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

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Hands-off dog training beats physical manipulation

While on a beautiful early morning dog walk the other day my relaxed mood suddenly evaporated when a man pushed his little dog. Although I only saw the event out of the corner of my eye, the result was plain to see. The dog recoiled from her human’s hand with ears flattened and tail tucked away under her belly. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be a problem for her human who insisted his dog had an attitude and simply “didn’t like it” when he “told her off”.  But it is a problem. What the little dog displayed was fear, nothing else, and it is something that is neither needed nor should it be wanted in modern dog training. The push might not have been hard and it is very possible the man did not intend to cause fear in his dog, at least not of the lasting kind. But the person’s motivation and the dog’s response are, sadly, very common.

Every push is one step closer to disaster

The push was a result of the dog jumping up at people – a very normal and understandable behaviour, especially in small dogs who find themselves far away from people’s faces. All the dog demonstrated was friendly greeting behaviour but what she eventually got in return – from the person she should trust the most – was physical assault. If repeated often enough with significant force or if done once with outright violence, pushing the dog away may indeed stop her from jumping up at people in the future but it’s usually not the only consequence. When the little dog responded with avoidance to her human’s outstretched hand shortly after the push, one problematic result was already visible. She had learned that bad things come from the hands of her human – a disaster in any human-canine relationship. This can easily generalize to create fear of all human hands, including those of a child who may innocently approach the dog one day and force the dog into self-defence mode. Not a good situation and entirely avoidable.

Yanking and pulling means loss of control

This past week I was also unlucky enough to witness several incidents of “yanking and pulling” by people walking their dogs.  This manifests itself either in form of having constant pressure on the lead and frequently dragging the dog away from something or as intermittent violent jerking on the lead which sometimes can pull a dog off their feet. Either way, it’s bad. If the experience is unpleasant for the dog – which in most cases it would be – the dog is likely to develop negative associations with their handler and whatever else they happen to be aware of at that moment – another dog, a pedestrian, a cyclist, children playing, etc. Again, this is usually not what is intended. A person pulling on their dog’s lead is trying to gain control. They are trying to keep the dog away from others or want the dog to walk nicely by their side. But pulling and yanking are not methods of gaining effective and lasting control. The dog’s impulse to rush towards other dogs, people or interesting smells remains unchanged but is thwarted or suppressed by their humans forceful manhandling. The result is frustration and possibly aggression which can be directed at anything in the dog’s vicinity. And if the dog lunges towards other dogs because they already suffer from fear-aggression, adding more unpleasant experiences by yanking the dog will only increase their negative emotions and make things worse. Yanking on a dog’s lead is a crude and dangerous method. It shows a lack of understanding or – worse – a disregard of dog behaviour and animal learning principles and therefore a lack of control by the handler.

Forced socialisation risks “anti-socialisation”

No better than forcefully yanking a dog away from another dog or person is to drag a dog closer to these targets. This type of manhandling is generally with good intentions since the handler apparently hopes to improve their dog’s social skills. Sadly, the opposite is more likely to happen. Being forced to endure the proximity of something that makes the dog afraid or even just uncomfortable is bound to increase those emotions and can lead to aggression if the dog feels the need for self-defence. A variation of this type of “forced socialisation” is to pick the dog up and hold them close to other dogs or people. Imagine how a dog must feel being in this helpless position, their human’s hands firmly clasped around their body, feet off the ground and with no way of escaping.  It is at the very least unpleasant but for sensitive or fearful dogs it can be a nightmare. The risk of “flooding” the dog with negative emotions and sensitize them even further is extremely high, yet the humans putting their dogs in these difficult situations see no problem with it.
 

The reason that manhandling dogs is still so common is due to the history of dog training, the focus on dominance, the misinterpretation of dog behaviour and the sometimes desperate desire of dog guardians to be in control. Often this need for control is reactive. Rather than planning ahead and teaching a dog necessary skills step-by-step and with modern, reward-based and force-free methods, many guardians respond to situations spontaneously and emotionally. They may get angry with their dog or be embarrassed when others witness their dog’s “bad” behaviour. But putting an untrained dog into situations they can’t handle is extremely unfair to the dog and puts unnecessary stress on dog and handler. It’s a recipe for disaster.  The only way to get consistent and reliable “good” behaviour from your dog is by rewarding the dog for small steps towards the end goal and setting them up for success. This means putting your dog in a position where they are able and willing to pay attention to you – no distractions, no fear, rewards that are motivating for your dog – and gradually moving up in difficulty. This is no different to a person learning a complex skill. You don’t put a child in front of a piano for the first time and then smack them over the head if they are unable to play Beethoven. But that is exactly the level of “performance” that seems to be expected from dogs. Underlying these expectations is a tendency to interpret dog behaviour in human terms and as being rooted in “attitude”. If a dog behaves “badly”, it is easier to blame it on the dog’s character (stubborn, dominant, stupid, silly) than to accept one’s own fault of not considering or understanding what motivates dogs. Training a dog is work. Pushing and pulling them around is often easier.

Do your dog and yourself a favour and take “the long road” to train your dog. It may be faster than you think but most importantly you are far more likely to reach your goals. Be smart and learn from reward-based, force-free dog training professionals, be patient and have fun. It’s a high return investment and it carries zero risk.

 

RESOURCES

Reward Based Training by AVA (Australian Veterinary Association), PDF
The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals by AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior), PDF

Voice control in dog training: Master your own voice.

We rarely think about the sound of our own voice and many of us are unpleasantly surprised the first time we hear it. But, given how important verbal communication is for our species, it pays to understand how we use our voice and how it is received by others. Our dogs are often at the receiving end of our verbal outpour, but how do you evaluate the effect it has on your dog? Not only can a dog not talk back, they also process the information quite differently to humans.

Common problems when talking to your dog are related to using cues that your dog hasn’t learned yet, repeating cues too many times, getting the timing wrong, giving the wrong or no feedback or generally talking too much. But apart from missing valuable information or becoming “white noise” for your dog, your voice can become an even more serious problem when it inadvertently slips into a “commanding” or even angry voice. If you want your dog to truly listen to you, it is worthwhile to pay attention not just to what you say and when, but also how you say it.

Aggressive voices create negative emotions

It is remarkably easy to raise one’s voice or change one’s tone without planning it and without calculating the effect it may have on others. It happens when our brain spontaneously responds to emotions such as anger or fear. Before we get the chance to consciously think about an appropriate response, the words have already been uttered. While the words themselves may not mean much to a dog, the tone can trigger a flood of negative emotions. It has been shown that verbal aggression by parents can have similar detrimental effects on children as physical abuse1, and this even when the parents are otherwise loving and supportive. Although the loudness and aggressive tone may only be partially relevant in human-human communication (next to the actual content), it is nevertheless a potential source of distress for the recipient as well as anyone listening. Of course an occasional incident of parents losing their cool is not automatically damaging to a child’s emotional health. At least with older kids, it is generally possible to have a talk about it afterwards and explain why you lost the plot.

But how confusing and potentially frightening must it be for a dog, an animal who is not capable of explaining human behaviour, if the person they are attached to (you) becomes aggressive, verbally or otherwise? Even if they do link your aggression to their own behaviour and subsequently avoid that behaviour in future – at least in front of you! – , the potential emotional fallout cannot be ignored. The realisation that “yelling – like spanking – does not teach the child anything about how to behave appropriately”1, applies just as much to dogs. A raised voice does not teach your dog what you want them to do. It simply leaves your dog with a negative emotional memory. Especially if raising your voice is a frequent occurrence, those memories will most likely affect your dog’s emotional well-being, their future behaviour and the relationship they have with you. And not for the better.

Take control of your voice

Using your voice carefully when talking to your dog is about self-awareness and self-discipline. This will be easier if you have a clear goal of how you want your dog to behave, what it takes to teach the behaviour and an understanding of exactly what your dog has learned so far. If your dog engages in an unwanted behaviour or doesn’t listen to you, making anthropomorphic assumptions about your dog’s motivation is not helpful. For example, if you believe your dog is recalcitrant, disobedient or dominant, you are likely to experience negative emotions and therefore more likely to respond in an emotional manner such as using a raised or harsh tone of voice. Instead, think in simple terms about your dog’s skill level (i.e. their level of training) and their most likely motivation such as wanting access to food, toys or play or wanting to avoid an unpleasant situation. Then go back to school with your dog2, repeat the exercises, practise under distractions and provide outstanding motivation in form of tasty food or other high value rewards. Raising your voice or using a more “serious” tone cannot replace training. It only risks that your voice tips over from being a communication tool to becoming a punisher.

A good training exercise for testing or practising how much control you have over your own voice is “leave it”. Ideally you start this exercise with food in your hand rather than on the floor but let’s just skip ahead to the part where you are likely to be more challenged. When you place food on the floor, you have to be ready to quickly cover it or snatch it away if the dog dives for it. If the dog is faster than you and “wins” (gets to the food before you have given the OK), your training will suffer a serious setback. Your dog will learn that she can beat you at this game.

Here is the scenario:

  • You place the food on the floor between you and your dog and give the “leave it” cue.
  • You are in a state of alert because you need to move quickly if your dog flinches.
  • Your dog flinches.
  • “LEAVE IT!!”

Oops. Your verbal outburst has most likely stopped your dog dead in her tracks. But it wasn’t the cue (“leave it”) that stopped her. It was your tone. You could have yelled anything and she would have stopped all the same. The plan was to quickly cover the food with your hand if your dog moved but your voice was faster. Your emotional response has ruined your training plan2.

While this is not necessarily a traumatic event for your dog or a roadblock to your training success (although it can be), it shows how easily we can trip up. Trying to control your dog with verbal or physical force – no matter how subtle that may be – is an emotional response, either driven by the current context or by the relationship you have with your dog. Teaching your dog skills with knowledge, patience and practise on the other hand is a strategy based on rational decisions. One that will pay off and give you the control you want without causing distress for you or your dog.

 

RESOURCES

1 Yelling Doesn’t Help, May Harm Adolescents, Pitt-Led Study Finds, University of Pittsburgh

2 To teach your dog reliable skills, get yourself a good book, join a good dog training school or hire a qualified professional. If you train your dog with a plan, your chances of success are greatly increased.
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