Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

November 18, 2016

woman with dog

I recently received an email asking whether I had any books that addressed how to help a dog who was grieving. Since I don’t, I searched online to find an article that might be of help. What I found surprised me. Although there was solid advice, one of the recommendations in almost every article was to be careful so as not to inadvertently “reward the behavior” by giving the dog attention. Really? Hmm.Let’s see. As it happens, my best girlfriend’s mother just passed away. I will be spending the day with her today. I expect she will be sad, and that we will discuss things, and that I will comfort her, because that is what friends do. Now, of course dogs are not people and we can’t comfort them with words, but the emotions of loss and grief are the same, to whatever extent and however they are experienced by animals and people. Why in the world would we not comfort a grieving dog?

Although rewarding a dog with attention can reinforce a behavior, it does not reinforce an emotion. This reminds me of the persistent myth about reinforcing fear. Time after time I have read articles and books that warn that when a dog is afraid, the best thing to do is ignore him so as not to “reinforce the fear.” Although presenting a nervous demeanor yourself while giving your dog attention could cause him to be more nervous, sitting calmly with him and stroking him is certainly not going to cause him to become fearful more often. What it might well do is actually comfort him.

It is wonderful that we have so much advice readily available at our fingertips. But even when an “expert” advises you to do something you feel in your gut is simply not right when it comes to the emotional life of your dog, heed that instinct. You know your dog best, and rewarding with attention does not make you a reinforcer of emotion. It makes you a kind, compassionate person.

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If Looks Could Kill

November 7, 2016

bully stick 3 smallerIn my canine body language seminars, I explain that a hard stare is never a good thing, whether in dogs or on a New York subway. (Trust me, I grew up in New York—It never leads to anything good.)  The problem is the emotion linked to it. A hard stare is instantly understood by dogs on the receiving end as a warning. A threat. It’s the movie trailer for the feature “If Looks Could Kill.” Depending on how the other dog responds, a stare may be met with submission, or it could trigger aggression.

Ironically, although hard stares are easily interpreted by most dogs, they are often misunderstood or missed completely by people. I was walking Sierra on leash along a park trail one day when I spied a woman walking a bull mastiff. I’d seen the dog before, and knew he could be reactive with other dogs. The trail was narrow and, to her credit, the woman moved the mastiff off the trail and had him sit so we could pass. I thanked her. But as we passed, Sierra turned her head, looked at the dog, and glared. That was it! The mastiff dragged the woman toward us, intent on dismantling Sierra piece by piece. I got between them, the woman got control of her dog, and no one was hurt. She walked off without a word, but I would bet she thought her dog was at fault. After all, Sierra and I were just passing by when her dog lunged at my poor dog, right? Wrong. Sierra’s hard stare started it all.

Many times when two dogs are fighting in the home, the owner believes one dog is causing the fights, when it’s really the other dog who is delivering the hard stares that start the episodes. You really can’t blame owners; unlike a wagging tail or a growl, a hard eye is not something we’re taught to look for. In the best case scenarios, a trainer is called who explains that it’s actually the other dog who is causing the issues, and teaches the client to be observant for this bit of body language. Hard stares are missed constantly at dog parks as well. Sadly, I’ve seen many instances where the dog who reacts to the hard stare is the one who gets punished.

Still, a hard stare is not necessarily a bad thing. Just like a growl, it serves as a warning. If heeded, it can stop an aggressive incident before it begins. For example, one dog has a bowl of food. Another dog walks over. The first dog gives a hard stare. The second dog, fully aware of what that means in the Language of Dog, backs off. Aggressive incident averted. Although hard stares are often accompanied by other telling body language such as a stiff, still body and possibly a growl, they are often missed. Hard stares are one of those subtle, sometimes fleeting pieces of canine body language that every owner should know.
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You can find my books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my art
   at http://www.photomagicalart.com.


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