Make love not war

drawing of hand giving peace signDespite all the evidence indicating that aggressive, intimidating handling can lead to heightened aggressive responses in dogs, there are still people, dog trainers among them, who will insist that unless we use overwhelming punishment or coercion with an aggressive dog (who may be aggressive because they are scared, even if it doesn’t look or feel like it to us), we are doing the dogs of the planet a disservice. I hear it all the time, my carrying the banner of reward-based training leads to dead dogs. Yes, dead dogs. They are dead because ‘cookie tossing’ trainers (as they are disparagingly called) failed to change the behavior of an aggressive dog. The premise being that if only someone had punished the mean out of the dog they’d have ended up with a tail wagging, happy, compliant, pet dog. This is akin to saying that because one doctor failed to cure a disease and the patient ultimately died, that all doctors who attended the same med school would have also been unsuccessful . There are great doctors, and those who are less so. There are also some diseases which can safely and effectively be cured, others not, and those that will require lifetime management.

We know, from studies of rats, and remember that mammalian brains have a lot in common, that if male rats are injected with oxytocin, the hormone responsible for making us feel all warm and fuzzy about someone, or something, they are less likely to behave aggressively and attack rat pups sired by other males. The more oxtyocin, the less aggression. Toss in some of the ‘yippee I won!’ neurotransmitter dopamine, and you have an animal who is feeling right with the world. Being as clever as we are, we can manipulate other humans and animals in our lives to do exactly what we want by increasing the odds that they’ll experience the feelings associated with either or both oxytocin and dopamine. Marketing research is based on figuring out how to do this. When it comes to our dogs it’s pretty darn easy. Even if a dog were to be strongly concerned with their place in a social hierarchy, a hierarchy which exists to ensure access to resources, they are out of their league when it comes to competing with humans. And don’t think they don’t know this.

The primary resources animals establish hierarchies for are food and mates. We control both. We either limit our dog’s access to mates, or remove their ability to mate using surgery. And until they can sort out how to stock and open a refrigerator, they are dependent on us for food, and don’t think they don’t realize this either. Animals can and do change their behavior to get what they need. Animals who have not been compromised by trauma or abuse will do so readily. Those who display debilitating levels of fear and/or aggression will have a harder time. We can make it easier for them by helping them to ‘feel’ better, to get oxytocin and dopamine flowing. We can do this using food and other rewards.

Just because someone has not developed the relationship or ability to motivate a dog to behave appropriately without force, coercion or punishment, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And because someone may have had success using force to get the compliance they were after does not make it the best means to an end.

There is still time to make a donation to help the people helping the animals. Your donation is tax deductible and will be matched, a twofer!

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7 comments so far

  1. Jen on

    I’ve heard the “dead dogs” argument, because many coercive trainers hawking their trade feel that training that uses food rewards is entirely permissive. “No collar corrections” doesn’t mean a dog can do whatever she wants; I know that, you know that. I also know that, frequently, ignoring a behavior says to Elka “hey, that means I can keep going, right?” and redirection is of the utmost importance!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Behaviors increase because they are rewarded, whether we approve of them or not. If a behavior increases when it is ‘ignored’ then it is being rewarded or is rewarding to the dog. Redirection is about interrupting inappropriate behavior and teaching the dog an equally or moreso rewarding incompatible behavior to replace it.

      Behaviors are ignored if it is our attention to the behavior and response to it that are providing the reward. If we ignore it long enough, and therefore cease rewarding it we should see an extinction of the unwanted behavior.

      Knowing what is rewarding to the dog is important in both instances. Teaching a new behavior OR waiting for extinction are both methods for achieving the behaviors we want.

      • KellyK on

        That’s a really good point. Ignoring begging for food is probably really likely to work, because the dog is trying to get a response from you, like getting you to share that tasty sandwich. (Heck, I even used extinction to get my cats to be waaay less whiny at meal times, and they’re not nearly as eager to please as your average dog.) Ignoring self-reinforcing behavior (barking, counter-surfing, cat-chasing) doesn’t help, because the reward doesn’t come from you.

        I think there are also times where you can reward part of a behavior to get it to stop before it becomes annoying. Like thanking the dog for an alert bark, tossing them a treat, and then making a show of going and looking out the door. They know they got your attention and you checked out the situation (oh, and they’re eating, so they physically can’t keep barking), so they don’t need to keep doing it. (At least that’s the theory…I haven’t successfully implemented it, but we’re working on it. Diamond does seem to chill when I very calmly go out and look to see what she’s barking at.)

  2. KellyK on

    Yeah, I think that’s a misunderstanding. Positive training doesn’t mean no consequences, dog can do whatever it wants. It just means you don’t hurt or scare the dog. There’s still redirection, time outs, extinction, teaching different behaviors–all kinds of ways to make unwanted behavior stop.

    Heck, just removing a reward can be helpful. The other night, I was unsuccessful in convincing Diamond and Reba that the marrow bone I gave the other dog was not magically better than the one they had. So, I just picked up both bones. Eventually, I’m hoping that they’ll figure out that if they steal treats from the other, instead of having *two* treats, they end up with *zero* treats.

    I also think the “dead dog” thing is unfair because to keep an aggressive dog from being put down, a training method doesn’t just have to work, it has to work before something bad happens. And while there are reasonable expectations for how long it might take to train a dog to do a specific thing, there’s no timeframe on “scared dog bites someone.” That could happen at any time. So Trainer X might have been a lousy trainer and not made the progress that was needed *or* they might have made great progress in the week or two that they had before the dog bit someone, and a different training style might not have made any difference.

    • KellyK on

      I broke this into two posts because I was getting verbose, but one thing I think is really important to point out is that scared dogs can often look “compliant” and “submissive.” But if you ignore the fact that what you’re doing is stressing them out and scaring them, they could certainly feel like they have to defend themselves.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Good points Kelly. We never ‘forget’ that something really scared us. We can change our response to it, but as you say, there’s no timeframe on when a dog is scared enough to bite.

  3. fearfuldogs on

    One of the reasons rewarding an inappropriate behavior works to stop it, counter to what we believe should happen, is that we are probably addressing the dog’s emotional response to the situation. Dog is upset and barking. We reward dog with attention or treats and the upset ‘feeling’ diminishes and barking decreases.

    Many get caught up in the behavior they can see and forget that there’s an emotion driving the behavior. Address the emotion and the behavior is likely to change.


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