Changing our brains to help change our dogs’

image of earth from spaceMy contention has always been that if we can change the way that we think about fear based behaviors in dogs, the way we handle them will change as well.

A trainer friend shared with me her experience with an owner who did not believe that dogs experienced emotions and was reluctant to use food rewards to help train and modify the dog’s behavior. We don’t have enough hands to tie behind our backs when we think in this way about dogs.

It’s surprising to think that there are still people who are unwilling to acknowledge the emotional kaleidoscope that dogs (and other animals) experience. It reminds me of people who did not believe that the earth was round. The reality that dogs are emotional is apparent in their behavioral responses, if you know what to look for. Still skeptical? Check out the research being done in brain science. The roundness of our planet was also apparent to some who knew what to look for. The fact that some didn’t believe that the earth was round, did not change the fact that it was. Certainly there were sailors for whom this may have required a leap of faith, but experience showed them that they did not have to worry about dropping off the edge of the ocean, even before there were satellite images.

There are trainers who refuse to acknowledge that the emotional stability a dog is able to achieve is not due to the trainer’s superb handling skills, but is rooted in early developmental processes. I am not implying that we cannot help dogs achieve emotional stability or that skill is not involved, but that it often requires a drastic change in the management of the animal to provide the optimal set of stimuli for this to occur. Dogs that are able to positively change their behavior are held up as proof of the validity of certain training techniques (namely flooding) while the dogs that do not improve are labeled in a way which implicates the dog for its lack of success, the dog is ‘too far gone’, for example. Pet owners are also held responsible when dominance or flooding based techniques are not successful.

In a perfect world all dogs would have the opportunity to live a safe and happy life regardless of their emotional and behavioral challenges. In a perfect world we’d work with these dogs to increase their confidence and provide them with skills that allow them to be successful in an environment created to allow them to flourish and change, whatever that looks like a particular dog. In a perfect world we’d all understand that while we don’t run the risk of falling off the edge of the planet, there are edges we can push dogs over that can send them plummeting into the abyss of restraint, aggression and ultimately death. And when they go there, remember who gave them the shove.

Debbie Jacobs is the creator of the fearfuldogs.com website and author of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog.

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9 comments so far

  1. honeysjourney on

    Not only fear based dogs, but if we can change the way that we think about behaviors in all dogs, the way we handle them will change as well.

    As recently as last Friday while at the kennel socializing the fearful ones I came upon a kenneled medium sized mix breed male 7 months old with a big red sign on the door, Bite Quarantine, imagine that a 7 month old untrained dog biting. When I asked for information on him, I was told “he’s to be euthanized at owners request, a legal issue” Nothing could be done to save this puppy from being KILLED.

    A young dog, untrained and most likely pushed over the edge at some point, gone.

    To some people, the world is still flat.

  2. Kristine on

    One of the reasons I liked positive reinforcement training so much was that it acknowledged the idea that dogs experience emotions. I’d always thought so myself before but so many experts had told me otherwise that I stopped believing it. There are a lot of erroneous concepts just accepted as fact because that’s just the way some people have always done things. But that is what science is about, finding new ways, discovering new ideas, realising the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun. One hundred years from now I am sure many of the things we currently take for granted will be ridiculed by future scientists. Hopefully this old fashioned view of dogs and their behaviour will be long gone by then as well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hang on…you mean we are not the center of the universe 😉

  3. Lizzie on

    If dogs were not emotional beings then none of them would be fearful, happy, nervous, bold, over confident, aggressive, shy, timid etc would they?? Surely they would just be bland animals incapable of relating to humans in the way that only dogs can.

    There are also those who still think that dogs do not feel pain!!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is remarkable Lizzie. There is even a Flat Earth Society, which is raising money for an animal rescue group this winter. That’s nice.

  4. Sue on

    Anyone who doesn’t think that dogs have emotions should have spent last week with my little puppy mill girl. When i come home from work, Poppy smiles with delight.She jumps around and smiles, showing her teeth. Its the lovliest thing to see, after her 6 years of breeding hell. However, if i move too quickly to stroke her, she flees in terror. Last week i fostered a little abused dog, Sophie, for 4 days. Poppy spent a lot of time just sitting with her head down. She wouldnt come for a cuddle when the other little dog was near me.
    When Sophie went to live with her new Mum on Saturday, Poppy was like a different dog. Happy,running round the garden, full of life, coming for cuddles, enjoying her walks again.
    In that week, we had a lot of different emotions. I wish i could have filmed it all..it would have made interesting viewing.
    For me, if anyone doesn’t think their dog has emotions, then they are not looking hard enough.

  5. Gunnar on

    Boy isn’t that the truth.


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