I recently came across an online video that stopped me in my tracks. Essentially, it promised to stop dog aggression and reactivity “in minutes”. Naturally, I had to see this miracle for myself. Enter a trio of dogs who were barking reactively at passing dogs. The “trainer” struck the dog who was doing the most barking. Struck as in hit the dog with something that had been given a cutesy name but was actually a rolled up towel. The actual hitting was not shown, but rather, conveyed in text on the screen. (Apparently someone realized no one wants to see a dog being hit.) Not surprisingly, once the dog had been struck and startled, he stopped barking. Dogs are not stupid, and they understand how to behave in the moment in order to avoid being hit again. To be fair, there was mention of some training being done after this since the dogs were now calmer. And so, once again the other dogs were paraded past these dogs, who now remained silent. If you didn’t know any better you might be impressed, and might even believe that the problem had been solved. If you did know better, you’d notice the body language of the newly “trained” dogs, who were displaying subtle signs of anxiety and fear. The trouble is, whether on a television show, a Youtube video, or anywhere else, it’s all too easy to make it seem as though an aggression problem has been solved when in reality, the dog is simply suppressing the reactive behavior to avoid further pain.
Seeing a dog being being hit (or reading about it) gets all of our hackles up, and rightly so. But let’s take the emotion out of the situation for the moment and consider it logically. Does hitting or otherwise punishing a dog who is reactive to other dogs actually solve the problem? The majority of dogs who are classified as “aggressive” to others are actually displaying fear-based reactivity. They’re not comfortable with dogs in close proximity, so they bark and lunge in an attempt to increase the social distance between themselves and those dogs. And it often works, as dogs who are being walked past on leash do seem to move along! But what’s the real problem here? Is it the barking and lunging? No. That behavioral display is merely a symptom of the underlying issue, which is the dog’s emotional response to other dogs.
Dogs make associations between things by learning that one thing predicts the other. It’s simple classical conditioning. To use a human example, let’s say I’m afraid of spiders. Each time I see one I scream. This really bothers you, and you wish I’d stop. So, you decide that each time I scream, you’re going to smack me. Well, I’m not stupid, so I learn quickly not to scream when you’re around. What did this accomplish? Now whenever I see a spider I’ve got one more thing to worry about, as I’ve associated spiders not only with being scared, but also with being smacked. I think Damn, I knew those spiders were trouble! If, on the other hand, you had shown me spiders at a distance at which I was still comfortable while feeding me enticing morsels of dark chocolate, gradually closing the distance as I became more relaxed, in no time at all I’d be raising my fist in the air and shouting, Bring on the tarantulas! Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. I’d have learned that spiders predict good things. With a bit of patience on your part, I would eventually lose the need to scream when I saw the creepy crawlies, because now they would predict something I really, really like. This example of classical conditioning works similarly for dogs, although it is not, of course, the entire solution to helping a reactive dog. (Just don’t feed them chocolate. Not only is it dangerous, but it leaves more for you.)
The vast majority of the time, behavior modification for serious issues such as fear or aggression is not a quick fix. It takes patience and dedication. It’s not something that is instantly cured as shown in a quick video clip, alluring as that might be. In reality, making meaningful changes in a dog’s behavior can be less than exciting to watch. But you know what? It actually works, and the change in the dog’s behavior lasts a lot longer than the length of a video shoot or the few minutes it takes to brag on camera. Again, real behavior modification takes time. But the reward for all that effort is that the dog’s underlying emotion changes, which naturally changes the behavior in the long term. So don’t be fooled. When things seem too good to be true, they usually are; and that applies double to fixing behavior problems in dogs.
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