On a whim, we pulled into a parking lot on a Thursday evening. The sign out front said that dog training classes were being offered. As a dog lover and self-described training geek, I’m always curious to see how people run their classes. We slipped in quietly at the back, interested to see how dog owners were being taught to work with their dogs. I was disappointed but not surprised to see that on instructor’s table next to the flat and Martingale collars were also a choke chain and a prong collar. It looked like this wasn’t one of the more progressive training groups. Then the insistent barking off to one side caught my attention.
A young woman rose from her seat with her bull terrier type dog and began to walk him back and forth as he barked at the other dogs. The woman kept the dog close to heel position on a very short leash. When the dog would look at the other dogs and bark, she would pull up sharply on the collar. I noticed with some concerned that the dog was wearing a prong collar around it’s broad neck. It was likely a young dog judging by it’s bouncy gait and adolescent demeanor. Each “correction” delivered by the young woman would startle the dog for a moment and he would stop barking only to breath in and begin barking again at the sight of the other dogs.
As the woman and her dog paced back and forth, closer to and then farther away from the other dogs, I was at a loss to understand what the woman was trying to accomplish. Clearly the young dog was either nervous about the other dogs or was eagerly barking to get them to play or perhaps even warning them not to approach. Whatever the reason for the barking, the frequent yanks on the leash and prong collar were not stopping the barking. At least not yet. Frustrated, the woman seemed yanking more frequently and with greater force. That’s when we decided to leave.
The road to redirection
There is a curious phenomenon in animals. Whether from fear, frustration, or anger, an animal may lash out not at the source of the irritation but at a seemingly unrelated neutral target. This has been shown in experiments involving pigeons, primates, and even some studies of human behaviour. It seems to be a mammalian trait.
In his book Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Jaak Panksepp of the University of Washingtion says that the emotion of “rage” likely has it’s roots in frustration. That “rage” can reach the limit of a dog’s tolerance and it may act out at the nearest target. There is a lot we can do in working with dogs to increase their “frustration tolerance” and help them more appropriately deal with their emotions.
A major factor in frustration tolerance may be the experiences a dog had in dealing with frustration and problem solving. A study done in 2006 revealed that rats that were exposed to unavoidable stressors developed symptoms of depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The more important finding of the study is that rats that were exposed to stressors and were given behavioural ways to “turn off” the stressors experienced physical changes in their brains allowing them to better cope and deal with frustration. Surprisingly, these rats were also better able to cope with future situations that did not offer them a chance to stop the stressors. It seems that providing the rats a way to “get out of trouble” by making choices not only improved their ability to cope emotionally but actually changed the brain circuitry and gave them a better chance of handling stress.
No way out
In her book Canine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians, Dr. Bonnie Beaver describes situations where a dog may become aroused or excited and is then prevented from acting on the source of that emotion. In such a situation, a dog may redirect it’s aggression and frustration toward a nearby person or animal including another dog. Beaver claims that cases of redirected aggression are common in dogs.
The very act of preventing or restraining a dog can compound the problem. Similarly, any punishment delivered to dog in an aroused state can make matters worse. The dog is dealing with a situation that has made it upset and now has to cope with the additional stress of being restrained or scolded or worse. Many times the resulting aggression is simply a matter of the dog trying to “get away” to a safe distance to deal with it’s own emotions.
In his book Coercion And Its Fallout, psychologist Dr. Murray Sidman describes three courses of action for an animal when it finds itself faced with an unwanted situation. “Escape” behaviours can be used to get the unwanted situation to stop. This might be where the dog literally runs away or hides but it may also be the dog sitting, lowering its gaze, or performing some other behaviour that they know will make the situation change to stop the unwanted situation.
“Avoidance” behaviours will be used when the dog recognizes that some unwanted situation is about to happen in an effort to avoid it. Author Turid Rugaas has written a book called On Talking Terms With Dogs – Calming Signals in which she details various body language and strategies dogs use to avoid confrontations. Dogs are amazingly observant animals and frequently recognize the onset of unpleasant things quickly. They will use whatever “avoidance” behaviours they can to keep bad things from happening. That might include “looking guilty”, “being adorable”, or doing something that they know can make their owner laugh.
“Behaviour Suppression” happens when the unwanted situation can neither be escaped nor avoided. In this case, the dog simply shuts down and does as little as possible until the unpleasant circumstances pass. Unfortunately for dogs, this can look very similar to a Good Dog who is not acting out. Any unwanted behaviour stops but so does any other behaviour that is not 100% safe in the dog’s mind.
The power of NO
Let’s go back to the young woman and her bull terrier that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I can’t know how things turned out with this dog because we left. What I do know is that the young woman was setting up a stressful situation that her dog would have to deal with in one of above three ways. Proponents of force training would probably characterize this very simply – “All the dog had to do was stop barking and the tugging on the prong collar would stop.”
That is not an incorrect assessment but it does over-simplify things a bit. There was a way for the dog to stop the unpleasant pulling on the prong collar but it had to guess which behaviour would “escape” (turn off) or “avoid” (prevent a recurrence of the tug on the leash). Along the way, it may try some other alternatives in its search for a solution. It could redirect its aggression by snapping or clawing at the young woman. It may attempt to lunge away. It may even turn and jump up on the young woman in hopes of getting affection. And all of these alternatives would like be met with a firm “No!” either verbally or with some physical correction.
But what does this do to the frustration of the dog? It is already aroused enough to be barking. Now it has to cope with an uncomfortable tugging around its neck. It may even have to cope with verbal or other physical corrections from its handler because it has not worked out the desired strategy of “Not Barking” that the handler wants. By saying “No!” to the unwanted alternative behaviours, the handler is actually creating other potentially dangerous behaviours as the dog tries to figure it out.
Dogs bark, they growl, they bare their teeth, and they can adopt an aggressive posture or show us other warning signs. Some trainers and “experts” will label these behaviours as ways a dog is trying to be “dominant” over their handler. Remember that we have selectively bred the dog over the centuries in order to get the most cooperative animal possible. These are not wild wolves or coyotes. These are the tamest of the tame. Presumably we have selected for the best pets.
When our dogs show these signs of aggression, it is likely coming from being afraid or upset or frustrated by something or someone. It is the first and best indicator that there is something we should be dealing with and it isn’t likely to be the dog. It is their way of communicating with us that things are “not ok” right now. Punishing the dog for communicating may make us happy because they stop growling but it doesn’t solve their problem. It very likely makes it worse. Now they have a problem and their owner won’t help.
A better course of action might be to move them off away from the source of the problem and try to come up with a plan. Perhaps the dog has to be more carefully introduced to something. Perhaps the dog is just not feeling well on that day. It may even be that you need to develop a training plan to help them better cope with whatever is upsetting them. In any case, keeping them there until they stop reacting to both the unwanted situation and your punishments doesn’t seem to me to be the best answer.
Fuses and bombs
I’d like to leave you with something to consider. Stopping the outward warning behaviours in our dogs when something upsets them will frequently appear to work. They get quiet, they “behave” themselves. But you haven’t dealt with the underlying problem. In other words, you haven’t diffused the bomb, you have just put out the fuse for now. And you may not be able to predict when and what lights that fuse again.
Our Vince was a difficult dog in many ways until he passed away in 2010. But one of his wonderful features was that he growled a lot. If he didn’t like a dog or a person, he would start with a low growl when they were a long way off and would get louder as they approached. He gave us lots of time and plenty of indication about what the problem was. He had a long fuse and that made it easy to deal with things.
By contrast, our girl Tiramisu has a very short fuse. She will tolerate the presence of strange dogs near her until she doesn’t any more. A dog may be 15 inches away and she is fine but at 14 inches she will lunge, bark, and snap at them to move them away. It was something we had to learn to deal with when she was young. We just wouldn’t get much warning so watch her closely around other dogs and avoid bad situations whenever possible. I cannot imagine what might have happened if we continued putting her in uncomfortable situations and spent our time punishing her instead.
Like the young woman in my example, many dog owners think they are punishing “bad behaviour” when their dogs bark or growl rather than recognizing such behaviours for what they are. Warning signals. Something is not right and as the dog’s owner, you should be trying to find out what that is and resolving the source of the problem rather than punishing the warning signal from the dog.
Our job is to help them cope and not just shut them up. If a dog is growling or barking, there is a reason. If you cannot distract them from the source of the growling or barking, chances are they have gone past their tolerance limit. The best course of action for the young woman and the bull terrier would have been to leave the building or at least move out of sight of the other dogs. If that calmed her dog, that would be a good step. Then she could have worked with her teachers and developed a way to make her dog more comfortable in that class environment.
As it stands, I have no idea how that situation ended up. I sincerely hope that she wasn’t bitten by her dog or worse. Dogs lash out in frustration more often than many people think. And as we suppress their behaviour their “fuses” get shorter. We need to be careful that we are solving the right problem with our dogs or we may get very wrong solutions.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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