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Small Hands, Big Heart

A new book explores fear-free relationships with our companion animals.

In her new book, Such Small Hands: An Anti-Aversives Primer , dog trainer and advocate Rain Jordan challenges the continued use of aversive training techniques in dogs and, more broadly, helps cultivate ways of living with and interacting with dogs that rely on empathy and kindness rather than intimidation and force.

As she notes in the book, there is ample scientific evidence that aversive training techniques cause lasting harm to dogs (and other animals). It is high time that we recognize and actively seek to move beyond what Rain calls “the long-standing constellations of harm that make up a large part of our history with companion animals.”

Rain's book is a powerful reminder that companion dogs rely on us, their humans, to protect them from exposure to fearful experiences.

Rain graciously agreed to do a Q&A with me about her book.

Welcome, Rain, to my All Dogs Go to Heaven blog.

I want to mention how grateful I am for your interest in the book and your giving it a wider audience here, as this can mean so much more benefit for more animals and those who care for them.

When asked to define an “aversive” training technique, people might think of an alpha roll or neck scruffing or electric shock. Your list of aversive techniques goes well beyond these obvious examples of inflicting pain as punishment. Can you define “aversive” and give some examples that may be less obvious?

An aversive to an animal is anything the animal behaves to avoid or escape. But sometimes due to being captive (as our pets generally are), they cannot ‘behave’ to escape or avoid aversives because we largely control their behavior; therefore, we must also ask ourselves, would the animal try to avoid or escape this particular stimulus if they could do so? The layperson way of saying this is, would the animal prefer to avoid it? Applied behavior analysts may balk at claims of interpreting intent in an animal and that is fair enough, but I do find that sometimes it’s easier for laypeople to remember the principle in that way.

A few examples from my list of potential aversives are squirting an animal with water, startling an animal with a shake can, jerking on the leash, yelling, et cetera. Human actions designed to let an animal know they are ‘in trouble’ if they do or do not XYZ (this is essentially intimidation), actions designed to startle the animal (these are essentially scare tactics), or coerce the animal’s attention—e.g., by yelling—can all be aversive to an animal.

In addition, there are many potential environmental aversives that we cannot directly control but may be able to avoid, as when we decide not to live in an area where fireworks are legal if we have a dog who is afraid of fireworks, or when we choose not to share a home with someone who is emotionally or physically violent, or we ask our friends to be careful not to slam doors, for example. While the animal decides what is aversive to her, I also argue that some things, such as pain and fear, are inherently aversive.

You say that some owners and trainers report that dogs actually “like” their shock collars and get excited when the collar comes out. What’s going on?

The dog’s past experiences of the uncomfortable stimulus—being shocked by the collar—may be overshadowed by the dog’s current anticipation of a stimulus he very much desires; for example, to go outside and explore or play. Just because the collar has a history of hurting or scaring the dog does not mean the dog no longer desires his freedom to run around, play, etc. If the only time he is allowed to do that is when he wears the collar, the collar becomes, to that particular dog, a predictor of that fun and freedom. However, that does not mean the collar did not cause the dog pain, fear, or other harm. It simply means that the dog is more motivated to go outside than to avoid re-experiencing past discomfort.

One point you make that I found helpful, and a bit surprising, is that even seemingly benign actions, on our part, can be aversive to dogs. You encourage us to see that the culture of fear for dogs is much broader than what happens during a discreet training session. Can you elaborate?

A dog who is noise sensitive may find aversive, for example, a busy home, a home with noisy electronics, or a home under a flight path. Many dogs find new things, whatever they are, aversive especially if not carefully, incrementally introduced and conditioned to them. Some dogs find confinement aversive yet we are a crate culture and often people don’t properly condition a dog to a crate. On dog walks, there may be many aversive stimuli with which our dogs are faced. We might not even notice some of them, although a common one many dog caregivers bemoan is the random stranger squealing with glee and insisting on petting the dog. (For most people, that would not be allowable during a walk with our spouse or our child—and they have much more freedom to say 'no' than our dogs do.)

Belly rubs are another classic example—we think our dogs love our physical attention, but when a dog exposes her belly, she is often attempting to appease, not asking for handling. Scolding and finger-pointing may feel like no big deal to us, so we may not realize how upsetting this can be to our dogs. And then there are the required experiences such as nail trimming, bathing, and so on. These are aversive to many dogs and yet because from our perspective they are necessary, we sometimes do not consider how much fear or other discomfort they deliver. Even something as seemingly innocent as grabbing our dog’s collar may be aversive to the dog. We need to become much more mindful and protective of our dogs’ emotional and associative needs, in addition to their physical needs.

The potential harms of aversives are extensive—you have an entire chapter on this. What are some of the harms dogs and their humans can experience?

Since, unfortunately, some people attempt to correct behavior problems by employing aversives, it may surprise them to learn that aversives can actually lead to worsening behavior, even new behavior issues. There’s plenty of science on this (links to studies are in the book).

One reason: Aversives tend to only temporarily suppress behavior rather than permanently “cure” it. Any time you have increased behavior problems in a dog, you have increased [the] risk of negative outcomes for the humans involved as well. There’s not just the risk of a bite, but of learned helplessness, of anxiety, et cetera, but also the risk of surrender or elective euthanasia. There are more, and more subtle, risks as well, as discussed in the book.

It’s important to realize too that when we employ aversives and achieve temporary suppression of an animal’s undesired behavior, we are, ourselves, being reinforced. That means our own aversive behavior will tend to increase. And that means decreased animal welfare.

You talk about the difference between keeping a dog safe and keeping a dog feeling safe. This is an important distinction. What are some ways we can keep our dogs feeling safe?

It’s interesting to consider that sometimes, the actions we take to keep a dog safe might result in the dog not feeling safe, isn’t it? For example, we’re on a leash walk and a car suddenly comes speeding around a corner too tightly, heading toward us. The natural reaction for many people would be to yank the dog out of the way by leash. This is designed to keep the dog safe, and yet there’s a good chance being suddenly yanked by leash results in the dog not feeling safe. This is one rare instance where something aversive may be unavoidable.

A different example, where feeling safe, in my view, is more important than our current cultural ways of keeping a dog safe, is vet visits. Our dogs need vaccines, check-ups, and other veterinary care. But if we force our dogs to endure this care in aversive ways—e.g., by strangers approaching, hovering over, or handling the dog before the dog is comfortable with them—we are conditioning negative associations with the veterinary experience. The dog will tend not to feel safe. This has long-term consequences, as anyone who has a dog scared of vet offices knows.

The Fearful Dogs Project is a charity program I direct to help people learn best practices for helping dogs feel safe, whether in the veterinary environment or any other situation. TFDP is a bit more hard-core in terms of anti-aversives than other programs out there because we value and prioritize the animal’s well-being over things like convenience and ease for humans. After all, isn’t part of why we’ve become such an aversive culture for our beloved animals because we tend to be impatient humans?

To help dogs feel safe, avoid aversives, which thereby avoids a lot of fear, leaving room for confidence and comfort instead. You want your dog’s trust account to grow and grow. This is the spirit of the book. While it’s impossible to be truly “fear-free” practitioners because it isn’t we, but rather the animal, who decides what is scary, what everyone can do is focus on avoidance of creating new fears, avoidance of leveraging established fears, whether purposely or inadvertently, while instead conditioning, whether classically or operantly, positive associations.

What motivated you to write this book?

Part of me wishes I’d addressed this question in it, but the book is a to-the-point effort so I left myself out of it as much as possible. There are so many stories I could tell of animals I’ve seen or worked with and how their suffering drove me to write this book.

When suffering begins to overwhelm, we can ignore it. Or we can try to Band-Aid it in ways that do not resolve and sometimes inadvertently worsen suffering. Sometimes, then, it might be tempting to give up or claim that it isn’t possible to achieve the dream. Or we can begin re-building our culture into something much more likely to increase well-being.

I wrote the book to try to help more people understand their animals’ experiences and needs, and how every person can make changes that will increase well-being for their animals and themselves, but also that every person can inspire and encourage others to do the same. A cultural shift not only can happen, but must happen. And there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t start right now.

For more information about Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA, Certified Fearful Dogs Professional (CFDP) instructor/mentor, visit her at her Fearful Dogs Project website.