Do Dogs' Feelings Matter in Training?
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Rats appear to laugh when tickled. Chimpanzees roll on the floor when shown magic tricks. Researchers have observed chickens displaying empathy, elephants mourn the loss of loved ones and dogs comforting humans after a traumatic event. Evidence shows that when anxious and nervous, dogs tend to wag more to the left whereas when happy, dogs wag more to the right.
Did you know that scientists have spent time deciphering the meaning behind a left-dominated vs. a right-dominated tail wag ? The evidence shows that when anxious and nervous, dogs tend to wag more to the left whereas when happy, dogs wag more to the right.
Do Dogs Have Bad Days?
Animals are sentient beings. Just like us, they have good days and bad days. Your dog’s emotions can affect his ability to learn new things, to do simple tasks that he already masters, and to retain information. If Fido’s learning has stalled, or your pooch is lacking focus, it may just be because he is having a bad day. Dogs sometimes do wake up on the “wrong side of the bed.” Forgo the training and go play together.
When it’s more than just a bad day.
Hemingway, our Great Dane was a goofy, gentle giant. When we first adopted him, his emotions were at the forefront of almost every interaction. At the sight of another dog, he would leap in the air, drag me towards the other dog while barking incessantly. Children skipped our house at Hallowe’en because Hemingway’s barking terrified them. Hemi, as we affectionately called him, had spent the first years of his life in a Puppy Mill. He had no manners when he first came into our home. Imagine a 140 lb dog bouncing and barking towards you with Great Dane sized drool flying around his head. He was excitable and had little impulse control. Hemingway’s emotions would regularly interfere with his ability to respond to simple requests like “sit”. As a dog trainer, I understood the importance of having a polite dog that walked well on leash and responded to all the cues. However, I also understood that it would only be achievable if I addressed his emotional responses first.
Fear is a common emotion that often interferes with learning. Some dogs have learned that lashing out gets them the space they crave. Lunging and barking are effective ways to make the scary thing go away. If your dog is upset, you must address that first. Perhaps start with activities that
include play, puzzles and easy exercises.
Suppressing behaviour is not the solution
Ignoring your dog’s emotions can turn training into a frustrating experience. Trying to punish, or “correct” your dog’s emotional reactions doesn't stop your dog from feeling those emotions. If I’d used punishment, intimidation and force to stop my Great Dane from lunging and barking, I would have only been addressing the symptoms, and not the underlying causes of his behaviour. I would have been adding more fear and more stress to his already fragile emotional world. Adding fear and stress can have a significant impact on your dog’s well-being: cortisol levels increase, and in a prolonged state of fear and stress, the increased cortisol levels weaken the immune system. Using punishment may appear to work, as a well placed correction or effective aversive could stop a dog from barking, but at what cost?
Learning happens, in all animals, when the mind is engaged. I had my work cut out for me with Hemingway. He was a project, but patience, play, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning worked. The dogs’ well being is at the forefront of every one of my training plans, that’s where the “magic” happens.
Owner and Head Trainer of The Canine School, Chantal is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), an accredited dog trainer (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed), a member of the American Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG – the Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals) and Fear Free Certified. She regularly attends conferences, workshops, seminars and webinars to keep up to date with the latest in the industry. Chantal’s family includes Everest, a Canine Senior Citizen, who has retired from being the Ottawa Canine School’s Demo Dog and is enjoying other pursuits. Not to be forgotten is Ivan the Terrible, the eldest of the trio, feline and proud of it. The latest addition is Jo-Jo the Beta fish, who is learning a variety of new tricks and proving that all species can be trained! Hemingway, the Great Dane and face behind the Ottawa Canine School’s logo will be remembered as a goof with a heart of gold.
Sources and further information:
Stress and Anxiety - How Do They Impact the Pet? World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2014 Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MRCVS, MA (Hons), FACVSc, DACVB, DECAWBM
Signs Your Dog is Stressed and How to Relieve It VCA Hospitals Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
The Effects of Fear and Anxiety on Health and Lifespan in Pet Dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 125, Issues 3-4 Nancy A Dreschel PhD, DVM, BS