Dog Training Should Solve Problems, Not Suppress Symptoms

Posted on September 12th, 2017 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

There is a dog training equivalent to that old saying: You can’t see the forest through the trees. The saying points to a state of mind in which people cannot see the “big picture” because they are focused on all the minutia. In dog training, it sometimes is tempting to focus on solving undesirable symptoms when we should be identifying and remedying the underlying problems from which those symptoms arise.

A few days ago, I encountered a video in which a well-known dog trainer was boasting about his skillfulness at “curing” an English Mastiff who was barking threateningly at guests who entered its home. The video was immediately barraged with negative (and, frankly, hateful) comments and was quickly removed from YouTube by the trainer.

And while I felt very bad for the abuse this dog trainer was subjected to, the truth is that his video portrayed a very poor, damaging, and potentially dangerous approach to dog training.

An Explanation of the Video

The first scene of the video showed the dog reacting as a guest was let into the home by the owner. The dog’s eyes were wide open (i.e. whale-eye) and its pupils were dilated – both signs of fear. The dog’s tail also was tucked tightly between its legs – another sign of fear. And the dog paced back and forth, its position alternating from a spot behind the owner to a spot behind a recliner – more signs of fearfulness. The dog was indisputably and highly stressed.

The dog trainer pointed out that this dog was unruly and rude for acting this way towards a stranger. He then said that he would fix the problem in under fifteen minutes.

The video then progressed to the second scene, in which the trainer’s work presumably was completed and the dog was “cured.” A guest was let into the home by the owner, and the dog (now wearing a shock collar) was shown laying quietly on a mat by the recliner. The dog’s eyes were still very wide, and while I could not see the position of the dog’s tail, the mastiff was exhibiting wide-mouthed panting – another sign of stress. But it is true that the dog was neither barking nor pacing.

The dog trainer then said something like: “There, problem solved! Now the dog is being respectful and calm.”

Incorrect. That is not at all what the dog was being.

Did the Dog Trainer Solve the Problem?

This dog trainer did not solve the problem. In fact, he only squelched the symptoms of the dog’s problem.  To rephrase: The problem was that the mastiff was fearful of strangers in its home.

The symptoms of that problem were that the dog was barking (to warn the objects of its fear to stay away), and pacing while maintaining a barrier between itself and the guests (for an added measure of safety).

It was clear by the dog’s body language in the video’s second scene (wide eyes, gaping mouth and heavy panting) that it clearly was still afraid of the visitor and highly stressed by being forced to remain in close proxemity to the stranger; it was just more afraid of moving and getting jolted by the shock collar.

A Better Approach to Dog Training

While I’m not a proponent of a 100% rainbows-and-unicorns approach to dog training (our philosophy statement is HERE), I do think that trying to solve fearfulness with fear is a dangerous proposition. In fact, I think that a dog barking or avoiding a stranger is a good thing, as it shows the dog is capable of clear communication about its feelings in frightening situations. A communicative dog is a safe dog. When dogs are not allowed to communicate, people are at risk of inadvertently encroaching upon the dog’s safety zone or cornering the dog. And I’d much rather be barked at than mauled.

A simple and more positive process of counter-conditioning the dog to the presence of strangers and introducing the dog to newcomers in a safe, controlled way likely would have solved that dog’s problem – fearfulness. And solving the problem likely would cause the dog’s symptoms (the barking, pacing and hiding) to subside.

Such an approach would help the dog to not to feel so confronted by guests and to understand that people coming into its home is something to look forward to. Then the fearful dog gradually would be tranformed into a happier, more confident dog.

Weighing the Price of Different Approaches

One might argue that desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog so that it enjoys people coming into its home would take longer, cost more, and be more work for the owner than hiring a dog trainer with a shock collar for fifteen minutes. Possibly, but my knee-jerk response to that assertion would be: “So, what?!”

When it comes to training dogs, there is more at stake than just money or time. It is very rare that an approach that suggests instant gratification, cheapness or laziness on the part of the owner should outweigh taking an approach that is more appropriate for the dog’s physical and psychological welfare.

I can hear the question now, so let me answer it: No, I am not a psychologist or a scientist. But I do know that sustained stress (a common manifestation of fearfulness) has negative psychological and physical impact on humans, and I do know that modern research shows that it negatively impacts dogs as well. If you are interested in delving into this topic, you can start your search HERE.

Not only does sustained stress cause dogs to become less tolerant (and thus more reactive) towards their triggers, but it also raises the cortisol level in the blood. Calling cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1,” Psychology Today reports: “Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on.”

There is a notion out there that dogs are property, and that it is fine to treat them as such. However, at FetchMasters, we see dogs as living, breathing, intelligent creatures with similar emotional spectrums to our own, drives and desires. We definitely tend to see them more like family members. As such, we believe that their treatment and training should reflect that. This requires making an effort to see the forest, not just the trees.