Now that we have paid all due respect to Dr. Pavlov, and you have a basic understanding of classical counterconditioning, would you like me to share the most important things that you can do right now as relates to dog training? These are things that you already possess within yourself. I am happy to share these dog-training secrets with you. To be a great guide for your four-legged best friend, you need the following five qualities.
Without a sense of connection, there is no way forward. Many scientists now think that man and dog co-evolved. That furry, four-legged animal lying by your feet (or perhaps digging through the kitchen trash can) evolved beside us and with us, and he has no desire to dominate you. He does what you and I do: seek pleasure and avoid pain. Dogs have decided as a species that, in general, it gives them pleasure to be alongside us funny-looking, two-legged chaps. The dog is the first animal that we domesticated, but perhaps the dog is the first animal that chose to come closer to us. Don’t squash those thousands of years of co-evolution by buying into the thoroughly and scientifically disproved notion that dogs want to dominate you. They simply don’t. Remove the thought that there is inherent strife and conflict between man and dog, and that the strife is dog-driven. It isn’t.
Sometimes a dog is damaged and suffers from human-like conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or even a canine form of autism that seemingly prevents a species-to-species connection. Perhaps the dog is having trouble focusing because he is in some kind of pain, or perhaps the dog has a thyroid problem. I was underdiagnosed hyperthyroid for most of my life. It made me reactive and quick to snap before I received proper doses of thyroid medication.
Owners can surely start to resent dogs that destroy their homes while they are at work or cause other types of trouble. It is exhausting to own a reactive dog and to live in constant fear of an outburst or, worse, a dog bite. Humans are an awful judgy lot, and people with leash-lunging dogs feel public scorn. If you do not feel a connection to the dog in your home, please let that be a red alert and get help for the dog sooner rather than later. Even if you end up rehoming the dog in a home better suited for that particular dog, you are aiding that dog’s life by calling in experts. Help first comes from a veterinary check to rule out any possible medical conditions that could contribute to behavioral concerns. Help next comes from a qualified trainer or behaviorist. And, help comes from within you if you have the next items on my list.
A beautiful Tibetan Terrier client. A good trainer can work with any breed of dog.
I have a very smart friend with a PhD in psychology who phoned me one day and said, “I’ve noticed something about you. When an animal is experiencing pain or fear, you feel that emotion in you as well.” He didn’t mean that I was psychic. He meant that I have enormous empathy for animals and their emotions. I have a finely tuned radar for fear, anger, and anxious behavior in particular. Perhaps my troubled childhood allows me to quickly detect these strong feelings in humans and, especially, in dogs. I hate observing stressed-out dogs, and that’s often unfortunate for me because so many dogs living with humans are just that—stressed to the max. I think our homes have become a locked-up series of boring rooms for our pets.
Empathy is a learned skill. Start looking at your dog from his point of view. Ask yourself, did my dog have a fulfilling day? Was he calm most of the day, or was he terrified? Did I provide sufficient mental and physical exercise for my dog today? Did I make headway in changing his underlying negative emotions into a positive association with a trigger? If you answered no to these questions, do better tomorrow. You can!
An enormous positive change for all parties occurs when you shift the dialogue in your head from “my dog is stubborn and should know better” to “how can I better teach or guide this dog into understanding what I am asking of him?” It puts the responsibility of teaching where it firmly belongs, and that is with us, the humans, the ones with the bigger brains.
It’s OK to love your dog. It is love and affection that keep owners seeking answers for their troubled dogs. Science itself has proved that when dogs and their owners gaze into each other’s eyes, both species show increases of oxytocin—known as “the love hormone”—in their urine. The important Japanese study that looked at eye gazing and oxytocin levels also demonstrates that there is a positive feedback loop from dog to owner and back again. We look into their eyes and feel love (call it an oxytocin spike if you work in a lab), and they look into our eyes and feel the same. I can imagine this is the same type of feedback loop in play when owners give conditioned cues, such as tightening on the leash when another dog is in the vicinity. Now imagine if you have hit, punched, kicked, or hanged your dog. What do you think is released inside his body when he looks into your angry human eyes? It won’t be oxytocin.
Many owners truly love their dogs and consider them family members.
There is a long history of science and scientists who “freak out” if anyone, anywhere, dares to comment on an animal’s interior state. Scientists of all sorts will wag their long, scholarly fingers at you from the safety of their labs (not the real world of dog ownership) and tell you that we are not to put human emotions onto other animals. They will go all the way back to Rene Descartes—who cruelly and incorrectly argued in the 1600s that because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel—and tell you that animals are unfeeling. Rubbish! Anyone with an ounce of empathy for another living creature could not come to this abysmal thought. Descartes’s decreeing this nonsense as a much-respected philosopher in his day allowed science to use and abuse animals for selfish and sadistic purposes.
I love how the brilliant neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp clarifies for other scientists whether animals have emotions or not. The following is from his book, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions:
“Many emotional researchers as well as neuroscience colleagues make a sharp distinction between affect and emotion, seeing emotion as purely behavioral and physiological responses that are devoid of affective experience. They see emotional arousal as merely a set of physiological responses that include emotion-associated behaviors and a variety of visceral (hormonal/autonomic) responses. In their scientific view, animals may show intense behavioral emotional responses, without actually experiencing anything—many researchers believe that other animals may not feel their emotional arousals. We disagree. We believe the evidence speaks otherwise.”
I like when science proves things via an experimental and reproducible study as much as the next dog trainer. Research proves over and over again that using force and/or fear in training an animal can and will create more fear and aggression in that animal. Science is often vital in moving the ball forward in all things, but science is not perfect, and it, too, often disallows a shred of empathy for what we put animals through as we pursue answers. As Carl Jung so rightly pointed out: “Through scientific understanding, our world has become dehumanized.” I predict that it will be dogs that give us back our humanity if we are able to fetch it back at all. We have an enormous debt to and a great amount to learn from these smart creatures.
Dr. Panskepp discovered that all mammals share these seven basic emotional systems, which are rooted in our ancient brain structures, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. These emotions are fundamental, and they have similar functions in all mammals. That means that the gerbil upstairs in your child’s bedroom running endless circles on a wheel shares these seven emotional systems with you. Certainly, so does your dog.
The next time someone tries to stop you from saying that your dog has emotions that are indeed similar to your own, hand them one of Dr. Panskepp’s behemoth books such as (the aforementioned The Archaeology of the Mind or Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions). Read these books yourself if you want to learn the science behind animal emotions. Don’t have time to read 1,000 pages of proof? Never mind. Just know that animals do have emotions, and many are similar to ours.
Dogs in particular have social bonds and structures much like our own. This isn’t to say that everything we think and feel is the same inside a dog. There are differences, but there are also many things that we have in common with dogs. I will go out on a limb with Dr. Panskepp and declare that “care” for another (even another species) is one of the fundamental emotions we share.
How can science be befuddled to learn that animals do indeed have emotions similar to ours when all of these years they have used animals as lab experiments to learn more about how humans tick? Why use animals to understand humans at all if they are simply machines with no feelings? In fact, Dr. Panskepp postulates that we will never understand the inner workings of our own mind until we first understand what’s occurring in the minds of other animals.
Dogs give us many clues, through their expressions and body language, about how they’re feeling.
Do you know the old expression that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s true about dogs as well. What can you prevent? With enough planning and forethought, you can ward off most bad things. We know that puppies must be positively and properly socialized by twelve to sixteen weeks of age. Veterinarians need to accept this fact and stop advising puppy owners to keep puppies at home until they’ve completed all rounds of puppy vaccines. We are ruining dogs by keeping them unsocialized as puppies during a critical learning stage.
On the other hand, use common sense! Don’t take an unvaccinated puppy to a place where there have been a lot of dogs, such as the dog park. During the time in between your puppy’s two rounds of vaccines, socialize your pup to human life at home, at a neighbor’s clean home with children and other dogs, at a well-kept dog-training school, and the like. Finally, do not stop socialization at that magical sixteen-week mark! Keep on showing new things to your dog because you are laying down a solid foundation for the rest of that dog’s life.
Want to prevent the chances that your dog inherits a fearful nature? Insist on meeting the parents. Insist on seeing the parent dogs in the presence of children and other dogs. Don’t like what you see? Don’t acquire the puppy. The breeder says you are being unreasonable? Find a better breeder. And please don’t ship a vulnerable puppy across the country on a loud and frightening airplane. Set your pup up for success and drive to get him or her. Puppies are not mail-order items that you can get delivered with express shipping.
If you adopt a shelter dog or rescue dog (personally, my favorite kind of dog) and trouble appears with that dog, don’t waste time with the false belief that your dog will simply “grow out of” the undesired behavior. Prevent fear and aggression from escalating and hire a professional trainer or behaviorist sooner rather than later. All dogs need some level of training.
5. Canine Body Language
A great starting place is behaviorist Sarah Kalnajs’s terrific DVD The Language of Dogs (www.bluedogtraining.com). We are learning more every day about what dogs are trying to communicate with each other and with us. They understand us so well, and it is past time for us to take responsibility for a shared life and learn how a dog communicates. Do you know what a self-calming signal looks like (could be a yawn or lip-licking)? Do you know what a cutoff signal used to interrupt behavior coming at them from another animal looks like (turning body away, growling)? Can a dog be wagging his tail and still bite (yes!)? What does a hard stare or stiffness from a dog mean (a serious warning—stop what you are doing)? What does fear look like in a dog? What does aggression look like? You need to know the difference. The life of your dog may very well depend on your knowing the difference.
Dogs are like us in that we are both complicated and simple beings at the same time. For most of our relationship with dogs, we survived by merely understanding the simple parts of dogs. Because so many dogs are exhibiting high levels of stress in our modern-day world (perhaps a reflection of the high stress many humans feel), it is our turn to dig deeper and learn about the more complex parts of dogs.
Dogs form social bonds with each other and with us.
In the past, dogs fit into our lives better, just as we served their needs better in the past. Dogs had functions (such as killing rodents on the farm or hunting large game for hungry or wealthy owners) and were bred for those specific functions. The main function of dogs nowadays is to be our companions. We bore dogs by limiting them to just this role.
Many dogs do make great companions, but we can do better by even the “easy” dogs. Many of these dogs have an effect on the owners who stick by them, and that effect is stretching the human ability to care and assist another species in need. These dogs push us to becoming better leaders, or they bring us to devastating heartbreak. The things that scientists, researchers, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians, and owners learn from troubled dogs are giving us amazing tools to help all dogs—the troubled and the untroubled.