Just because we CAN train a dog to tolerate something unpleasant or stressful, does that mean we SHO
Sometimes dogs have limitations… and many times we as humans have unrealistic expectations for our dogs. Often what we want or think the dog needs, the dog doesn’t want or need at all! I can think of many examples over the years where I have seen people push their dogs into situations they do not enjoy and then proclaim a training victory because the dog was not overtly reactive or terrified in the situation: Common examples are taking dogs to restaurants and expecting them to cope with waiters and other members of the public approaching, regularly walking with a group of friends with 20 other dogs, competing in some particular dog sport or the show ring. The reality is that not all dogs are comfortable with these situations and some may really struggle or become quite stressed by them. When the stress manifests as reactivity, the owner’s approach is usually to seek help from a trainer who will teach the dog to accept these situations without overtly reacting. In some cases, with sufficient training, the dog may stop being reactive and may appear to tolerate the situation. But is this what the dog actually needs?
Of course, we know that using punishment in these situations to suppress reactivity only creates more stress and fallout, but what about those trainers who use positive reinforcement and counter-conditioning to alter the dog’s response in a stressful situation? Is it always the right thing to do?
Let’s look at the common example of walking a dog around a neighbourhood where there are lots of dogs barking behind gates as the dog goes past. For some reason, many dog owners seem to think that walking a dog around the road is a mandatory part of owning a dog. Unfortunately, this is often a stressful business as every dog that one passes lunges and barks at the gate as you and your dog go by. Most dogs will react in one of two ways: they will either try to avoid the other dogs (will try to cross behind the owner and walk on the other side of them or pull back to get away) or they might lunge and bark themselves and become quite uncontrollable. To understand why, try to imagine that all your neighbours were coming out into their gardens and yelling obscenities and death threats and brandishing weapons at you as you went by. How would you feel? You would either want to get out of there or hide away or you would start yelling back at them. How would you feel after such a walk? Calm? Relaxed? Less frustrated? Of course not! Your stress levels would be elevated and you would likely be quite anxious or angry. Would you want to do this every day? Would this be a healthy form of exercise? Yet, this is exactly what many dog owners do to their dogs, on a daily basis!
Okay, but what about those dogs that are then trained to not react in this situation? Those that seem to pass by without taking notice of what is going on? Well, if every time a neighbour yelled at you, I popped a piece of chocolate in your mouth or gave you a hundred rand note, you might be inclined to agree to walk around the neighbourhood on a regular basis and ignore the insults and threats. You might even seem quite eager about working for your rewards, but would the experience really do you any good in the long run?
To answer this, let’s look at what taking your dog for a walk is supposed to achieve: Walks provide opportunity for:
Mental stimulation (stimulating the senses and the brain by seeing, hearing and smelling new things)
Bonding between you and your dog through enjoyment of a shared activity
Freedom – the opportunity for a dog to explore, to follow their noses and do their own thing (obviously within reason and safety)
Opportunity to engage in natural behaviours (sniffing, digging, investigating etc.)
Opportunity for positive social encounters where appropriate
The problem is that when you have to constantly train your dog on a walk to ignore an ever-present scary stimulus (dogs barking and lunging behind fences), there is no time for your dog to benefit from any of the items on that list, except training. They have no time to sniff, they have no time to explore, they have no freedom and the only social encounters they experience are negative ones. You are not taking your dog for a walk, you are taking them for a highly stressful training session.
If we wanted to work on counter-conditioning for reactivity around other dogs, we would likely look at doing sessions only once or at the most twice a week. Why? Because this type of training is stressful and the dog needs time to unwind and relax in between sessions. We would NEVER do this every day! Yet this is exactly what dog owners who train their dogs past barking dogs on a walk on a daily basis are doing. We would also use NON-REACTIVE dogs as stooges in a carefully controlled environment so that the dog did not develop further negative associations with other dogs – the complete opposite of what is happening here.
Can my dogs walk around the neighbourhood without being reactive to dogs behind fences? Yes, they can do so extremely well. Do I therefore do this regularly – absolutely not! I want my dogs to like other dogs and not to associate other dogs with aggressive behaviour. Why would I ever willingly expose them to this type of thing when there are better options:
Pop them in the car and drive to a nearby dog walking spot where everyone is off leash, well-socialised and relaxed.
Pop them in the car and drive to a quiet spot where it is just us out for a walk that day.
Take an alternate route around the neighbourhood away from the main barkers
Drive to a quieter neighbourhood and walk there
If the car is not available, have a fun training session at home, play games and offer puzzle toys.
Having a dog walk around the neighbourhood is not a prerequisite for being a good dog owner. If your dog is not comfortable with something that is not essential and that is realistically threatening and stressful, we do NOT have to force them to endure it!