(A portrait of Hazel by Tischman Pet Photography)
Whoa. Wait a minute. What's with all the negativity out there in the dog-training world? Since when did we humans decide that in order to make dogs behave well, we need to scare them?
All too often I'm called in to repair the damage done by outdated training techniques that advocate shocking or bullying a dog in order to train them. I see dogs and puppies who are growling, fighting or paralyzed with fear and anxiety.
When I ask a few probing questions, I discover that well-intentioned pet owners have often been influenced by professional dog trainers who market negative reinforcement and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. These dog trainers may have only recently bought into an internationally marketed franchise and may have little to no experience with dogs and the growing science of animal behavior.
So how can you tell if you're doing your dog wrong? Whether you've been coached by a trainer to engage in the following activities, been inspired by celebrity icons or are just repeating what you witnessed in your childhood, you know you've done your pet wrong if you:
1) Throw things at your dog to interrupt bad behavior.
(a chain bag, penny can, magazines, an iPhone...).
I do get this. Sometimes I'm so frustrated when my husband or kids don't pay any attention to me. I sure would like to throw something at them. But I don't.
2) Use electricity -- shock or vibrating collars -- to train your dog.
Electricity takes all the joy out of being a dog. I can spot an e-collar-trained dog the second I meet them. They're either terrified, manic or depressed.
I recognize that techno-training is a growing trend. And who can argue the pleasures of instantaneous control and blind obedience? But if you want to live in the real world, with loving, happy companions, you'll lay down your remote. Learning takes time, patience, unconditional love and consistency. Batteries-not-included.
3) Repeat the word "dominance" a lot.
"My dog is dominant." "My dog does that because he/she is dominant." Or the ever popular: "My dog is trying to dominate me... my spouse... my kids."
Can we please put an end to the word dominance-as-a-noun trend? Dominance is an adjective. No one -- dog or human -- is dominant all the time. Dogs are no more in the business of dominating their people than children are.
4) Growling has become a part of your daily vocalization.
Dogs don't buy the human growl. Paired with or without theatrical lunging, your dog's either going to blow you off or be scared stiff. Though you may stop the targeted behavior, there's rarely any long term cooperation.
5) Leave the shock collar on 24/7.
Try wearing a pronged collar around your neck all the time. Remember, remotes are for appliances and TVs. Not living things.
6) Stare your dog down, trying to intimidate him.
Staring at dogs scares them. Scared dogs worry. Worried dogs are not happy and continually misbehave.
7) Chase your dog in anger.
Imagine that I'm chasing you, waving my arms in ways wild and unpredictable. While I know what I want from you, you haven't a clue. You're just afraid. Really, really afraid. Fast forward to the next hour, or day or year. How are you going feel and react when we're together?
8) Scream at your dog.
Now envision that I'm shouting at you. Feel any better?
9) Hit or kick your dog.
I think these reflexes are against the law? Or maybe that's just with kids. While lashing out relieves some tension, it won't inspire love or learning.
10) When outside for a walk you muscle your dog to your side or simply let him pull you along.
All your dog learns is that walking with you is asphyxiating. Your dog continues to struggle to break free, develops leash tension and -- in most cases -- on-leash dog aggression too.
11) Isolate your dog in a room or closet to interrupt bad behavior.
Isolation terrifies dogs. Their brain floods with frantic desperation when alone. Learning cannot occur, but separation anxiety and/or more aggressive responses are likely outcomes.
12) Step on your dog's paws to discourage jumping.
Ahhh, ouch?! Inflicting physical pain is not an effective teaching tool. When someone mindfully hurts you, do you ponder a deeper meaning?
13) Squeeze your dog's front paws to discourage jumping.
Read above. Mindfully hurting your dog not only causes pain, its bruises your relationship.
14) Grab-n-go has become your evening entertainment.
Your dog grabs something, dodges left and pivots right: repeat performance guaranteed.
15) Clamp your dog's jaw shut to discourage barking or nipping.
Making dogs feel worse so that they'll behave better doesn't work. Abused dogs develop self-defense. They may not snap at the squeezer, but they are more assertive with other people.
16) Stick your fingers down your dog's throat to discourage nipping.
That's gross. Gross and ridiculous. Gross, ridiculous and terrifying for your dog.
17) "Pop" your dog's leash or hang him by his collar.
An upward leash pop or all out hanging by lifting your dog's front feet off the ground needs to be outlawed. Whatever your dog did to cause your frustration will not be improved by gagging your dog. I can guarantee that one.
18) Spray your dog with a hose to discourage outdoor mischief or digging.
Spraying your dog with a hose teaches them only one thing. To avoid you when you're holding a hose. Clever dogs generally avoid misbehaving when you're around, but wait until your back is turned....
19) Shove your dog's face into their pee or poop to correct house-soiling accidents.
What if I did this to you? Or -- if that's too personal -- what if you read about someone who did this to their own kid?
Flooding your dog with the smell of his own excrement isn't an effective training excercise.
20) You've got your dog's fur caught between your teeth.
Biting a dog or puppy to teach them to stop biting? What is this world coming to?
21) Electronic transmitters have become a permanent part of your household décor.
While I do understand and accept use of electronic fences to portion off yards, the use of indoor shock transmitters to educate dogs is as unnecessary as it is cruel. I will do several pieces over the winter on dogs who have developed paralyzing depression, outright aggression and rage-filled fighting responses to other pets as a direct result of their indoor electrocutions. Would you consider using such a control devise on a toddler? Even if it promised adult-like mannerisms overnight!? If you wouldn't do it to a child, then for heaven's sake don't do it to a dog.
Are you feeling guilty? That's a good sign. I've discovered that most people only mistreat their dog when instructed to do so. You're not the only dog-lover who has been brainwashed into believing the only way to train your dog is to scare it into submission.
Franchises are getting the attention of veterinarians, slapping magnets on cars that promise free lessons and a lifetime of follow up tutorials in order to get people to use their services. But who wants a lifetime guarantee if it comes at the cost of your dog's sanity?
The good news is that dog training doesn't have to be cruel to be effective. You can use positive, veterinarian-endorsed techniques that will make both you and your dog feel great about your relationship.
As science now explicitly states, dogs share the same mental and emotional capacities as 2-year-old children. Perhaps it is high time we consider the way we're treating them.
Stay tuned for the follow-up: 11 Ways to Do Your Dog Right.