Is it fair to expect dogs to immediately and correctly respond calmly or happily to changes in situations?
Think about what this means. Your trained dog is calmly resting on her bed in the living room while you read a book. The doorbell rings, waking your dog up, causing your dog to run to the door and start barking. You get up, go down the entry hallway, open the door. Your dog’s favorite person enters the home. Your dog stops barking, but starts behaving very actively, maybe running around the guest, panting, maybe picking up a toy.
Even though you’ve practiced and trained your dog for these types of greetings, your dog still is aroused. Yet, you’re upset with your dog that she doesn’t calmly sit there like a stuffed animal. So, you correct your dog, maybe verbally, to try and make your dog behave like a statue. Or maybe, you have your dog regularly wear an electric collar, and you make your dog go over to her Place (a dog bed or cot), to immobilize your dog either before or after the guest enters the home. This is confusing and very stressful to any dog.
Emotional arousal is a normal response in any animal to a perceived change in situation. For dogs, greetings will elicit a set of typical emotions and behaviors that are genetically hardwired into your dog. Trying to inhibit all such emotions and behaviors in your dog can cause dogs to develop stress, behavioral, and even medical breakdowns. You can’t bottle up nature and expect that things will turn out well.
In experiments with putting animals in situations that are impossible to solve, we find that those animals can break. Pavlov did an experiment in which a dog was forced to choose between an illuminated circle and oval in exchange for a food reward. As the oval was made rounder and rounder, the oval eventually was indistinguishable from the circle, the dog eventually broke down, started squealing and exhibiting neurotic (hostile and aggressive) behaviors and refused the food offered. The dog could no longer control what it did and could not regulate its emotions.
Similar experiments have been performed on a variety of species in which the animals were trapped in impossible situations and developed psychic traumas. Blocking of normal emotional regulation can create behavioral disturbances. Dogs treated like this become mentally injured and break down: some with enduring lifelong aggression, agitation, behavioral disabilities, hypervigilance, sexual reproduction dysfunction, and some developed medical problems. Some died early.
I see lot of videos online of trainers who put dogs in extended down stays, often on a Place, saying they are teaching emotional and behavioral self-control. This isn’t self control, it is imposed control. I look at the expressions on the dogs faces and ears over time and the way these dogs look from the beginning to the end of training and watch their body language usually become saggy… tucked tails, hunched over, forced lethargy. They look to me like someone that has been socked in the stomach or who have eaten spoiled food. These videos don’t make me think the training is going well for the dogs. Laboratory experiments have demonstrated that learned entrapment is not conducive to a mentally well animal and can cause a nervous breakdown, either in training or some future date days or months later. I feel it is risky to use this method for training a dog. Isolation and monotony, and the inability to normally communicate, can often be stressful for social animals like dogs. We’ve all seen how when you leave a room it alerts a dog, and we should take that into account instead of forcing some kind of emotional suppression on a dog. There are better ways. Other trainers say they are taking insecure dogs to scary places so the dogs can build confidence, but what I see is just the opposite, the dogs look like they are trapped in impossible situations, and I usually see them wearing electric collars. There are ways to do this and there are ways to not do this. What I often see is what I don’t believe should be done. I have stated before, there are legitimate uses of electric collars for training some situations (such as snake avoidance training), but the examples I’m giving here aren’t ones in which electric collars or negative training influence methods are generally indicated as the proper way forward. I’ve also cautioned rescues to not trap dogs with severe separation anxiety or perceived loneliness in escape proof crates, and instead spending the money on fixing the fear of being confined, only to hear back that they are going to do it any way. I’m also opposed to forced exercise on a treadmill. That type of training is used to induce punishment and stress reactions in laboratory animals. Exercise should be perceived as natural. Treadmills aren’t inherently aversive, but improper use can be. Similarly, a dog works better before a meal than afterwards. A little hunger is a good thing. But forced hunger is dangerous. I have discussed this in concerned inquiries from dog owners who sent their dogs off to board and train programs after they saw emaciated pictures of their dogs. These trainers often won’t let you come visit your dog to see how the training is coming along. Forced, instead of gentle and gradual, efforts to turn dogs around will backfire. Let the buyer beware. Pavlov created this result and referred to it as a sleeping hypnotic state, and Seligman saw similar results from his experiments and called it learned helplessness. I think the above method is wrong and I would never do it to a dog.
Another example is lack of mothering and interaction with littermates. There are rescue volunteers that will take newborn puppies away from their mamas at a very early age. This deprivation results in lifelong behavioral problems. Maternal presence in those early weeks protects the puppy from emotional stresses. Play and interactions with siblings improves social behaviors, as well. Removing the pups too soon puts them in another type of impossible situation to fend for themselves when they are not emotionally ready to do so. Furthermore, sustained stressful training of young puppies will be damaging. I’ve spoken to numerous students over the years who hired a trainer to help them with normal puppy problems and turned them away when they entered the door and immediately went forward to put an electric collar on that novice young untrained puppy. Their instincts were right, there was no justifiable cause for using such aversives on a normal puppy doing normal things.
Furthermore, we often allow others to train or interact with our dogs when we aren’t present, depriving our dogs of the safety signaling of our presence. Not all dogs do well in board and train situations or being taken to a back room by a veterinarian, or left alone. There can be unintended undesirable consequences of removing a dog from those it is bonded with. Many of us have seen dogs that are in significant distress when the other dog in the home is either gone or has passed away. That other dog represented safety, and the emotional floor drops away when that dog is gone. This was one of the considerations of why I decided years ago to not offer a board and train program. Some dogs can handle it, some dogs can’t.
We should therefore ask what is reasonable for a dog to be able to do or not do in each situation, and then train the dog in such a way so that there isn’t a conflict the dog can’t resolve. The proper solution will be biased by your dogs’ genetics; history; perceptions; environment; motivation; and memory. Each must be considered to prescribe and implement a good solution that is good for the owner, guest, and the dog. For example, a guarding dog breed might need a different program than a happy social fluffy pet. One size does not fit all.
Some dogs require a series of training exposures and methods to undo, if possible, past severe traumas. Painful memories or anticipation of pain can be as real as actual pain. I’ve worked with these dogs, and sometimes what must be done is counterintuitive. I remember a mid-sized black dog in foster care as a rescue. The dog would lay, inert, on the floor in one spot in a corner. It would barely eat and would soil itself. I devised Plan A, and within a half hour, the dog was walking happily around the yard with the rest of the dogs and over a period of months turned into a normal dog. Another dog with the same symptoms didn’t respond to that same Plan A. So, I recommended a different course of action. Each dog is an individual and it sometimes takes several methods to unravel what has happened to that dog. Sometimes you can’t fix them, either. That’s the sad part since these dogs weren’t born that way, they were made that way. You can’t put a dog on the proverbial psychiatrist’s couch and ask them about their troubled childhood You must instead try an approach that has typically had success in similar situations as a test and see if you are getting the desired results.
In addition, it takes all dogs an individualized segment of time to go from one emotional state to another. I start every dog with a preliminary handling experience as I let them warm up to me and to get familiar with learning new things. I want to draw out and promote proper responsiveness. Each new stimulus response needs to be observed and evaluated. Sometimes we need to change approaches or give a dog more time to adapt. As we work, there is a cooling off period for them to go from high arousal to normal resting homeostasis for each new experience. That time might be 2 seconds for one dog, and 10 minutes for another. You must factor that into how you address each new situation you put your dog in, whether it involves a greeting, getting ready to take a car ride, a new environment. Some dogs even take time to adjust to changes in the time of day. I’ve seen numerous dogs that changed once the sun went down and took some time to adjust. When the sun was still above the horizon, the dog was calm and happy and would take treats readily from a stranger. Then, a half hour later, the sun is down, the dog changes to be more wary, alert and less willing to interact with strangers. You can’t force this stuff with either happy treats or punishment. You must know your dog and let your dog adjust to the changes. In addition, training should be a process, not an abrupt overnight change in all the dog has come to expect. I do not support full training of any dog in a week, for example. That’s asking too much of any dog and is emotionally painful. I space new lessons apart according to the difficulty of the material and what I see in the dog. Some lessons can be moved along quickly, some I expect to take a long time to get to our desired end results. I never put any dog on a deadline, but unfortunately, some dog owners do and some rescues do: if the dog isn’t “fixed by” this date, the dog is gone. That’s really unfair to the dog.
I do not train dogs to be robots. They are not robots and to expect robotic behavior tends to create side effects that often aren’t recognized by their owners or even their trainers. We don’t need to be punishing dogs for being dogs. We need to give each dog a proper evaluation and find solutions that work for everyone involved. Find solutions to facilitate and give your dog, age appropriate, sufficient time, and stimuli to emit proper regulation of emotions and behaviors. I’m always alert to strange behaviors and reported medical conditions. Clues as to how things are going can include heart and breathing rate, temperature changes, appetite, willingness to play, willingness to explore, willingness to engage with the handler, friendliness, vocalizations, activity patterns, ability to hear and do already trained commands, and any displays of distress and comparing those symptoms with what is typical for the breed when it is behaving normally.