Fear & anger are shocking enough!

timid dog grinning at vet

Do you know what this dog is saying? Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe KS

The use of punishment, of any kind, for cases of fear and aggression is contraindicated, meaning the risk of making the situation worse is greater than potential benefit. The idea that you can slap someone across the face and have them come to their senses is the stuff of old movies. Try it with a person and then be ready to duck while you’re waiting to hear, “Gee thanks I needed that,” when instead they take swing back at you.

If a shock collar or other means of punishment is needed to interrupt a commonly occurring problem behavior the solution begins by keeping a dog out of any situation in which the behavior is likely to be displayed. Changing responses, especially responses that are the result of an overwhelming emotion, is slow going. So while it is possible to manage a dog’s behavior using punishment*, the emotional response does not go away and may intensify. A dog that has been managed with positive punishment around its triggers** often will, when given the chance (and these chances occur more than we’d like), revert back to his original response to the trigger.

Studies that looked at anger and violent behavior in children found that kids exposed to violence or trauma themselves are more prone to angry outbursts or have what we’d call ‘short fuses’. The reason lies in the very real changes that occur in brains that have to process fear, pain and trauma.

Few would argue that it makes sense to punish a dog that is cowering and hiding. The problem arises when the dog’s response looks less like fear and more like anger. While we may never know exactly how a dog might discriminate between their emotions, punishing a dog that is behaving aggressively because they are afraid, doesn’t make sense either.

I know how it feels to be on the other end of the leash with a dog that is doing its best to imitate Cujo, and the emotional rush I get does little to help me remain calm and think rationally. I want the behavior to stop and may also be scared or angry and my ‘gut’ response is to just get the dog to ‘KNOCK IT OFF!’. This is only a stop gap measure, for permanent positive change to occur I have to work with the dog, get the dog to draw on her own resources and internal controls, rather than continually having to control her outbursts myself.

When upset or aroused, anything which adds stimulation to the dog’s experience can backfire.

Here’s a story about a man who killed another man because of their dogs’ tangled leashes. According to the story, what appears to have been the final trigger that led to the fatal stabbing occurred when the victim put his hand on the other man’s wife’s arm, in way, which as it is described, was nonviolent and nonthreatening. But the fellow with the knife was upset. He was angry and already aroused due to the previous interactions he had. Surely he ‘knew’ that using violence against someone was wrong, he’d been punished for it in the past (served jail time). Yet one man had his throat slashed and another was killed. Why? Because a couple of little dogs got their leashes tangled? Doesn’t make sense does it?

And that is the point. Sense was not involved.

In order for our dogs to learn what it is we are trying to teach them they need to be able to ‘make sense’ of what is happening to them. An upset, over threshold dog has a hard time seeing the dots we’ve laid out for them, never mind connecting them. But herein lies the beauty of working with dogs. If we don’t want our dogs out barhopping at midnight, it’s easy to control that.

If we are going to change behaviors which are based on powerful emotional responses we have to work on changing the emotional response in order to guarantee, with any kind of success, that the alternate behavior we want will be reliable. Classical counter conditioning and desensitization are effective and safe techniques to use for making this happen.

Having reasonable expectations for our dog’s behavior is important. The reasons for their fear may be such that they are not easily modified. Medication can help the process along with desensitization and counter conditioning, but in the end a dog might always prefer the life of a country mouse.

How much an owner is willing or able to modify their dog’s environment is a component of how successful a dog can become. A dog can be walked during quieter hours of the day or night and they don’t have to join their owner in the pet shop. Strangers or other dogs can be kept away.

It takes time and energy to change the behavior of a fearful or reactive dog. Just because we can put a device on a dog to control their behavior, doesn’t mean that we should. The best controller of a dog’s behavior is the dog herself. Together with our dogs we can help them gain the skills and confidence to navigate their world so we can both enjoy ourselves when we’re out in it.

*Punishment is any consequence that makes it less likely for a behavior to be repeated. Positive punishment refers to ‘adding’ something to the situation, like a collar jerk, a shout, or hit. Negative punishment refers to the ‘taking away’ of something to stop the unwanted behavior, for example a dog that resource guards its owner learns that the owner gets up and leave whenever the guarding behavior occurs.

**The things that cause the dog to behave in a way that appears to be fearful or aggressive

This post was written in connection with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign which has some great prizes available this week. Check it out!

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19 comments so far

  1. Mary Doane on

    Excellent post, Deb. Your words ring in my head daily as I work with mr. foster dog. It is all so very true and I’ve noticed that very, very slow and methodical counter conditioning has made a huge difference. And, also something that Barrie Lynn and I were talking about today, and that is a quote from Bob Bailey:

    “The point: don’t allow yourself to get carried away by your anxious emotional state, and do what you have to do to promote in your animal calm emotional states as judged by the animal’s behavior…”

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Terrific post, Debbie. Thanks so much for your ongoing work in the Never Shock a Puppy campaign.

  3. Kenzo_HW on

    Liked you comparison a lot with the dispute between the two men. We over-analyze dog behavior like dogs are some kind of machine. I give you this and the outcome should be that. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense, like with people. Thats why it is “behavior” and not “robotics” science.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting. And because our mammalian brains are so similar it’s possible to make correlations between our behavior and theirs. Unfortunately our methods for dealing with aberrant behavior in people are not much better most of the time. Punishment doesn’t always work.

  4. empire of the dog on

    THANKS so much for this. I’ve been looking for links to amass and use to send to clients I’m working with to help them understand and get some “buy in” to R+ and D&CC for aggression. It’s difficult when the bulk of what they read and see popularized in the media is antiquated and confrontation. This gets put on the list!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you very much for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m glad the blog and fearfuldogs.com website will be of help to your clients. It is time that popular dog training entered the 21st century!

  5. Lizzie on

    Very relevant post Debbie.

    I find that the hardest part in dealing with Gracie, who is so reactive when outside, is the speed with which she does react to a trigger. Even before my brain has chance to register she can have moved so quickly that the only way I can respond is with the adrenalin that immediately starts pumping. That sickening feeling you get in your stomach, your heart racing, the sweat beginning to form on your top lip. It is very difficult to remain calm and in control when instincts are fighting with your ability to think. And that’s just me, imagine what Gracie is going through!

    All that and sometimes I am not even aware of what it was that triggered her in the first place. She not only reacts to visual stimuli bit noise and scents as well.

    This is why we don’t go very far from home 😦

    • fearfuldogs on

      And the fact of the matter is that Gracie is probably very happy not going far from home. And if that’s what it takes to make a dog feel better, it’s easy enough, though maybe not as satisfying for us. We often want our dogs to discover the wonders and joys of being out in the world.

  6. thelittlebeardogblog on

    Excellent post. Clear, concise and from both ends of the leash!

    Having a fear aggressive/reactive dog can be super stressful so I totally empathise. Keeping calm and remembering that he’s afraid not angry or mean is also really hard, especially as I find that after an ‘outburst’ every other dog I see is impeccably trotting to heel not opening its mouth!

    I try and imagine it now like he’s crying and getting upset. Instead of saying ‘LB was a real nightmare today’ I try ‘LB got really upset today’. It’s a work in progress so no idea how helpful it will turn out to be but it’s helping to remind me to see the situation differently and that helps with the embarrassment factor and my stress levels.

  7. Lorie Huston on

    Thank you for this excellent post, Debbie. So many people don’t realize that more often than not, a reactive dog is a frightened dog. Too many assume that the dog is aggressive and needs strict discipline, when what the dog really needs, as you so nicely pointed out, is confidence and a feeling of safety.

  8. Mary Haight on

    Thanks so much Debbie for this smart, useful post! I loved how you put the cultural predilection for using hands for punishment in terms everybody understands. It should be really enlightening for those who still think it’s okay to hit dogs for correction.

  9. georgia little pea on

    dear ms debbie,

    i wonder if you might be able to help me.

    lately, i’ve started getting very anxious and react badly in crowds. the last time was just yesterday at our local Dogs Day Out. my humans think i am reacting to other dogs rather than people. i’m good with dogs i know and when there are just a few of us. i lunge at dogs i don’t know, especially when i’m on the leash and in crowds.

    i was adopted from a pound about 18 months ago and was quite anxious in the beginning but improved and became very sociable over the months. i am just about 2 now and seem to be getting MORE fearful AGAIN. my humans are very worried.

    they have been trying to find some useful reading here on your blog and wonder if you might point them to some pertinent posts/articles here or elsewhere.

    we would be grateful for your advice. thank you. yours truly, georgia.

  10. Debbie on

    I’d start by keeping Georgia out of situations in which she is likely to be reactive. If you go to the never shock a puppy website you will find a blog by boulderdog in which she talks about using Leslie mcdevitt’s protocol from Control Unleashed to work with her dog. We change the emotional response by working with our dogs while they are subthreshold enough to be able to think & focus on us while we also teach new behavioral responses.

    • Debbie on

      I should also mention that if you have not yet read The Cautious Canine it’s a good foundation read.

      • georgia little pea on

        thank you so much! georgia was surprisingly good and relaxed today. i took her on-leash to an off-leash park and kept her on while other dogs came up to her. she knows quite a few of them so maybe that made a difference. she was interested and friendly – huge difference from our Dogs Day Out experience. i have been teaching her the word “relax” and eye-focus and used that plus treats.

        took her to another park to play off-leash after that and she was good even when OTHER dogs started squabbling!

        am taking lots of notice of her behaviour to keep her sub-threshhold. thank you again. we really appreciate your advice and will check out your recommendations.

        : ) georgia’s stay-at-home human.

  11. melfr99 on

    Great post Debbie. I can so relate to all of this.

    I just had to let a client go because her dog seemed to be getting worse on our dog walks, not better. His trigger? Other dogs. My belief is that he was reacting more to his sister’s reaction (fearful) to other dogs (He only seemed to react to another dog when she took it to another level) and to the use of a shock collar.

    We tried BAT, which worked on him, but not on her. We also tried treats and “watch me”, but she often would ignore the treats and keep barking while he payed attention to me. I was making progress with him, but I believe the downward slide started when mom decided to start using shock collars on both of them.

    Suddenly, he started reacting much more aggressively when he saw other dogs. The last walk was the worst. He was so over the top in his emotional response that I feared if I touched him I would get bit. I was even afraid he would bite me as I led him away. You know that kind of aggression that some dogs can get when they just react with a bite, not because they intended to bite you, but because they are so out of their head with their emotional response that they just lash out at anything? This was what I experienced.

    I had the opportunity to walk with the mom just prior to me quitting, and I was saddened to see that she was using a shock collar and that she was shocking the female at all the wrong moments (if you can call shocking a dog at the right moment a good thing). She was waiting way too long after the trigger and she was shocking at practically everything. Clearly the dog was confused. It explains her stress whenever I walked her and we ran into other dogs.

    I believe the owner was also using the collar on the male. So unnecessary. He didn’t need it. He was just reacting to his sister’s stress and the shock collar. I would have tried to stay on to work it out, but it became too much of a liability for me. The funny thing is, there was a week where both went to doggy daycare. Guess who was the life of the party and played well with other dogs? The male. The female was a wallflower the whole time. The owner was surprised. I was not.

    Just a real-life experience of how shocking a dog can really backfire. I fear he will be euthanized before his time because of the methods she was using with him. 😦

  12. Debbie on

    What a sad unnecessary saga. Must be very hard for you. I think I remember you talking about these dogs.


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