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Dogs Hesitate More and Respond Less Well When You Are Upset

Your mood affects your dog's performance of instructions or commands.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

I was at a dog obedience competition in Cloverdale, British Columbia, which is a bit less than an hour away from the attractive Canadian city of Vancouver. I had just completed a run at Novice level obedience which, although not successful, had provided some amusement for the people who were observing it. During an off lead portion of the exercise my Beagle, Darby, had found some interesting scent trail and wandered off to pursue it. He followed the scent out of the ring that we were competing in and into the adjacent ring, pausing only to give a friendly greeting to the dog who was competing there and then proceeding on with a ring steward in hot pursuit. I had always known that his nose would be my downfall in any kind of trial with an off leash component, but he amused me, and I couldn't resist the challenge of trying to train him well enough to earn some sort of obedience title. At the end of our disastrous run I gave him a dog cookie, tousled his ears, and put him in the pen where one of my close friends had her Shetland sheepdogs. I then bought myself a cup of coffee and stepped outside the hall and into the sunshine to relax for a moment.

The first thing that I saw when I walked out of the door was a girl who appeared to be in her late teens or early 20s, and who had just competed in an Open level trial some half an hour earlier. Her dog, a black and white English Cocker Spaniel, had performed adequately up until the final exercise which was the broad jump. When she gave the command for the dog to take the jump he simply didn't move. When she gave a sharp and demanding second command (second commands are not legal and this meant a failed trial) the dog slowly got up and walked over the hurdles rather than jumping. The girl was upset and frustrated when she left the ring. The scene that I was observing showed that she had had borrowed a set of broad jump hurdles and was now out behind the trial hall practising with her dog and trying to get him to reliably go over the jump. She had set the dog up about 8 or 10 feet from the jump. Clearly she was still angry and upset from the failed trial, because you could hear those emotions in her voice when she gave the command "Winston, over!"

I had a flashback to my early days of trying to train dogs. I was at a training seminar, working with my Cairn Terrier, Flint. The person giving this workshop was an old-style trainer who was very patient at teaching us some basic material. She had specified some simple command, which we were to teach our dogs as a set-up for something more complex. Of the half-dozen or so dogs on the floor at that point, all had learned this command. Not so for my little gray terrier who just sat and looked at me. To no avail I raised the volume of my voice and tried to put more of an element of forceful command into it. In the end I am sure that I was sounding something like an annoyed Marine Sergeant harshly issuing orders to a confused set of untrained recruits.

The trainer walked over to me and said, "You're not helping things. With that degree of negative emotion in your voice your dog isn't going to learn anything. If there's one thing that I have come to know about dog training it's that, 'The tension flows down the leash'. What that means is that when you are upset or angry or displaying any kind of negativity dogs will no longer pay attention to what you are trying to teach, but rather they will focus their attention on you to try to figure out what is wrong with you or what is bothering you, and they are worrying about what you are apt to do next. Often a dog will simply shut down, and if he does anything at all he will only do it after a long delay and will respond slowly and hesitantly. If you can't control your negative emotions you are better off if you stop the training session, get a cup of coffee, take a drink, find some love, or whatever. Come back when you are feeling better and the dog will learn faster and respond with more enthusiasm."

Although that bit of advice was given to me many years ago, a recent report in the journal Animal Cognition* actually seems to provide experimental validation for her observations. This new study was conducted by Ross Flom and Peggy Gartman of the Department of Psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They were studying the well-established finding that dogs will go in the direction to which a person points. The novel aspect of their study was that in some conditions they added a positive or a negative emotion to see how that affected the dog's performance.

The setup was simple. An unfamiliar adult gestured and gazed toward one of two covered bowls. In one case the experimenter did this in total silence. In another case the experimenter used a practised positive emotion — a high, varied pitch saying the words "Oh wow, that's great," with a smiling expression. Alternatively in the negative emotion group the experimenter said "Oh wow, that's awful," in a lower pitch to convey tension, accompanied by a frowning facial expression.

This team found that the dogs were quite responsive to silent pointing and gaze, and accurately located the indicated bowl with the treat most of the time. This was also true with the dogs in the positive emotion group, although the addition of that positive emotion did not make them more accurate. When the experimenter gestured toward the baited bowl while expressing the negative emotion, the dogs were still able to locate their reward. So, you might ask, "What effect did the negative emotion have?" It was much like what had been explained to me at that seminar that I attended long ago. The dogs experiencing negative emotions on the part of the person were significantly more hesitant in starting to respond and moving toward the target.

This hesitancy was demonstrated by measuring what psychologists call their "response latency." In this case that is simply the time between dog's observing the gesture and the moment in time that the dog gets up, leaves the person who is holding them, and begins to explore the environment to look for the treat. The experimenters found that the latency was twice as long in the presence of negative emotion than it was in the presence of a positive emotion or no emotion at all. In other words the dogs experiencing negativity seem to focus on that negative emotion and that takes their attention away from the task at hand thus slowing their responses and making them feel insecure. In effect, this is an experimental demonstration of the statement that "The tension flows down the leash" in that the negative emotions of the person instructing the dog have been communicated to the dog, and it adversely affects the dog's performance.

So I walked over to the girl who was staring at her dog with a frown. I said "I see that you're having some trouble training Winston to do this. How about if you put him in his kennel for a few minutes and let me buy you a cup coffee and a muffin. I want to tell you about a dog training secret that I learned a long while back…"

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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* Data from: Ross Flom and Peggy Gartman (2016). Does affective information influence domestic dogs' (Canis lupus familiaris) point-following behavior? Animal Cognition, 19; 317-327. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0934-5