. They need to have the education, integrity and skills required to deliver the best solution available in regards to short and long term effects on dogs and humans.

Well, that’s the theory at least. The problem is: No one enforces this. Industries are not very good at regulating themselves and with the lives of dogs and potentially humans at stake maybe self-regulation shouldn’t even be considered a viable option.

Sadly, the ones thwarting the quality and progress of the industry are not just indifferent government authorities and trainers with outdated philosophies and techniques. Sometimes accidental sabotage comes from the ranks of trainers striving for a more humane approach in dog training. This is because good intentions alone are not good enough. We need good education, clear thinking, excellent skills and an ethical code of conduct. Without it we will continue to see blogs, articles and websites that are lacking in accuracy, appropriate language and valuable information and only add to the confusion of the dog loving public.

Imagine you have just started to get a grasp on how dogs learn via classical and operant conditioning. You understand that counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning and describes a process in which an animal’s emotion towards someone or something is changed from negative to positive (or vice versa). Then you are told by a professional trainer that counter-conditioning doesn’t always work. Um, isn’t that like saying that growing vegetables doesn’t work? No doubt, attempts at counter-conditioning can fail just like trying to grow vegetables can fail. But we wouldn’t dismiss the fact that vegetables grow just because we stuffed it up. If a dog’s emotion doesn’t change during a program, then it is not because counter-conditioning didn’t work, it’s because counter-conditioning didn’t happen. The logical course of action is to take a good look at the behaviour modification plan, adjust it where necessary and make sure one is aware of the common pitfalls.

The principle of animal learning that seems to come under most frequent attack though is positive reinforcement: Allegedly it doesn’t work with some dogs or certain types of dogs or certain types of behaviour. Just like counter-conditioning, positive reinforcement describes a process and an outcome. Positive reinforcement has occurred when an individual engages in the relevant behaviour more often than they did before because they have been repeatedly rewarded for the behaviour. It happens all the time in all sorts of animals and there is absolutely no doubt that it works.

Does positive reinforcement alone change every behaviour we don’t like in a dog? Of course not. Solutions are frequently a mixture of management, reinforcement and punishment. The form of punishment used by modern reward-based trainers however is never harmful to the dog. It works by withholding or removing something the dog wants and a skilled practitioner will use this technique prudently. Unless you think that learning should be scary or distressing for the subject and you are willing to risk unwelcome side effects, you want to stay clear of using physical and/or psychological force to change a dog’s behaviour.

To give the impression that a fundamental principle of animal learning is just another “method” that may or may not work in a specific case supports the idea that dog training is an open playing field for anyone who wants to have a go at it. It ignores the importance of a solid scientific basis for behaviour modification and it allows hacks and quacks to cheapen the dog training industry.

That animals learn via classical conditioning (by forming associations) and operant conditioning (through reinforcement and punishment) – in addition to a simpler form of learning called “habituation” – is solid science. Whatever a trainer does to successfully change the behaviour of a dog, whatever solution they come up with, whatever name they give it, they will always utilize one or more of those fundamental principles of animal learning, even if they are unaware of it.

When we have professional trainers who are committed to humane training but have muddled thinking or are careless with their language, we have little hope of elevating the dog training profession to a valuable and respectable field of expertise and many people will miss out on reliable access to quality training for their dogs. It has to be in everybody’s interest to assist with creating a better standard in dog training.

If you are looking for help with your dog: Would you prefer to take advice from someone who has gone through a proper educational process, can prove their competence and clearly explains to you their methods, intended outcomes and possible side effects? Or do you trust a person simply because they are convincing or charming?

If you are a professional dog trainer: Are you proud of being a highly skilled practitioner with expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and a commitment to employ the most up-to-date training methods to deliver a service that is in the best interests of your human and canine clients? Or are you in the weed killing business?

 

Dogs and kids and the challenge of parenthood

The other day I was exposed to the soundtrack of a distressing scene on a neighbouring property. A young boy went into a rage. Not that I expect great impulse control from kids (see my last post), but this sounded worse than your average juvenile temper tantrum. It seemed the boy had been pushed over by the family dog, who I believe is a smallish dog of the “oodle” kind. In his anger the boy kept screaming abuse at his dog at the top of his voice and then smashed one of the dog’s toys to the ground in an apparent act of revenge. To escalate the situation, the boy’s father, who had been present throughout the event, threatened to destroy one of the boy’s toys in response (and it sounded like he actually did). It was a strange course of action in my mind. Wouldn’t it be more intuitive to calm the boy down and explain that the dog meant no harm; that dogs jump up because that’s what dogs do when they play or are excited about something; that dogs don’t understand what effect their exuberance may have or why falling over would be such a big deal anyway? But then, does every parent actually know this?

It’s everyone’s business

I know that some people regard it as their private business how they raise their kids or what they do with their dogs. But society has an obvious interest not only in preventing child and animal abuse but also in raising “wholesome” children and having sociable and friendly dogs. Child education and dog training are both areas of significant responsibility. The people in charge have the power to influence an individual’s path through life and their future behaviour with ramifications not just for the individual themselves but the community they live in. This power means it is vital that parents are aware of the potential consequences of what they teach their children as well as their dogs. And the only way to become aware and knowledgeable is education.

Just like having owned dogs – even many dogs – doesn’t make one a capable dog trainer, having children doesn’t make one an expert in child education. Experience isn’t always a positive thing. When the same mistakes or bad habits are repeated over and over because the teacher isn’t educating themselves, we have a problem. Because it is a problem – for all of us – when children grow up to believe that violence – verbal or physical – is an appropriate way to communicate, when they become self-centred adults with no regard for the needs, desires and feelings of others including non-human animals and when they lack the confidence to continuously learn and improve themselves and ask for help if they need to.

Everyone needs to be safe

Parents who are in charge of young kids and dogs have a number one priority: To keep everyone safe. As is evident from countless internet videos, photos and the odd news report this isn’t working so well. It seems there is a widespread lack of understanding as to what counts as appropriate interaction between kids and dogs and this keeps putting them at risk. Signs that the dog is uncomfortable and might be on the cusp of sliding into self-defence mode are not just ignored but apparently not even detected. This is generally worrying in regards to the dog’s welfare but it also poses a risk for the child’s and potentially the dog’s physical safety.

If a dog’s signs of discomfort are persistently ignored, it should come as no surprise if the interaction ends in a bite. This is a dog’s equivalent to yelling or pushing someone away because they feel besieged, threatened or frightened. The naive belief that a dog would not hurt their own family, especially children, is rooted in the romantic folklore surrounding the “perfect family dog” who does everything they are told, protects the family from bad people and apparently puts up with whatever harassment or abuse they are subjected to because they are loyal and somehow “know their family don’t mean them harm”.

Young children often do not understand that their actions might be annoying, painful or frightening for the dog. And unfortunately some children seem to have difficulty with showing kindness to animals. If parents detect the signs early they may be able to help their children develop better social behaviour and empathy and protect their animals from harm. In any case, showing children how to safely behave around dogs and teaching them to look after rather than teasing or scaring animals, is essential to ensure everyone’s safety.

To complement this, dogs have to learn the relevant skills to successfully negotiate life in a human society. Dogs cannot understand that their behaviour, such as jumping up or nipping can be a nuisance or even dangerous, especially to children. Impulse control exercises with lots of positive reinforcement and including the dog in family activities will help the dog to adjust their behaviour. Additionally, constant supervision of kids and dogs is a must until a child is old and mature enough to appropriately interact with dogs.

Clearly, parents have a lot on their plate. How can they succeed?

The answer is actually quite simple: By listening to the experts. No one can be expected to keep up to date with everything these days. There is simply too much information around. While many parents understand nowadays that physical or psychological punishment will not turn their children into successful adults, there seems to be very little understanding about the consequences of using punitive methods on their dogs and allowing their children to bully their dogs. Many of the common ideas about dog behaviour and training are just as outdated as military-style child education that relied on corporal punishment and mindless obedience. Of course, not everyone subjected to it ends up “damaged” but why risk it and what fun is there in life if we either dish out or receive violence, in whatever form?

We need parents to become truly savvy in dog behaviour, for the sake of their dogs, their kids and the community. Hopefully many present and future parents have been raised by their parents to be confident enough to learn continuously and to ask for help.  Maybe then the following generations will grow up with a better understanding of dogs and other animals and we can continue to move towards a kinder and safer society.

The importance of keeping a cool head in dog training

As a child I threw the occasional temper tantrum. Today I have a vague idea how frustrated my parents must have been when one of their offspring suddenly turned from a shy, freckled and stub-nosed little girl into a screaming, purple-faced, missile-launching monster. Yes, I had a habit of throwing things, whatever happened to be closest. One day my red-hot rage almost killed one of our birds. After violently kicking the air, my slipper detached itself from my foot and made a beeline for the birdcage, causing it to topple off the window sill and – fortunately – come to a stop on the back of a sofa.  Our poor little tiger finch was wildly flapping his wings in an attempt to stay airborne throughout the ordeal and kept complaining loudly for quite a while afterwards. As the disaster unfolded my rage evaporated into cold sweat. The realisation that my anger could have actually killed someone shocked me. It might have been “just a bird” to most people, but I have treasured – and tried to protect – the life of every critter I have came across since I can remember (aside from the occasional mosquito where, I have to admit, my anger management tends to fail me). In case this incident doesn’t convince you that I had an anger problem, I also once hurled a rock at my sister while she had her back turned.

The reason I’m disclosing this rather embarrassing personal history is that impulse control is a big deal in dog training. Although we usually have the dog in mind when we talk about impulse control, what I want to focus on here is our own mental and emotional stability. It matters, not so much in relation to if and how dogs may “pick up on” our internal emotional states, but rather what it is we do when we get emotional and how it can sabotage our training attempts.

Setting the bar where the dog can reach

Anger is an emotion that can cause significant damage. I have to assume that not everyone experiences the kind of rage that I described above, but I’m sure we all have experienced anger in some form. Some people may find it relatively easy to channel their emotions appropriately, for others it may take years to learn self-control while still others either see no need to do anything about it or are simply overwhelmed by their anger.

While expressing anger towards another human can sometimes be justified and even useful, being angry with a dog belongs firmly into the “makes-no-sense-whatsoever” category. Of course we can feel angry about something the dog did, such as chewing up the remote control, but to hold the dog responsible and therefore direct our anger towards them is irrational, anthropomorphic and simply unfair.

Even worse is losing one’s cool when training a dog. How well and how fast a dog learns is a function of their genetics, their experiences, their relationship with us and how good a trainer we are. If the dog doesn’t “get it”, there’s no point accusing them of stubbornness or stupidity. If the dog doesn’t learn, it is due to our failure of taking all parameters into account and training the dog in a way that enables them to learn.

From “boom!” to bust in an instant – don’t risk it

When we get angry with our dogs, it is often because we don’t feel in control of their behaviour. Because anger interferes with rational thinking we are likely to target the dog rather than considering why we lack control or if controlling every aspect of our dog’s life is even necessary. Out of anger we may yell at the dog – or worse – and then probably feel guilty afterwards. Unfortunately, even a short outburst and even if it is redirected at something other than the dog – let’s say we slam a door – can potentially instil fear in the dog and make future training more difficult. Depending on the dog’s sensitivity, it may take weeks or months to regain the dog’s trust if our tantrum was scary enough for them.

There is nothing worse than having a cowering dog with tail tucked slinking around you every time you want to do a little training exercise. It’s annoying. It’s sad. And it gets in the way of efficient and successful training.

Having a submissive, fearful dog can become a serious challenge as the results of fearfulness are often far-reaching and may affect areas the dog had been perfectly fine with before. We also know that fearfulness and anxiety have the potential to cause long term physical health issues which may become costly and make the dog feel even more miserable.

For dog’s sake – breathe, think, have a plan

So it really is important to pay attention to our anger and how we express it in front of our dogs. Because it can take so little to damage the relationship, it is best if we have our own impulses under control and walk away if we feel overwhelmed.

One part of the process is an awareness of all those dog-related myths that persist in our society which cause us to blame dogs for simply being dogs. And the other part is to steer our own thinking away from those automatic thought patterns. If we teach ourselves to immediately assess what we have missed every time the dog “messes up”, we can preempt irrational feelings and spontaneous reactions based on anger. Maybe we should have put the remote control out of reach. Maybe we didn’t teach the dog in small enough increments so they could succeed. Maybe we put them in a situation they just couldn’t handle.

Having a clear idea what we expect from our dogs, a plan how we get there and management options until the dog is ready (or for situations that cannot be addressed with training) will help us keep a cool head and not blow up when things get difficult. It may need a little practise to get there but it is absolutely necessary if we want good behaviour from our dogs and enjoy their happy and carefree attitude which is, after all, what makes our lives so much better.