Facing Fear

I meet far too many pet owners that are quick to scold an aggressive response from their dog.  I am not just referring to scolding as a physical punishment, as it can take a verbal form as well. The outdated idea that punishment is an effective form of training is often reinforced by inaccurate information aired on television or published online.  The problem with the use of punishment to suppress aggressive behavior is that aggression is a fear response and punishment increases fear.

Everyone is familiar with that overwhelming feeling when you miss a step on a flight of stairs.  Your stomach drops, your heart stops rises to your throat, your breath is lost, your entire body clenches, and time seems to freeze.  That feeling is fear. 

Think about that feeling of fear.  Experience it.  Now, imagine that you are a dog experiencing fear.  The fear you are experiencing could be caused by the sight of another dog, a procedure at the veterinarian or groomer, a stranger entering your home, or a million other reasons.  In that moment of panic, you do the only thing you can and attempt to scare away whatever may be frightening you.  Maybe you bark, lunge, growl, snarl, or maybe you do it all.  You are desperate to get rid of the thing that is frightening you.  In the midst of that moment of panic, imagine that there is someone with you who is yelling at or attempting to physically move or correct you.  In that moment – can you make out or understand what they are saying?  No, you can’t.  It is all just background noise that makes the whole experience even more frightening.  Or, perhaps assume that they are also yelling at the scary thing with you to try and send it away.  That would make the scary thing even scarier; it would confirm your fears.  In reality, all of that commotion is an ineffective attempt to stop your reaction.  

That is why any responsible and informed trainer does not punish fear.  Progress simply cannot be made by punishing fear.  There is, however, a situation in which the dog is too afraid to display an emotional reaction.  The dog shuts down because they are afraid of the consequences of that reaction.  In the end, the dog is still afraid.  You have not changed the emotional response.  You have not taken away the fear.  All you have done is create a more fearful dog who likely does not trust you.  One day that fear will be too overwhelming. That dog has become a ticking time bomb.  And worse yet, the blame will be on the dog when their fear tells them they must use their teeth and bite.

Think of it this way: an unwanted behavior is a spring or coil.  You could unroll or unravel it and then twist it and tweak it into something beautiful and desirable.  Or, you could shove it into a can and force a lid on it.  In the process of cramming and crushing that spring, you will lose the trust that your dog so graciously gave to you.  Most importantly, there are only so many springs you can cram in one can.  Eventually, the lid is going to pop off and all of those springs will come flying out at full force.

It is past time for a change.  It is time to stop cramming springs into cans and start unrolling them instead.  Focus on the possibilities of what that spring could be and try viewing it from a different angle.  You might be surprised what you can accomplish.