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When Love Hurts: How affection causes fear reinforcement in dogs

A story on correcting negative reactivity in a wolf hybrid

· Training,Behavior,Podcast

This is basically my journal entry on the surreal behavioral training environments that surround public-funded shelters.

A wolf hybrid was having fear issues that resulted in a flight drive and food aversion, so I was called in for an evaluation. As I observed the shelter’s well-intentioned trainer soothe the canine when his escape drive flared up, I kept my mouth shut but cringed inside knowing she was making the situation worse.

Above: The hybrid who didn't need a hug

Escape drive: When a canine doesn’t know how to deal with limited space, which triggers fear from confinement

I held my tongue until I didn’t and said, “This behavior can be corrected.”

Immediately this volunteer got defensive and stated that humans should not correct dogs, because we are humans (as this huge, 94-pound dog was dragging her on a leash).

However, “We are humans. We don't need to correct dogs,” is without a doubt the most blatantly egotistical statement I've ever heard, as it clearly implies us expecting the canines to understand OUR RESEARCH METHODS to be the ones that they too should understand. The methods researched in a neutral lab outside of a natural environment.

 A balanced approach is mimicking dog behavior.

The reality is that it’s 100 percent more ethical, humane, and efficient for humans to mimic dog behavior in the form of a balanced approach to training. This includes corrections and positive reinforcement.

Corrections- something utilized in response to behavior we want to decrease. For example, a ‘No’ command.  

For instance, we don't remove dogs from their mother at a young age to teach the puppies bite inhibition. That's taught through correction from Mom.

My assistant summed it up nicely:

But seriously though! How are you going to sit there and try to say interspecies correction isn’t a thing?! It happens ALL THE TIME. Cats swat, snakes (and soooo many other wild animals) hiss, or growl, or outright bite to warn you not to approach/to get out of their territory. That’s all corrections! We’re somewhere or doing something we aren’t supposed to be, and they’re telling us to stop.

I got some alone time with the hybrid, who was apparently unable to be walked on a loose leash. After the handler left, we immediately began working towards this, and the wolf dog walked perfectly within five minutes without fear. Why? I was leading and giving him structure and not in like an alpha-macho, ‘I have the bigger dick way’, but in a loving, calm, and soothing manner.

Above: Loose leash in action, where the canine walks relaxed and attentive to the handler

I was leading him through his environment in a way that conveyed, “Hey, you've got nothing to be afraid of. I got this. Don't worry.”

When another handler came into the enclosure solely to hug on this hybrid, he immediately fell back into a fearful state, as he had been so strongly coddled during his fearful states before when people thought that the affection was "so important". 


Which it isn't. 


Sorry to all you humanizers out there 

Affection is not essential to dogs.

But this affection had now been associated with with the fearful state and this pushed the dog back into a potential escape mindset. This broke my heart, because affection can be associated very positively and the stimulus of it in this case caused the dog fear (that’s what the dog associated all the hugs and love with).

His fearful state had been so ingrained and reinforced to the point that the cortisol clearly impacted his appetite, and wolf dog was at least 40 pounds underweight at this point. This was all due to the inadvertent positive reinforcement of his fearful state of mind. We see it every single day. Stop thinking that we know better than they do. Because we sure as hell don't, and by thinking that we do, we lose thousands of good dogs every year to behavioral euthanasia and bad assessments of temperament.

I want to be very clear that there are no people that I respect more than those people in the shelters who are either working or volunteering. They don't get paid very much, and if they do get paid their time spent is the most valuable resource that we can possibly give. I just argue against the sole usage of positive reinforcement when addressing fearful or reactive states. Positive reinforcement coupled with low-level corrections is a balanced approach, where you get the most amazing, wonderful results in a very short amount of time. 

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Heroly’s goal is education for all well-intended people to get the information out that they need in order to save more dogs. We're putting our money where our mouth is. We're slated to be the largest rescue contributor in the world, monetarily and through balanced approach training information.

Our app addresses the time aspect of dog ownership and provides a peer-to-peer platform for neighbors to become 'Heroes' and provide on-demand, last-minute pet care when you can't be there for your furry loved one. Every pet care request fulfilled by Heroes = a 20 percent donation to shelters. 

Sound awesome? Get over here, Hero.

This has been an excerpt from Heroly's Canine Club podcast brought to you by Jonas Black, our canine behavior modification specialist. You can listen to the full episode on iTunesPodbean, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

Jonas Black, Austin's number-one canine behavior modification specialist and premier smart a**

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