Change is in the air and it is causing anxiety. As we learned from the latest instalment of the climate change debate, strong emotional reactions are not limited to the change itself—be it the change in climate or the change required to deal with it. We also quarrel over how to change people’s minds. How do we package and deliver the message that change is necessary? Is it the factual narrative of someone with decades of expertise and experience, like David Attenborough, or is it a passionate and emotional plea from someone who is young enough not to be a cynic, like teenager Greta Thunberg? I say it’s both.
We Need Both Passion and Wisdom to Combat Suffering and Injustice
We need more Davids and more Gretas to help us adapt to the changes which are an inevitable part of life and social living. We need them so we can combat suffering and injustice. We need them so we can make the world a better place for all. We need them so we can all live long and prosper.
Passionate calls to and for action are crucial to every major social change in our society. We need Gretas, so we take notice of problems, and we need Davids, so we can understand and tackle the problems. Unfortunately, we allow demagogues, salespeople and politicians to manipulate us with their one-liners and misleading promises. We are, overwhelmingly, impulsive shoppers and unaware consumers—not just of products and services but also of information—and it does not bode well for us and most of our fellow creatures.
Gretas can talk to us on the same emotional level that prompts us to buy miracle anti-wrinkle cream and magic dog training collars. But there is an important difference: Gretas have Davids behind them to back up their enthusiasm with solid scientific data. Sometimes they are even the same person.
Traditional Dog Training Methods Are Still Causing Suffering and Distress and It Needs to Stop
teenager I wanted to scream from the rooftops, just like Greta, about
environmental destruction, about animal abuse, about social injustice. These
days, I have more than my passion to add. I have made a career in animal
welfare and while my focus is on dog training and behaviour, my work is
relevant to community safety and human welfare.
While trying to help dogs and their people, I have witnessed the fallout from traditional training methods and equipment. The lack of change in dog training, and in animal welfare in general—despite decades of research and a heightened awareness of animal sentience—is maddening. At times I want to be a Greta and vent my frustration in a passionate speech to the world: Why are we still forcing animals to do what we want by making them fear us and causing them pain and distress? Why don’t we have better laws to protect animals and send offenders to jail instead of letting them off with petty fines for animal cruelty? Why do governments continue to show knee-jerk reactions to dog bites, such as discriminatory and entirely useless breed-specific legislation, instead of being proactive with community education programs on animal welfare and safety? Why are aggressive dogs labelled “vicious” instead of being recognised as victims? The list goes on.
Despite the frustrating state of things, I have to be more of a David than a Greta, at least in my work. I don’t change people’s minds with emotional pleas but by showing them a better way to solve their problems and achieve their goals. The ones who insist on using force—despite the known fallout from coercion, despite the risk for the animal and the wider community and despite having learned about force-free alternatives—are the ones who will be left behind.
Population Growth Increases the Risk for Aggression in Dogs and People, so Let’s Act Fast and Make a Better Future
Human societies have survived and prospered because of their ability to change and adapt. But now we have to change faster. We don’t have the luxury of space anymore. We are increasingly crammed together in urban communities and the risk of conflict is rising. With an ever growing number of people and domestic animals, complaints and confrontations become more likely and more acrimonious and mental health problems affect humans and other animals alike. We need to take care of ourselves but we also need to treat our animals kindly and with respect. A stressed dog is a much higher bite risk than a dog who is allowed to make choices and feels safe and happy because of it.
We can all be
Davids and Gretas and play a role in facilitating change, no matter how
seemingly small the contribution. A conversation at a dog park, a casual
comment, a friendly suggestion is all that may be required to set a person and
their dog on the path to success and away from tools and techniques which cause
pain, fear and frustration.
The change in dog training is already here but it is not happening fast enough. This is why we need many more Davids and many more Gretas. You can be part of the change.
I very rarely eat ice cream, but if I do, it’s always vanilla. Years ago, I read somewhere that my generation was addicted to vanilla because there was vanilla flavouring in pretty much everything we ate or drank as babies. Not sure, if that’s a myth, but to me, vanilla tops any other flavour, including those with mouth-watering names such as chocolate chip cookie dough or new age vibes like keto kefir coconut.
There is nothing plain about plain vanilla. It’s tasty.
It’s uncomplicated. It works.
Transparency is Lost in the Battle for Newest and Sexiest
You’d think we don’t have to change something that works, but humans never stop in their quest for new and better things. And that’s great, of course. Think new technology which can make our planet and our lives healthier and safer. On the other hand, the constant churning out of new products, services and ideas isn’t always about making things better, let alone the betterment of humankind. Instead, we need new products and services to make our economy tick over. Business relies on it, marketing tells us we need it and we happily consume it. And, if forest bathing, pet jewellery or garlic ice cream makes us happy, then that should be a good thing.
Problems start when the colourful marketing and tempting promises lure us to buy a product or service which subsequently doesn’t deliver or even causes harm. Competition also means that established products and services may get thrown under the bus for no other reason than being considered “dated”, unless someone discovers that the “old stuff” actually worked really well, dusts it off, applies a new coat and sells it again.
What is lost in all of this is transparency. What exactly
does a product or service give us for our money? If we peel away the layers of
spin, which target us on an emotional level, what is it that remains?
Finding the Plain Vanilla of a Product or Service Gives Us the Power to Choose Wisely
The “gourmet wild-caught salmon terrine with baby garden
peas and turmeric sprinkle” may make our mouths water, but the cat doesn’t even
care that the mush in the sachet is the stuff that was swept off the floor at
the close of the wholesale market. Falling for appetitive labelling rather than
reaching for the generic “cat food with fish” item on the supermarket shelf usually
results in nothing more than a slightly higher price tag, so no harm done.
But if the boot camp operator guarantees to turn our dog
into the “perfect family member” in just a few weeks, if the doggy day care staff
assure us their experience in dog training results in “better behaved” and not
just tired dogs, if the behavioural trainer talks about “relaxation exercises”
and wants to “improve our relationship with our dog”, we need to ask a lot more
questions. What exactly do these people do to change our dog’s behaviour?
Just like a plain vanilla version of the delicious sounding cat food is protein, fats and carbohydrates, we can find a simple explanation behind getting a “better behaved” dog: Behaviour change via operant conditioning.
The Plain Vanilla Mechanisms Behind Behaviour Change are Operant and Respondent Conditioning
The most used category of animal learning in dog training is behaviour modification by consequences (aka operant conditioning). The dog is likely to repeat a certain behaviour in the future in a similar context, if it has resulted in a consequence they consider positive. Equally, they are likely to avoid doing things in the future which have resulted in something they consider negative.
The dog also associates positive or negative emotions with people, other animals, things or events which are present or occur in the environment whenever they experience something they consider negative or positive. This is in fact the second relevant category of animal learning (aka respondent conditioning) and it always comes along for the ride, if we invite it or not.
The questions we need to ask before we buy is: Does the product or service provider intend to change our dog’s behaviour by providing positive or negative consequences and what emotional associations might our dogs form with us, other people, other dogs or anything else in their environment as a result of this?
If Language Blocks Us from Making Good Choices, We Need to Ask Questions
Right now, dog training products and services are still
heavily geared towards providing negative consequences to stop the dog
from doing whatever they are doing and it taps into our cultural acceptance
that “bad behaviour” should be punished. What it ignores entirely is that the “bad”
behaviour we see in our dogs is usually perfectly normal dog behaviour (i.e. we
are punishing the dog for being a dog)
but also that it may not even be under the dog’s voluntary control (i.e.
despite negative consequences the dog is simply not capable of changing their
The problem is, especially now that positive reinforcement training (i.e. providing positive consequences for behaviour) is slowly but firmly gaining followers, we are not always told that the goal is to punish our dog’s behaviour or that a specific product or method causes negative emotions in our dogs, let alone the potentially devastating fallout from this approach. So the language we may encounter carefully avoids going into the nuts and bolts of the mechanism that causes behaviour change.
Being a “better leader” does not stop our dog from lunging and
barking at the other dog and neither does a “training collar”. Instead, yanking
the dog by the collar, using a commanding voice or sending an electric shock through
the training collar and into the dog’s neck is what might achieve the change in
behaviour, as long as it frightens or hurts our dog enough to override the urge
to go for the other dog. And that only, if our dog has enough voluntary control
over their actions to begin with.
On the other hand, a trainer or product may appeal to us because they sound modern and “new agey”. Taking a holistic approach, strengthening the bond with our dog and creating a calming environment may well be part of the overall approach, but it still doesn’t tell us how the intended behaviour change occurs. Having a good relationship with the dog does not stop the dog from lunging and barking any more than “being a good leader” does but providing positive consequences for an alternative behaviour might.
Or maybe the trainer proposes a different plan? Rather than focussing on providing positive consequences for behaviour (i.e. operant conditioning) we attempt to create positive emotions with whatever causes the dog’s behaviour (i.e. respondent conditioning). And—lo and behold—the dog’s behaviour changes as a side effect of changed emotions! Yes, such is the power, and interwovenness, of operant and respondent conditioning. It works both ways.
Transparency and Simplicity for the Win, Now and in the Future
The gist of all this is that we need to be smart consumers and not only for the sake of our dogs, but for all dogs and everyone who loves, lives and works with dogs. Once we understand how behaviour change is achieved, we can evaluate what a product of service provider is offering and choose the one which is transparent and puts our dog’s welfare first. And if the trainer advocates a different or “new” method, we can question the mechanism of behaviour change.
Of course, research never stops. It will increase our understanding of how animals, including our dogs, perceive and interact with the world, why they behave the way they do and how they learn. In time, it may well modify our current knowledge and practises or extend them. Right now, we have all we need to teach our dogs useful skills, help them form positive associations with the world they live in and make them happy.
And let’s not forget: Apart from operant and respondent conditioning, there is an even simpler way to change behaviour: We can manipulate the dog’s environment and add or remove things. After all, if there’s no dog to set them off, our dog has no reason to go berserk. Just like a puppy, who only has access to their own toys, is not going to shred our pillows. Management of the dog’s environment to influence their behaviour (sometimes referred to as antecedent arrangement) may be the plainest vanilla of all.
This post is part of the Train 4 Rewards Blog Party thanks to Companion Animal Psychology.
Minimalism is back in fashion. If you have been swept up by the latest decluttering movement, I do hope you stopped short of throwing out your dog’s toys. It sure feels good to let go of stuff, but do not expect your pooch to share your enthusiasm. Dogs do get attached to things. Some dogs get attached a lot.
Have you seen it in your dog? The body freeze when you approach, the hovering stance to shield the valued possession, the menacing glance from the corner of their eye. Did you think you could whisk that limp old bunny away from your dog, assuming it was worthless after having been thoroughly destuffed? Maybe your dog thought otherwise and—sensing your treachery as your fingers angled for the guarded treasure—promptly let out a growl?
Congratulations, if you have found liberation from hoarding by convincing yourself to let go of things. Your dog, however, will only become fiercer in their guarding with each of your attempts to pry things from their jaws or paws. They don’t feel liberated. They feel robbed!
When Letting Go of Things No Longer Means Loss, Your Dog Has No Reason to Guard Them
to important stuff (primarily: food, mates, a place to rest), even defending—or
guarding—them aggressively, helped
our dogs’ ancestors to survive and make more wolf babies, so no surprise the
trait is still around. But despite the genetic link, it is possible to teach your
wolf-in-a-dog-skin to no longer guard
the things they value.
If you are worried about your dog’s behaviour, and especially if it goes beyond playing keep away and maybe a little growl here and there, I strongly recommend you work with a competent trainer. Not the type that tells you to be more of a “boss”, but someone who actually understands the process of desensitisation & counterconditioning. Someone who knows that positive reinforcement is the method of choice for the modern dog trainer, not overpowering and intimidation. They will assist you with a step-by-step protocol until your dog no longer feels worried about losing things of value.
For less serious cases there is another pathway which you can pursue. It involves teaching your dog to release things from their jaws on cue (e.g. “drop it”, “give”) and to refrain from picking something up (“leave it”). Both are very useful behaviours for any dog and are also a good add-on to the more stringent protocol for serious guarding cases. If you are diligent in your training, the desensitisation & counterconditioning required to change your dog’s guarding behaviour will come along for the ride.
Learning a behaviour with positive reinforcement has the very convenient side-effect of creating positive emotions in your dog: Emotions not only associated with the learned behaviour, but also the context of the learning experience and the person involved—you!
If your dog is a guarder, you want them to learn that relinquishing or forgoing a prized possession no longer equates to loss. To achieve that, you have to make it worth their while and return their temporary “sacrifice” with interest, i.e. a big fat—usually edible—bonus.
“Leave & Let Go”: Two Behaviours for the Goal of Trust
If you have one of those dogs who love to chase a tennis ball but are reluctant to let go of it, you have already witnessed the conflict that is tormenting your dog: They love it when you throw the ball, but they won’t give it to you. And, if you try to pick it up, they’ll beat you to it!
Some people opt for the easy solution of carrying two tennis balls. That’s fine, if the dog actually drops a ball to chase another. And, if they don’t learn to stuff two or more balls into their mouth, including one they pinched from another dog, and run off. Managing your dog’s guarding behaviour can be a workable solution, but it doesn’t help your dog one bit with resolving their emotional conflict.
To get your
dog to willingly spit out whatever they hold in their jaws, you need your dog
to trust you. Trust simply means that your dog has learned that good things
come from you, if they let go. During “let go” training, they not only get the
surrendered treasure back, but they get a sizable bonus on top of it. It’s a
bit like spending $20 on a lottery ticket and then winning a holiday for two in
Bali. Not bad, hey?
Your dog thinks so too. Or more precisely: dogs understand value. However, to let go of 20 bucks is not as easy for some as it is for others. If $20 aka a tennis ball is too much for your dog to part with, then a ¢50 rubber duck may be your starting point. Of course, the value of the item is not what you spent at the shops, but the value your dog attaches to it. To another dog your dog’s ¢50 rubber duck may be a treasure worth fighting tooth and nail for.
A Game of Tug: The Perfect Start for Learning to Let Go
Tug is a fun and high energy game. And, it is a good
opportunity to teach your dog to let go of something. Here is how I do it:
As you play the game, randomly—but not too often (you want to have a fun game with your dog after all)—say your let go cue (e.g. “let go”, “give”, “drop it”, whatever you like) in a cheerful voice. Then, immediately put both hands over as much of the tug toy as you can and quickly pull it between your knees (so you can clamp it tight). Hold completely still until you feel your dog’s jaws soften their grip (it will happen eventually, just wait silently and do not move; do not repeat your cue). Praise your dog and—as soon as the toy is released—resume the game.
It is a good idea to also teach a “take it” cue or similar. Restart the game after giving the cue, but only if your dog does not lunge at the toy in your hand. One second of being patient is enough to begin with. That way your dog learns not to rip toys or other items out of human hands without invitation.
There are other, less physical ways to teach letting go, for example offering a treat after you say the cue. I prefer the above version, precisely because it is physical and because it keeps the game going. The tug game itself is the dog’s reinforcement for releasing the toy. However, each case warrants its own variation and fine-tuning, so decide what works best for you and your dog.
Over several games, you should notice that the dog starts releasing the toy faster and faster once they hear the cue. You can then start practising with other non- or lowly-guarded items, e.g. the ¢50 rubber duck. Gradually work your way from holding the item in your hand to letting your dog have possession of it before you give the cue. Reinforce the dog for letting go with a super yummy treat or throw the item (or another item), if that’s what your dog prefers, or both.
Important points to remember when teaching your dog to let go:
Never rip the item out of your dog’s jaws
If your dog doesn’t let go on cue, leave them alone and practise more with lower value items first. Also, adjust your hand position (and eventually your distance to the dog) to make it easier or harder for the dog to surrender the item (holding and touching the item with your hand is easier; being further away is harder).
avoid using a “commanding” voice when you give the cue
Dog training is not about threatening your dog with your tone of voice. It’s about building an association between the cue, the dog’s behaviour and what follows (in this case: reinforcement by resuming play or giving a treat). And, dog training is about consistent repetitions of carefully defined steps.
Use fabulous food for reinforcement
Food is still widely underused in dog training, and that although it is the easiest, most convenient and efficient reinforcement there is. It works for all dogs, because all dogs have to eat. Please don’t be one of those people who deprive their dogs of tasty food. Be generous and your dog will be happier and enthusiastically take part in whatever training task you give them.
Refrain and You Will Gain: Teach Your Dog the Value of Not Approaching or Touching Something
It would be an odd thing, if a dog snubbed freely available food within their reach. I’d assume they must have just eaten a massive meal (that wouldn’t be reason enough for many dogs, though!) or they are sick, stressed or anxious. Or, they have been asked to leave it alone.
Your dog can learn not to approach something, if—just like letting go—you make it worth their while. After you’ve taught them not to touch food, you can extend it to anything you want your dog to stay away from: The glass jar you just smashed on the floor, a person doing Tai Chi at the local park, even the cat next door.
Again, it is
important to proceed in steps that allow the dog to succeed. Repeatedly placing
food on the floor in front of the dog and saying “Leave it” may not be the best
start, if your dog keeps going for it. Not only do they hear a cue over and
over again, without forming an association with the behaviour of “leaving it” (which erodes the cue), but you risk
frustrating your dog because you keep putting food in front of them but don’t
let them have it.
Additionally, if you make it so hard for the dog that they keep “failing”, you may get frustrated too and blame the dog rather than your training approach. Before you know it, you are back to using a stern voice, or worse, and make your dog and yourself even more stressed. And that’s no longer positive reinforcement training. It’s not really training at all.
So, start easy. Avoid using the cue until your dog has learned the behaviour of “leaving it”. The protocol I follow (which I learned at The Academy for Dog Trainers) starts with food in a closed hand and reinforces the dog for a mere 1-second of not trying to get to the food. Just one second of impulse control and the dog gets the food. It sets your dog up for success and keeps them happy and engaged.
Have a Go, Take Your Time, Have Fun
If you are keen on DIY and your dog’s aggressive behaviour is not severe, give it a go. Even then, you may find consulting with a good dog trainer can point you in the right direction and save you some time.
Most importantly: Have a plan, i.e. a breakdown of how you are going to teach your dog the desired behaviours, take it one step at a time and have fun. Celebrate intermediate successes and generously reward your dog—and yourself!—for the effort.
Finally, here is Sebastian. He became more and more possessive over his tennis balls during adolescence. Although his growling was mostly directed at other dogs, he also grabbed the ball and ran whenever a human tried to pick it up. After a couple of weeks teaching “give” and “leave it”, going to the off-leash park has become a lot more fun again.