So, there’s this cattle dog, an Australian Cattle Dog, you know, a blue heeler, the type of dog that many believe you have to be rough with, hard on, the boss of and heavy handed with? Yeah, one of those. Stan was adopted by a loving couple who just wanted a nice dog to do things with, to be active with, to take places. Unfortunately, Stan turned out to be reactive with other dogs. He would bark and lunge when he saw other dogs and the behavior was getting worse so they contacted a trainer.
The first trainer is a positive reinforcement trainer recommended by the rescue group where Stan was adopted. The trainer apparently tried to use straight classical conditioning (feed in the presence of the trigger) to modify the issue and change Stan’s feelings and reactions to other dogs. Unfortunately, they did so without the use of systematic desensitization.
Classical conditioning is really just pairing something (other dogs) with something (food, for instance). Best case scenario is that the dog’s emotional response to the “thing”, in this case other dog, changes from upset to happy because the other dog has been paired with food. In my opinion, it is best to do this while also using desensitization. Desensitization means that you keep the dog “under threshold” or exposed at a low enough intensity level that the dog is not reacting, can learn, eat and think. This didn’t happen with Stan, he is was far too close and while he would frantically eat, he was far from comfortable. It is my opinion that there would have been far greater success if desensitization was also implemented and if the owner was taught a bit more about the fundamentals of the process and how it should work and how it changes behavior. While we don’t need to be too “science-y” with our clients, we do need to be sure not to dumb it down so that they don’t even understand how or why something should work and why.
His owner did not see a significant if any change from this trainer, so contacted another trainer.
Stan was sent to a board and train trainer who uses aversives including shock collars and pinch collars to train dogs. Stan was basically physically corrected for reacting to other dogs. This didn’t make him feel more relaxed, comfortable or safe. For weeks he was jerked and shocked for reacting to other dogs before the trainer returned him to her with the information that “there is really something wrong with your dog” and that “I can’t fix him”. Stan was as reactive as ever, probably even more so now.
Why would he get worse and why didn’t this work? When using punishment to change behavior a few things have to happen. First, of course the timing has to be impeccable, however, even if it is, if you are using a tool that can create pain or fear for the dog, you start to lose control of what exactly the dog is associating it with. You could be and many times are attempting to correct the dog for his reaction to the other dog, but instead are simply making his feelings about the other dog worse. So, how can he possibly stop reacting defensively when he has more and more reason to feel defensive? We need to feel safe to learn.
Best case scenario, for the owner, not the dog, in this case would have been that he linked the corrections with his behavior of barking or lunging and simply stopped doing it and learned how to cope with his fear or discomfort around other dogs. This happens sometimes and it’s why some people feel that this method is acceptable. See? It works! Well, it works if you are only interested in making the behavior stop, it doesn’t work if you are interested in making the dog comfortable with other dogs. I have seen this stop some dogs from reacting to other dogs, but I have never seen it make dogs okay with other dogs being around and it certainly doesn’t help with the dogs actual relationship with other dogs if he has any, which would be my goal. I don’t want him to just stop, I want him to feel okay AND stop. The dog feeling okay is a critical piece for me.
Honestly, I have seen people correct dogs for YEARS for reacting to other dogs. YEARS. And the behavior never changes and in many cases it gets worse. Suppressing behavior in the moment is very different from changing the future of the behavior. Punishment reduces the future frequency of the behavior, so if it is punishment it has to change the future of the behavior. What is it if it doesn’t change the behavior but the dog gets shocked or jerked whenever they see another dog? Physically correcting a dog for reacting to other dogs gives him so much more to worry about. He is forced to be exposed to other dogs at an intensity level he is far too overwhelmed at, if he reacts he is in trouble, he can’t turn to his owner or handler for help because they are the one doling out the punishment. Many times you can see the dog squirm and look stressed and uncomfortable but tries to hold it together because he is trying so desperately to avoid being corrected by his owner. Not a great life.
The owner was pretty horrified by this training and would not allow Stan to remain for more training and turned to another trainer who was recommended by a trainer that the owner highly trusted.
Trainer C accused the dog of enjoying reacting at other dogs. This trainer said that Trainer B did it all wrong, but then proceeded to do the exact same thing as Trainer B with no improvement. Not surprising since again, it is a very flawed method and will not work with all or even most dogs.
Many trainers who use these methods and simply continue to introduce bigger sticks…stringing him up on a choke chain doesn’t work put a pinch collar on him, if a pinch doesn’t work, put a shock collar on him, if that doesn’t work, put both on him, if that doesn’t work, put the shock collar on his abdomen. None of which makes the dog okay with other dogs!
Finally, the owner just stopped and backed off. She could no longer stomach watching what was being done to her dog in the name of training. All she ever wanted to do was help him. This journey with this amazing companion of hers has taught her a lot. She eventually went on to learn more about behavior and training. Stan is older now, she has worked with him using desensitization and counter conditioning and gotten him to the point where they do well together and he is much more comfortable with other dogs in the world. Had she been exposed to this training plan earlier on things would probably be very different for Stan, but I don’t think it could have made their relationship stronger. Everything she has done with him was done FOR him. She didn’t get the help that she paid for or deserved. But, now she knows and when we know better we do better.
For what it’s worth, when you say cattle dog a lot of people will claim to know the breed and what they need. They talk about being firm, in control, the boss, a good leader and many recommend harsh training methods and treatment. I have trained, lived with and fostered many cattle dogs and in my experience, for a dog that is bred to work cattle in a way and in a terrain that few dogs could do, they are incredibly sensitive. As an owner, a cattle dog is not a dog that I want untrusting or suspicious of his human partner. Be clear, train well, be fair, trust him when he knows better than you and you won’t find a better partner.
Finally, it’s important to know that just because someone is a great dog trainer or very skilled in training pet dogs or dogs for a certain sport does not in any way guarantee that they understand the ins and outs of behavior problems or how to solve them.
Thank you to Stan and his owner for letting me write about his story.