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Relationships

Why Dogs Don't Need Tough Love

If you're considering it, maybe think about rehoming instead.

Key points

  • Dogs need real love, not tough love that they won't understand; it confuses them with mixed messages and stresses them.
  • Say goodbye and hello to your dog and whisper "good dog" even when they haven't done anything to merit the praise.
  • Reconcile the mindset of "I'll show you who's boss" tough love with the possibility of re-homing a stressed dog.

A recent column in the Washington Post by John Kelly titled “It’s time to show some tough love to our soft, sad dog” about a rescue named Archie, generated lots of attention.Archie had become a nuisance for Kelly and his wife, Ruth. He writes, "To be honest, I used to think 'rescue' meant 'free dog.' Now I realize another definition is 'mentally unbalanced dog'." The title isn't phrased as a question, but rather as a fact.

This essay was written with force-free dog trainer, Mary Angilly. Kelly found a trainer who told him, "We can’t give Archie all the hugs and pats and squeezes we used to. We can’t pet him unless he’s successfully performed some task, lest he think we’re the party." Mary and I feel very sorry for Archie and the Kellys and that they were given such bad advice. The trainer also said, "it’s unlikely Archie will ever be 'normal'.”

Anyone who knows dogs knows there are huge individual differences among these canids, even among littermates and other siblings and within breeds. It's very harmful to dogs and dog-human relationships when dog-appropriate and context-appropriate behaviors are mislabeled and misinterpreted and referred to as being abnormal. There is no "universal dog"—dogs are individuals and these differences must be honored and factored into teaching a dog to do what we want them to do.

What is tough love and what does it feel like for a dog?

There are serious problems centering on Kelly's redefinition of "rescue" as meaning "mentally unbalanced" and his trainer calling for "tough love" and saying that Archie will never be "normal." These are egregious myths; rescue dogs aren't misfits. In fact, rescue dogs are not necessarily quirkier than other dogs, they can be wonderful companions, and there can be mutual benefits for the dogs and their humans.

Mary Angilly
Buster, feeling safe and sound.
Source: Mary Angilly

Tough love is defined in many different ways, but it boils down to holding an individual responsible for their actions or lack thereof, and in a dog's case, ignoring them or possibly turning the tables on them and making them feel they have to earn hugs, rewards, and love.

One definition reads, "tough love is an example of unconditional love for your partner. Tough love is about recognizing faults, overcoming them as a couple, and growing stronger together through honest communication about boundaries and standards."

While this might be true for humans who can talk about what's going on, it's unlikely dogs will understand why they are being treated this way. This isn't to say dogs don't have highly developed cognitive capacities or they're not smart enough, but rather they can't talk with their human(s) about what's happening and why.

It's very confusing and stressful for them—you say you love them, and they think you do, or at least you did but they may wonder why you are treating them as if you don't. Simply put, they don't get it. When dogs and humans are able to agree about what you want them to do, it's a win for all.

For dogs, tough love is a misguided mindset. Perhaps Archie was a victim of trigger stacking, a toxic accumulation of stress due to exposure to multiple triggers over a period of time that is too short to allow an animal’s reactivity/stress levels to return to normal. Why would anyone want to live with an unhappy dog who is living in chronic states of fear, anxiety, or uncertainty?1

Two emails among the numerous ones Marc received spoke to this situation. Monika wrote, "I tried tough love following you know who, and I lost my dog. She did what I wanted but we never really reconnected as we had in the past." Pedro told Marc, "Tough love made Samuel submissive and we never achieved the equality we previously had."

Dogs need real love, not tough love

While tough love might make Archie behave better and make it easier for the Kellys to live with him, Archie's state of mind will be one of confusion and perhaps he'll be living in fear and submission. Science has clearly shown that force-free positive training is the best method to use to teach a dog what you would like them to do, individual differences must be respected—there are few, if any, one-size-fits-all explanations of what's happening and what needs to be adjusted, and a dog's emotional state must also be considered.

If your dog likes to be hugged, hug them. Say goodbye and hello to your dog when leaving and reuniting, and say "good dog" simply because they're alive and it's critical to reassure them that they are loved. This also affirms that they are important to you and they don't need to please you to earn the praise. And play with them and have fun together.

If you're pondering tough love, is it time to consider rehoming your dog?

Many people are relinquishing their dog because the dog didn't turn out to be the individual they wanted or they didn't realize what a huge decision it was to bring a dog into their lives. When the bond with your dog is broken and you’ve reached the point of “tough love,” is that perhaps a harbinger?

In an ideal society, we would have a human-dog equivalent of Bumble or Match.com to help people find the best dogs for their lifestyles. We are hopeful that if animal protection organizations will also better counsel prospective and current dog guardians, better and long-lasting matches will be formed and maintained.

Choosing to take a dog into your home and heart is a huge responsibility. It should mean you're offering a forever home with lots of compassion, respect, and love. However, there are scenarios in which rehoming is the best option for both human(s) and dog(s).2 You might also reevaluate whether there are options to help you keep your dog in your home. Many humane societies and rescue groups have information on rehoming or can directly provide financial assistance (for your dog’s food, veterinary care, etc.), access to resources to address behavior issues, temporary housing, and much more.

Coda

Kelly's essay and the comments of the trainer bring up countless issues as evidenced in the 504 comments that were posted, the vast majority of which were critical of using tough love. This is not to say the Kelly's weren't doing the best they could do, but it wasn't good enough for a dog like Archie who didn't get the real love he wanted, needed, and rightfully deserved.

All in all, Kelly's essay is an important read because it raises many issues with which numerous people are faced, including those who brought a dog home during the pandemic for any number of reasons, only to discover that their nonhuman companion wasn't a panacea.

Facebook image: Patrick H/Shutterstock

References

1) Unnoticed trigger stacking is anecdotally one of the primary causes of “outbursts” from companion dogs that Mary has seen while working as a dog trainer and behavior consultant.

2) If you're contemplating rehoming your own dog, we encourage you to do some serious introspection and start by asking yourself these questions: Is your current situation sustainable for a period of time? Is everyone (dog and other family members) currently safe? What do you like about your dog? What were you looking for when you decided to get a dog? What is your current dog like and what is their ideal home? What would it take to bridge this gap? Are you (financially, emotionally, and physically) able to work on this?

The Perils of Mislabeling Dog-Appropriate Behavior.

Dog Training Requires Respecting the Deep Emotional Lives of Dogs.

Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities.

Words of Wisdom on Raising and Training a Happy Puppy.

Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education.

Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best.

What and Who Dogs Want and Need: Love, Not Shocks.

Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.

Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care.

Should You Say Goodbye to Your Dog Before You Leave?

For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.

Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug.

Do Your Dog and You Agree About What You Want Them to Do?

Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?

Rescue Dogs: Who They Are and the Joys of Rehoming Them.

Mutual Rescue: Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Both

Larry and Harry Are Rescued Dogs and No Quirkier Than Yours

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