My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

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. And here’s a more subtle example. It took me years to realize why Cricket wouldn’t completely “obey” my cue to lie down.

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 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, and even play, 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.

Suppressing Emotions

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 build 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.

Cricket, a small black, brown, and white terrier, is chewing on a rawhide toy with her body hunched around protecting it and giving a warning look. Her emotions are probably those of anxiety about the item being taken away.

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.

Zani, a black and tan small hound mix, lies on the floor on her side, chewing on a beef tendon

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.

Related Posts

This is an update of a former post from July 2017.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

17 thoughts on “My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

  1. I don’t feel at all inclined to be even the slightest bit apologetic for caring about any or all of dogs’ emotions. Even if a dog couldn’t do any damage to anyone, there’s nothing shameful or airy-fairy about caring about another’s emotions. Noticing the emotions of others (based on whatever info you’ve got) is kind, and it’s a fascinating study, too. If more people knew just how fascinating it is, there would be more happy dogs (and other beings). Thanks for being someone who feels the fascination and trumpets it around.

    1. I’m loving hearing from all the unapologetic people. Frankly, I’m undergoing a little transition in my writing style and I think this post came out more apologetic than I meant it to. I agree completely with your statement: “Even if a dog couldn’t do any damage to anyone, there’s nothing shameful or airy-fairy about caring about another’s emotions.” Amen. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Funny enough Eileen I was only thinking about you last week when someone asked (in response to a comment I made about having to try and find a way around my youngest dog’s bizarre and debilitating fear of something) why I’d bother to all that length for nothing?

    Says more about them than it does about me but you were one person I was planning on dropping in on to ask and I may well create a new post and tag you for thoughts and ideas.

    Another great post as ever 🙂

    1. It heartens me that there are SO MANY people who do wonderful things for their dogs and turn their households upside down for them if that’s what it takes. (I also hope that such people can find training solutions so they don’t exhaust themselves in the process, but it’s still great how many incredibly giving and concerned people there are.) Sorry about your young one’s fear. I’ll be interested to read your post. Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Great post, Eileen! I’d just like to add that it’s important to care when our dogs feel afraid of things. Comforting and reassuring behaviour is important for dogs just as it is for humans when they’re frightened. We can’t reinforce fear, so we’re not teaching the dog to be afraid of the thunderstorm or the sudden, loud noise. Instead, we’re continuing to let the dog know that we are their safe place, that we will look after them and that what they feel is important to us. Noticing our dogs’ emotions and taking them seriously improves the bond we have with each other.

    1. Beautifully put, Ann, and I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  4. Hi Eileen,

    I second what Ingrid said. It was wonderfully liberating for me to read in Dr Patricia Barlow-Irick’s book (from Mustang Camp), “How to Train A…” that animals have emotions and that I am not being anthropomorphic in acknowledging them. In my opinion failure to acknowledge the fact that non-human animals experience also emotions (pain, fear, excitement, joy etc…) allows us to mistreat them, whether through casual ignorance or specific abuse. So thank you for discussing animals emotions in training – and please keep it up!!!

    1. I like that book! And I agree with you about the hurts doled out through our ignorance. You and others are inspiring me to write more on this. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I totally get the tension you are pointing to in this post, and I see it all the time. There are stories in the culture about dogs that don’t map on to sound behavioral techniques…they are in a different language. Emotion in dogs is one of those places where it can become visible. Sometimes the cultural language leads to really bad training ideas.

    I really appreciate that you identify the ones that are critical to see: fear, anxiety, anger. We can become observant enough to identify these in our dogs, and use them to guide our approach….to know where they are and how to get to where we want them to be.

    It can be hard (maybe impossible?) to know the difference between the negative states. Is she fearful or is she angry? This may be because we invented a lot of names for emotional states in humans that frankly are social constructions and may not map on neatly to ACTUAL emotional states on a hormonal level. Plus, there is the serious empirical problem of we have literally no way to fully understand differences between any animal and humans. Heck, we can barely figure this out with humans and we can talk!

    I was thinking about your post and thought how I manage this moment with my dogs. My assessment starts with trying to figure out if the dog is in a positive (read: I like it) state or a negative (read: again, from my perspective and bias) emotional state. The immediate assessment for me is just a simple binary.

    Then I take a stab at pinning it down: this looks like fear, or anxiety, etc. Then I take a course of action from that more specific guess (because that is what it is, a guess) and am prepared to change tack quickly if the training plan I chose based on that guess is not working, or worse, backfiring.

    Thanks for this post, Eileen. It really got me to thinking!

    1. Your response really got me thinking, too! You touched on some things that I admit I deliberately skirted in the post. Love this: ” This may be because we invented a lot of names for emotional states in humans that frankly are social constructions and may not map on neatly to ACTUAL emotional states on a hormonal level.” It’s not that animals don’t have emotions; it’s that we are in danger of making assumptions about them from our own experience. Sometimes that works out, but sometimes….. I like your system. I think it’s good to be as methodical as we can on this topic that can be so elusive. Thanks for the comment!

  6. “it’s that we are in danger of making assumptions about them from our own experience.”

    Exactly. This is how we got the “dominance model” – a bunch of assumptions about emotional states that we forced into human social constructions that went unchallenged for generations because we were so committed to that language/paradigm. Every behavior got written into the submissive/dominant binary.

    I don’t think it is an accident that such methods were so popular in hyper-masculine social spaces like military and police for generations. I don’t think it was just over reliance on observing wolves, but also a projection of social morays of people that were focused on hierarchy and dominance in their own social worlds.

    Once dog training entered spaces with people with a different way of engaging the world, (namely dog sports like agility) we found a new way of seeing/training dogs. I think behavioral conditioning is a better paradigm…but it is not immune from projection either.

    I think being aware of that potential can make us more adaptable to the specific context we are dealing with. Your post really brings this into focus for me. Thanks!

    1. Oh yes, very good points about the dominance model. And yes–we have such better tools now, but we still have to work to get past our assumptions. So glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. I agree with every word, Eileen.

    Our dear departed heeler Pica, I realized after the fact, was somewhat reactive. Among other difficulties, she didn’t ride well in the car (loud vocalizing, wiggling, etc.) I remember riding in the back seat of a friend’s car, thoroughly embarrassed by Pica, trying unsuccessfully to squelch her “bad behavior”. Funny, squelching didn’t work at all. I could squash down one behavior, but another one would balloon up. Sigh. We did pretty well in our ten years together, but leaned on management and avoiding situations – that’s all we knew.

    Fortunately, our next dog, Habi, was over-the-top reactive. Squelching was even more a total failure than with Pica. Habi forced us to learn a LOT more about behavioral issues and ways to help. Our trainer sent us to a behavioral veterinarian, and over time (and LOTS of work) we made huge progress through behavioral modification (and meds for several years). No fairy farts 🙂 or coddling and indulgence needed. It was difficult, disciplined and very rewarding work for all of us. Ten years on, people who met her for the first time assumed she was a normal dog. Only our old friends knew how far she’d progressed. (Fortunately I found your thoughtful and insightful posts fairly early in our journey. Thank you for many, many words of wisdom and insights).

    On a less dramatic note, I recently took an Out-N-About class with our enthusiastic Obi. It was a chance to practice good manners in – gasp! – public. Our trainer was wise; she let us have as much time as we needed to re-engage our dogs after they lost their brains in the excitement of working outside! with other dogs! and new smells! and sounds! and sights! It didn’t take long for them to settle down and be able to work. No suppression needed, just a bit of understanding and patience.

    1. Thanks for sharing about your journey with reactivity. Well do I remember the “squelching” days. It’s embarrassing on top of everything else.

      Congratulations about Obi! That’s wonderful!

      Clara now “passes” as a normal dog. She copes with some things better than some normal dogs. That’s what long term work will do for you. I don’t take credit. I never would have done it on my own. My teacher is great, and taking lessons meant that we worked with Clara consistently.

      Thanks for the really nice comment, Chris. It’s always good to hear from you.

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