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Do Not Reinforce Bad Canine Behavior

I had an interesting evening of appointments last night, in which I saw 8 canine appointments in my 6PM – 8 PM time slot, each of which I had to muzzle because of fear biting potential.  Usually dogs that are so fearful that they become a biting hazard, represent the minority of canine patients, but last night was different, with every single dog I saw a stressed out, uncooperative biting hazard that required muzzling.

While it makes our job a bit more difficult and even dangerous at times, I am not necessarily complaining about these patients, as we are dealing with very intelligent, emotional and self-aware creatures that can experience fear of the un-familiar, fear of strangers putting their hands on them, taking their temperature and poking them with needles, etc.  Combined with the fact that we cannot reason with them, having some fear and apprehension even to the point of biting is to be expected on occasion. 

My problem lies with all too often, the owner’s reaction to the behavior, where they praise the dog in the midst of what is in reality poor, even abysmal behavior, in their misguided attempt to calm them.  What they do not realize, is that in their attempt to placate the dog, they are actually making matters worse – and this tendency to placate rather than lead likely extends beyond just the veterinary visit and happens at home, likely playing a significant role in why the dog acts this way to begin with.

Last night, while 5 out of my 8 canine patient’s in the course of the night’s appointments were rearing up, snarling, and trying to throw off and bite my technicians – merely for simple examinations and nail trims – the owners responded by saying things like, “good girl,” “good boy,” “Momma’s gonna give you treats,” and other such expressions of praise.  My response to these owners was to tell them that he is not being a good boy, she is not being a good girl, and these dogs certainly have not earned praise for this behavior.  Furthermore, by praising them in the midst of what is clearly inappropriate behavior, the owners are serving to reinforce the bad behavior, which over time helps lead to increasingly difficult visits for owners, patients, and health care providers alike.

You can think of dogs in many ways as being similar to young children.  When we see a child acting in a very inappropriate manner, do we praise them for it?  Of course we do not.  As a parent of 2 small humans, I understand that my little ones are children learning the ways of the world and will push the limits of their boundaries, needing guidance from my wife and I to learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior; and part of that is letting them know when they are acting inappropriately and creating consequences when the stray from acceptable behavior.  We most certainly are not going to praise them when they are acting poorly.  What kind of message would I be sending my 5 year old son if I told him “good boy” when I caught him playing with matches the other day?  The same criteria must apply to dogs.

Now don’t get me wrong, the dog owners I saw last night are not bad people.  In fact, they are very good people with a high degree of patience for their high maintenance canines, doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.  They just need to change their knowledge base, become their dogs’ leaders rather than appeasers, and refrain from reinforcing inappropriate behavior in any setting. 

Dogs like this should be walked constantly, as often and for as and long as possible to release their nervous energy.  They should be taught proper leash walking, heel next to their owner, and not pull.  They should be made to work for their treats, being made to sit, stay, and rather than praise them when they do not act well, use the word “no.”  “No” should be used consistently, but only associated with inappropriate behavior, thereby reinforcing in the dog, that when mom or dad say “no,” it means they are acting outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

In a veterinary or other unsettling setting, calming words like “settle,” can be used, while petting and assuring the dog when he is frightened; reserve “no” for when they rear up, growl, go to bite, or behave in other less than savory ways. “Settle” would also need to be a consistent, used when appropriately under any circumstances where stress level may be rising, combined with gentle petting and other re-assuring gestures.  The word settle, then becomes a term of reassurance to the dog, a reminder that their leader is there to protect and guide them. 

Of course, this stuff is not always easily accomplished.  Behind these words and actions, a dog owner must have conviction.  When a the owner says no, he/she must mean it, showing emotion and posture that sends the message that what the dog is doing is not sitting well with the owner.  When the owner uses the word settle, emotion and posture must convey a combination of confidence, empathy, and compassion.  If there is not true conviction behind the words, dogs will not be fooled…they can sniff out a phony far more effectively than any person can.

These are basic tenants, and while I have some grasp of the fundamentals of the canine psyche, I would not claim to be a trainer by any stretch.  Thus, if you have a fearful, high stress dog that makes every day care of him with simple tasks such as mail trims, ear cleanings, and routine visits to the groomer and/or veterinarian very difficult; do not hesitate to seek professional training.  Good trainers serve not only to teach the dog how to follow leadership, but they also teach the owner how to be a loving, compassion, and confident leader.

Whatever you do, don’t praise a pooch for naughty behavior.              

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

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