Dr. Leslie Cooper
Source: Dr. Leslie Cooper

I'm a 'connector' by inclination and by training. Sometimes the connections between  thoughts and situations can appear to others as a bit tenuous, and I have been known to make conversational leaps that leave my children shaking their heads. Great or small, putting ideas together can lead to new ways to help clients understand their pet’s behavior, very useful for a veterinary behaviorist.

    "Leaping around" on the internet recently, I came across the website of dog trainer, breeder and author Suzanne Clothier (1). One of her articles, entitled "He Just Wants to Say Hi", dealt with humans misinterpreting a dog's species-appropriate response to another dog's overly pushy behavior as 'inappropriate aggression' and therefore a 'punishable' offense. What was fascinating to me was how she began the article. She describes a scene in which she is sitting innocently on a bench in a mall next to her husband, when a male stranger comes up to her, sits next to her, and even though she indicates by turning away and reading her book her discomfort with his proximity, the stranger sits even closer and begins to lick her neck (ugg!). When she (quite appropriately, I thought) protests with a scream and a shove, her husband throws her to the ground, yells at her that the stranger was 'only trying to say, "Hi"', and passersby shake their heads at how 'aggressive' she is being. The point of this 'fantasy' scene is that quite often this is just what happens when a dog protests with a growl or a snap another dog's inappropriately pushy greeting. I thought the image was powerful, and the parallels appropriate.

    This got me thinking in general about how we view unwanted behaviors in our pets, and how that effects what training techniques we use to try and modify those behaviors. Quite often, our first inclination when our dog does something we don't like (snarls, growls, jumps on us, etc.) is to focus immediately and solely on the behavior at hand and 'punish' or 'correct' it.  I would call this response, "Bad Behavior! Squash it!"  While it may serve to interrupt the behavior we don't want in that moment, to expect that to be the end of things can be premature. One (or a few) applications of what we would consider an adequate "correction" may not banish the unwanted behavior. Sometimes unexpectedly negative results occur. The unwanted behavior may pop up more frequently, become more intense and harder to control.  To me, the fantasy scene in the Clothier article is a good example of the “squash it” point of view. Without taking into account the motivation for the behavior, it was condemned as 'bad', and ‘punished'. I would predict that a repeat of the scenario would trigger the same behavior and not the desired calm and accepting outcome.

   A shift in our perspective may prove more useful in the long run. Taking motivations into greater account can suggest which behavioral modification and training techniques are most likely to be helpful. For example, if body language and behavioral history suggests that anxiety or fear is causing a dog to growl or lunge at someone walking by, then using punitive training techniques that trigger greater anxiety and fear would likely be counter productive. Ignoring some behaviors (those that appear to 'pay off' for the dog in attention from the owner), can end up being more effective than yelling, “NO!”— positive or negative, attention is attention.

  To decide on a course of action based on motivation, you need to know something about how dogs (and humans) interact with their environment in order to select the best way to achieve your goals.  Understanding learning theory, the 'bones' behind training, allows us to be more flexible in our use of options,  and more accurate in troubleshooting and adjusting training plans. I routinely recommend books such as "Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor, or "How to Behavior So Your Dog Behaves", by the late Dr. Sophia Yin, to owners so they can review the basics of how we all learn. Because these principles apply to humans as well as animals, a side benefit for me was finding more effective ways to get my kids to stop fighting in the back seat of the car. Just another useful connection…

 1. Suzanne Clothier- "He just wants to say Hi" article on her website, http://suzanneclothier.com

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