I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore. It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)
I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science. They drive observable behavior.
Considering a dog’s emotions is the sign of a thoughtful and prudent trainer, not a wimp. Because not all emotions are tender and sweet. Of course, we want our dogs to have joyful and fulfilling lives. But there’s another reason to concern ourselves with dogs’ emotional states. Fear. Dogs are predators with mouths full of teeth. Many of them are powerful enough to kill a human. Any of them with half their teeth can do damage. An animal with those types of weapons front and center can be dangerous, even deadly, when afraid. Fear is an emotion we definitely need to notice.
If you want to see some examples of fearful dog body language, check out this post with labeled photos of young Clara at a vet visit.
Considering a dog’s emotional state is not the sign of a wimpy cookie pusher, or even of being from California. Trainers who train with aversives love to paint us as people who are insufficiently tough with our dogs and train with fairy farts and rainbows. Therefore, they say, our dogs must be unruly and jump on Grandma, steal food, and run into traffic. This fable is but a hamhanded attempt at defending the use of force in training. The proper way to deal with fear is not toughness, punishment, and suppression. The evidence showing the hazards of that goes back for decades.
The proper way is to reduce the fear, and behavior science tells us how to do that. In so doing we create safety for the humans and yes, the possibility of a joyful life for the dog.
Dealing with Fear
The respected trainer Jean Donaldson says that the first question we should ask ourselves when beginning to work with a dog is, “Is the dog upset?”
If the dog is upset, we work on that first. For most of us, this means finding and hiring a qualified, positive-reinforcement based dog behavior specialist. Then “working on it” may include leaving off typical training for a few days or weeks. It can mean limiting ourselves to only indirect and non-demanding interactions if the dog is brand new to her situation and scared. It can include activities designed to help the dog feel secure in a new environment. It can include desensitization and counterconditioning: techniques designed to ameliorate fears. It can include gentle, easy training games when the dog is ready. It can include psychotropic drugs for dogs who can’t get out of a state of heightened anxiety without that help.
Taking these steps doesn’t mean we are coddling the dog. Such a plan is both practical and empathetic. A wise use of desensitization, counterconditioning, and positive reinforcement training can help an animal become happy and comfortable in the world. It’s a win/win because it’s also safer for the human.
There’s another way to look at it, of course. We could ignore what we know about physiology and the central nervous system. We could buy into a bunch of discounted theories about why dogs do what they do. And we could use punishment-based methods to suppress the hell out of the dog’s behaviors. If you carry a big enough stick, you can often hurt a reactive or aggressive dog into submission. But given that most such behavior is born from fear, punishing a fearful dog for aggressive or threatening behaviors is a bad idea. Punishment-based methods have been shown to correlate with increased aggression from the dog.
An infamous TV personality who purports to train dogs has a video in which he aggressively approaches a dog who is known to resource guard her food. She is minding her own business and eating. He bullies, prods, harasses, and corners her until she bites him. He then exclaims, “I didn’t see that coming!” Leaving aside the fact that getting dogs to aggress appears to be one of the goals of the show, let’s pretend like his goal really is to train the dog. In that case, he would have done well to observe the dog’s behavior (without provoking her) and building that information into a training plan. Many trainers consider resource guarding to be one of the easiest problem behaviors to address in dogs.
This video shows the changes that can happen to a dog who aggressively guards food with just a few minutes of good training.
A Modest Example
Here’s an old photo of my beloved rat terrier, Cricket, with a chewable. Her body language and eyes are saying, “I am willing to fight to keep this item.” At that time, I didn’t know how to change a dog’s emotional response to address resource guarding. I just avoided the issue. That’s called management, but I didn’t know the term then. I did know the risks of getting into an object custody battle with a terrier, even a very small one.
I could’ve made a moral issue of it. The dog “shouldn’t” guard things against me because I’m the boss. I could have battled Cricket for her chew toys and gotten bitten and hit her for biting me. I could have made her submission my goal. But I didn’t. Even then, it seemed like a stupid idea. I just worked around it. I was lucky she was small. I might not have had the luxury of working around her guarding if she had been a bigger dog.
Later I learned how to be proactive about resource guarding. It’s a normal dog behavior, but their ways of expressing it are on a spectrum from peaceable to bloody. Nowadays I teach my dogs upon joining my household that if I walk by them when they have something of high value, I will toss them something great. This is not about sticking my hands in their food, taking their stuff away, or even “trading,” at least in the beginning. The first few dozen times, all I do is give them something. It’s generally something a lot better than what they already have. After a while, I will occasionally “borrow” their item, then give it back with interest (something great). Then if that time comes when I need to take something away for real, they will get the best thing I have with me in return. And since I take something only a small percentage of the time, they stay relaxed about it.
I did this as a prophylactic measure with my next three dogs after Cricket.
Here’s a photo of Zani chewing on a beef tendon in my office. Pretty different from the Cricket photo. Does she look worried that I’m is going to take it away, even though I’m standing right over her? Nope! But paradoxically, I could do so with little upset on her part.
I don’t want to imply that it is always that easy or that resource guarding isn’t serious. I was lucky with my dogs that I didn’t have a hard case. I did some work on the front end and it was effective. It can be a different story with a dog who is already guarding or is more strongly inclined to do so. Again, that’s a situation where it is imperative to call in a trainer. Since originally writing this post I have become acquainted with an intense, practiced resource guarder of food, toys, people, and locations. She’s (luckily) also small but it is not an easy situation.
Change the Emotions
Changing our dogs’ emotional response to things that could upset them is not about rainbows and fairies. It’s not about indulgence or coddling. It’s a pragmatic approach that is the only road to a win/win situation. The dogs were afraid or worried, and now they’re not. They didn’t take over or dominate us. We all have less stress, and they are much safer to be around.
- Dog/Dog Resource Guarding
- Which Dog Is Resource Guarding? (even though you now already know the answer!)
- Shut Down Dogs 2
- Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Could Be Flooding Your Dog
- My Dog’s Safe Place: A Photo Gallery
This is an update of a former post from July 2017.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson