Is “How Can I Get Him to Stop” The Right Training Goal?
The most common question we hear from pet owners is how they can get their dogs or cats to stop doing some behavior they don’t like. Perhaps they want their dog to stop barking, their cat to stop spraying or urinating outside the litterbox, their cats or dogs to stop fighting or being destructive, or their dog to stop pulling on the leash or lunging at other dogs.
When we think about how we want our pets’ behaviors to be different primarily in terms of stopping a behavior, we are talking about suppression of behavior. If all we are thinking about is behavior suppression, we’ve put on some very dangers blinders in describing how we want our pet’s behavior to change.
We’ve seen dogs that have been subjected to very severe and harsh treatment with the goal of getting them to stop doing something. And you know what? These procedures have sometimes successfully suppressed the behaviors owners didn’t like. But these dogs were clearly terrified by their suppression experiences.
Take the example of pulling on leash and lunging at other dogs. If a dog is yanked back with the force that say a 175 pound man can exert on the dog’s neck using a leash and a pinch collar, it likely won’t take long for the dog to learn to be quite afraid to pull on the leash. Behavior suppression has been accomplished.
Is that the only goal we are really after? Let’s take a look at what else might have happened. When tightened with sufficient force, pinch collars hurt – that’s why they can suppress lunging and pulling. Ask any veterinary professional what dogs are likely to do when they are in pain – they bite.
We consulted on a case of a Doberman that had become aggressive to other dogs on walks. The dog would bark and growl and had once even attempted to bite his owner when he saw another dog approaching. The behavior history revealed that several weeks prior to the appearance of the aggression the owner had begun using a pinch collar to stop the dog from pulling. The pinch collar stopped the pulling, but it also elicited the aggressive response. We switched the dog to a head collar, implemented a counter conditioning program and the aggression disappeared.
The second question to ask ourselves is what is the dog’s demeanor or said another way what is the dog’s “body language” saying after the behavior suppression has occurred? Is he relaxed and happy walking next to his owner on leash, tail wagging, ears up, clearly enjoying his walk? Or is he tense and anxious, panting, overly vigilant, afraid to make one false move that will cause something bad to happen?
At least two recent research studies have shown that most pet owners have difficulty knowing when their dogs are stressed, anxious or afraid. In fact, most people pay attention to the wrong features of the dog’s body and are likely to confuse stress and anxiety with a “happy” emotional state.
This article isn’t really about pinch collars or pulling on leash. The take home message is a much bigger picture than that. When you set a training or behavior change goal for your pet, think about what you want him TO DO, not just what you don’t want him to do.
Rather than “how can I get my dog to stop pulling on leash” set the goal of “how can I get my dog to be relaxed and happy walking by my side with minimal pulling”. Rather than asking "how can I get my cat to stop urinating on the rug" ask "how can I create a litterbox that my cat will use?". That may require addressing other issues – maybe the cat won’t use the box because another family cat harasses her. So then the question becomes "how can I help my cats get along better".
How you think about what you want will influence how you choose to go about accomplishing your goal. It’s not ONLY the behavior we’re after when setting a training goal, but the accompanying emotional state. And it’s usually the case that we can’t have one without the other. If we have a terrified dog walking next to his owner without pulling, something bad is ultimately going to happen.