“But It’s Guaranteed to Work”: Tools to Stop Undesirable Behavior
Many people are lured into using a piece of equipment or a technique that’s aversive. If an electronic collar, for example, actually works as advertised to stop excessive barking, jumping, leash pulling, or lunging and doesn’t really hurt the dog, what’s so wrong with using it?
When it comes to shock, choke, or prong collars, it should be obvious that these tools were designed to deter (technically, punish) behavior by causing pain. Punishment does work—sometimes. But it often backfires by making the original problem worse or by creating new behavior issues.
One problem with using aversives is that many dogs will get used to a low level of discomfort or pain so that it doesn’t keep on working, over time. That leads handlers to increase their efforts in that direction—risking physical injuries like skin and tissue damage.
Then there’s emotional damage to consider. Some dogs subjected to punishment are resilient in their nature; they seem able to tolerate it. Others just shut down, mentally and physically. They can become afraid to make a “wrong” move and so they wait to be told what to do. For sensitive or “soft” dogs, even seeing the spray bottle or getting a scolding or a harsh NO has the same effect.
The Power of Association
What happens when punishment is delivered as your dog is looking at you? Consider the harm that can do to your relationship. Or what if it’s delivered when she’s focused on a child, another dog, a stranger walking by, a noisy truck, a lawnmower? The lesson learned may not be, as intended, “I’d better not do that again.” Instead, the lesson may well be that the presence of that stimulus or trigger predicts something pretty unpleasant. For some dogs, all it takes is one time. Maybe you know someone who developed a lifelong mistrust and fear of dentists after a single painful experience.
Remember Pavlov’s dog? This is how classical conditioning works. Salivation is a reflexive response to the anticipation of food. So by pairing the bell with food, Pavlov “taught” the dog to salivate upon hearing that sound. In the same way, reactivity can be a learned reflexive response to a sight or sound that’s closely followed by something aversive.
When a certain stimulus predicts being yanked, sprayed, choked, shocked, or maybe just yelled at, a normal dog will try to avoid that consequence. The behavior may stop. Or the dog may tremble, hide, retreat, or behave aggressively to drive away the scary thing that, in his mind, causes the discomfort or pain. If his emotional response is strong enough, the nervous system switches into the freeze/flee/fight mode, where behavior is not a conscious choice. That’s when it’s particularly unfair and unproductive to use punishment.
Prevention Is Easier than Fixing It
It’s so much better—and easier—to avoid all that by creating a positive association with anything your dog is unsure about. When she notices any object, dog, or person that causes her to tense up (stiffened ears, face, neck, legs, back, and tail, among other signals)—but before she barks, growls, or lunges—offer something she loves, like a special treat, a favorite toy, happy talk. Chanting “it’s okay, it’s okay” is not helpful.
This is not about making your dog sit, or watch you, or giving any other “commands.” Good behavior can be as simple as creating a positive association with unfamiliar people, animals, and objects. When she learns that these things predict something pleasant for her, she is happy to see them and all is well. Note that you do need to have enough distance from whatever concerns her. How far is enough always depends on the dog.
If an association is already negative, changing that to a positive emotional response is a slow, careful process of counter-conditioning. The sooner this begins, the more successful it can be. For dogs who have been feeling upset and behaving accordingly for months or years, Tellington TTouch can speed up that process.
The sad thing is that when the behavior began, it was likely due to fear or over-excitement. Is it fair to punish a dog for feeling that way? Punishment with aversive tools or techniques often makes the original behavior much worse—and may develop into anxiety and real aggression.
Don’t Be Fooled
To someone applying pain or pressure—or just threatening with a spray bottle—these tools can appear to work because the dog wants to avoid that punishment. But suppressing behavior isn’t a real solution—and of course intimidation is stressful. It’s also counter-productive when it causes even more distress about those triggers! That result can lead to a downward spiral as the behavior and the punishment escalate.
Getting to the source of the problem is the most effective—and most humane—way to improve unwanted emotional behavior. To behave as we'd like, dogs need above all to feel safe and confident. This is the goal of TTouch, a unique method that has been improving animal behavior for four decades. TTouch is a gentle yet effective approach to resolving behaviors due to fear, lack of confidence, and inability to cope with certain situations.
Along with positive training, to teach better choices, most dogs can overcome their behavioral challenges. The tools and techniques that really work don’t rely on startle, force, fear, or pain.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017