When Control Becomes a Dirty Word

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As a dog and human coach (aka trainer and behaviour consultant) clients often ask, ‘how do I control my dog’s jumping up?’ ‘how do I get my dog under control?’  I understand what my clients are asking for, it is not unreasonable to want to change undesirable behaviour in our companion animals. We also want to ensure that our dogs can live in our communities safely and somewhat harmoniously.

Control is defined as the following:
to maintain influence or authority over.
“you shouldn’t have dogs if you can’t control them”

When I think about animals, wild or domesticated, I understand that so many things influence behaviour ranging from genetics, to experiences and environment.  I realize that antecedents (what happens before the behaviour occurs) and what happens after (consequences) either maintain or strengthen behaviour. I understand how to modify behaviour, absolutely.  But when the average person wants to “control” a behaviour it often means STOP a behaviour or FIX. This is a double-edged sword.

People who lack control in their own lives often find it empowering to control others, including the dogs that they live with. It can be reinforcing to do so for many.  This is why what I call “robot dogs”, the ones who are trained with e-collars/shock and prong, pain and punishment, fear and intimidation are often times done so for life; their owners are reinforced with the results of the behaviour they wanted to stop… stopping immediately.  This is gratifying. When something you want to change is done so quickly and immediately you will continue along that path because it works. At the expense of the dog.

The double-edged sword of that type of control is the psychological side-effects (and many times physical) on the organism on the receiving end.  Lack of control in ones’ life quickly leads to depression, apathy, learned helplessness.

“The power to control ones’ own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behaviour reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.”
~ Dr. Susan Friedman

Choice.
Giving your dog more choices does not mean that they will go nuts and start raiding your fridge and steal the keys to your car… all hell will not break loose, I promise.

If we teach our dogs what we would like them to do and reinforce that with something motivating for them to continue vs punishing for what we don’t and giving them NO direction, the result is an animal that is empowered. This also results in a behaviourally sound dog/cat/rabbit/bird that trusts their teacher and partner, you!  The reduction in negative behaviours and an increase in motivation to learn and respond to you is the amazing side effect.  Replace control with choice.  How do we guide our dogs to make better choices? Because that is what feeds and fosters lasting behaviour change.

Partnerships vs power struggles.

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Top 10 Behaviour Myths via Jean Donaldson

The dog training industry is rife with opinions and theories, very few of them are actually truth. Scientific evidence is something we should strive for when working with animals; outlandish fiction muddies the water for everyone.

1) Dogs are naturally pack animals with a clear social order.

This one busts coming out of the gate as free-ranging dogs (pariahs, semi-feral populations, dingoes, etc.) don’t form packs. As someone who spent years solemnly repeating that dogs were pack animals, it was sobering to find out that dogs form loose, amorphous, transitory associations with other dogs.

2) If you let dogs exit doorways ahead of you, you’re letting them be dominant.

There is not only no evidence for this, there is no evidence that the behaviour of going through a doorway has any social significance whatsoever. In order to lend this idea any plausibility, it would need to be ruled out that rapid doorway exit is not simply a function of their motivation to get to whatever is on the other side combined with their higher ambulation speed.

3) In multi-dog households, “support the hierarchy” by giving presumed dominant animals patting, treats, etc., first, before giving the same attention to presumed subordinate animals.

There is no evidence that this has any impact on inter-dog relations, or any type of aggression. In fact, if one dog were roughing up another, the laws governing Pavlovian conditioning would dictate an opposite tack: Teach aggressive dogs that other dogs receiving scarce resources predicts that they are about to receive some. If so practised, the tough dog develops a happy emotional response to other dogs getting stuff – a helpful piece of training, indeed. No valuable conditioning effects are achieved by giving the presumed higher-ranking dog goodies first.

4) Dogs have an innate desire to please. This concept has never been operationally defined, let alone tested.

A vast preponderance of evidence, however, suggests that dogs, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food, water, sex, and like many animals, by play and access to bonded relationships, especially after an absence. They’re also, like all animals, motivated by fear and pain, and these are the inevitable tools of those who eschew the use of food, play, etc., however much they cloak their coercion and collar-tightening in desire to please rhetoric.

5) Rewards are bribes and thus compromise relationships.

Related to 4), the idea that behaviour should just, in the words of Susan Friedman, Ph.D., “flow like a fountain” without need of consequences, is opposed by more than 60 years of unequivocal evidence that behaviour is, again to quote Friedman, “a tool to produce consequences.” Another problem is that bribes are given before behaviour, and rewards are given after. And, a mountain of evidence from decades of research in pure and applied settings has demonstrated over and over that positive reinforcement – i.e., rewards – make relationships better, never worse.

6) If you pat your dog when he’s afraid, you’re rewarding the fear.

Fear is an emotional state – a reaction to the presence or anticipation of something highly aversive. It is not an attempt at manipulation. If terrorists enter a bank and order everybody down on the floor, the people will exhibit fearful behaviour. If I then give a bank customer on the floor a compliment, 20 bucks or chocolates, is this going to make them more afraid of terrorists next time? It’s stunningly narcissistic to imagine that a dog’s fearful behaviour is somehow directed at us (along with his enthusiastic door-dashing).

7) Punish dogs for growling or else they’ll become aggressive.

Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Dogs growl because something upsetting them is too close. If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten. Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away.

8) Playing tug makes dogs aggressive.

There is no evidence that this is so. The only study ever done, by Borchelt and Goodloe, found no correlation between playing tug and the incidence of aggression directed at either family members or strangers. Tug is, in fact, a cooperative behaviour directed at simulated prey: the toy.

9) If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything.

This is a Pandora’s box type of argument that, once again, has zero evidence to support it. Dogs are excellent discriminators and readily learn with minimal training to distinguish their toys from forbidden items. The argument is also logically flawed as chewing is a ‘hydraulic’ behaviour that waxes and wanes, depending on satiation/deprivation, as does drinking, eating and sex. Dogs without chew objects are like zoo animals in barren cages. Unless there is good compensation with other enrichment activities, there is a welfare issue here.

10) You can’t modify “genetic” behaviour.

All behaviour – and I mean all – is a product of a complex interplay between genes and the environment. And while some behaviours require less learning than others, or no learning at all, their modifiability varies as much as does the modifiability of behaviours that are primarily learned.