Do You Need to Discipline Your Dog?
A lot of the common advice that I see given to dog owners when their dog is “misbehaving” is the need to discipline your dog. Tons of advice falls under this category and it unfortunately spreads like wildfire.
The need for simplicity is often what drives the idea that you have to discipline your dog, as well as the type of culture most of us live in. One where there are punitive consequences for rule breaking.
At the same time there can be an underlying frustration or feeling of not knowing what the right thing is to do in a given situation, which complicates it all.
It is normal to be frustrated by your dog at times, and it’s normal to want a persistent annoyance to stop. It’s also pretty common to not always like your dog all the time (we do love them dearly though) and to have times where you’re thoroughly fed up with what they’ve done. What we do in those times makes all the difference!
Punishments = Knee Jerk Reactions
Violence begins where knowledge ends and also thrives where there is a lack of understanding and lack of empathy. Our dogs are thinking and feeling creatures that have their own desires and motivations that can sometimes run counter to ours. This can cause friction in relationships between dogs and their owners, rooted in a lack of knowledge.
I find that most owners who are using punishments don’t actually want to do so. They don’t want to hurt their dogs, they don’t want to use choke chains, or prong collars, they’ve just reached the limit of their knowledge. And frankly punitive tools are easy to get, not to mention marketed as working solutions with the negative consequences conveniently swept under the rug. So it’s no surprise that owners use them.
At the same time we still currently have very popular and trusted TV networks that regularly run programs about dog training using unethical and archaic methods to “fix” dogs when these methods are known to cause issues in dogs, not fix them. As a matter of fact the dog professionals that were consulted prior to the airing of these shows spoke up about the issues with the methods used, but were ignored and the programs run anyway much to the detriment of dogs and owners everywhere. At the time this post was written, this is still going on and thriving.
What this all leads to is a lot of bad information that is potentially flooding dog owners, and the methods are easily used. After all, one can always raise their voice at a dog, throw something, grab them, give a leash correction, or show them who’s boss. It’s much more simple than actually understanding what’s going on with a dog and how to change their behavior.
Plus, we do live in a society that is punitive. Do the wrong thing and you pay for it.
There is a huge caveat though. We as humans either KNOW or are TAUGHT the rules we’re supposed to follow. Very explicitly in fact. There are no smoking signs, there are warning labels, there are training meetings, law books, and a whole slew of ways for us to learn what is and isn’t right. Most of our dogs do not have that luxury when breaking our rules.
The Disciplined Dog
Fido the Puppy
Fido is an 8 week old puppy who has just been taken to his new home. Up until now he hasn’t left his family or siblings, hasn’t had much contact with the outside world. His short life has been focused on growing like a weed, practicing his motor skills, and learning very rudimentary communication skills from his mother and siblings.
Fido a this stage is with complete strangers now. He had never in his life been in the situation he finds himself in and everything is extremely new. He wants to play with his new owner and does the only thing he knows how to do, the way that a puppy asks another pup to play. He nips. His human disciplines him by making a loud noise and moving their hand away.
He’s broken a rule that he didn’t know even existed. He doesn’t know that humans don’t use teeth to play, he doesn’t know how to communicate with his humans. His human did act very excited though, they barked loudly and took their hand away, surely they want Fido to chase their hand!
A miscommunication has now been born and will ensure that Fido is disciplined more (potentially more harshly) and that the owner is subjected to their puppy’s teeth again. The puppy’s need for play and interaction also hasn’t been addressed, so Fido will begin to look for more opportunities to play as well as find other activities to entertain himself with. Which just adds to this cycle.
Spot the Adolescent
Spot is 10 months old and going through her adolescent phase. She has lived with her family since she was adopted at 4 months old. At this age she is a young and confident dog who wants to explore. She can also be a bit impulsive as well, and both of these tendencies result in conflict between her and her humans.
Spot is a youngster full of energy and when she is out in the world she wants nothing more than to stretch her legs and run. Unfortunately she doesn’t get to do this and instead her walks are very frustrating to her because of the short leash she is kept on. Because of her frustration on the leash and her desire to run and explore she has quite a pulling problem. Each walk on the short leash merely makes her frustration and pulling grow and do not address her underlying lack of biological fulfillment.
In an effort to curb her pulling while on walks, Spot’s owners have resorted to yanking on the leash, which hasn’t stopped the pulling even after months of trying. Not knowing what else to do, her owners decide to try a new training collar.
Spot is now experiencing walks that are not only completely frustrating and unsatisfying, but also corrective and painful. Spot’s owners correct her with the collar when she pulls in the slightest including when she sees other people or dogs on walks and is curious.
Spot was never taught how to walk on a leash or how to ignore other people or dogs. She doesn’t understand why now it suddenly hurts when she sees other people and dogs.
Spot begins to bark at strangers on walks as soon as she sees them. She is trying to warn them to stay away from her and not to hurt her. Spot’s owners want to nip this barking problem in the bud and so they begin to correct her for barking. In Spot’s mind she is convinced that it is the sight of the other people and dogs that bring the pain. They are bad and she will be hurt.
She begins to try to look scary when she sees other people and dogs. Her hackles are up, she lunges towards them, she is frantic in her attempts to try to scare them away, all the while she is corrected with the training collar. The pain is inescapable and it is becoming unmanageable for Spot’s owners. They don’t understand what happened to their friendly dog, she used to like people and other dogs.
Spot no longer gets walked and she spends her days confined to a home with a quarter acre. Her frustration continues to grow because of her unnatural confinement and lack of enrichment. She barks viciously at the window when she sees any movement outside of her home and her reactive tendencies are exhausting for her owners.
Spot and her owners have had a very common and tragic type of miscommunication. Neither her owner’s nor her own needs were met. They now need professional intervention, without which the problems will continue to escalate until a breaking point is reached. There is hope for Spot and her family, dogs like this can be rehabilitated. If your dog is like Spot, get help sooner rather than later.
Buddy the 3 Year Old Dog
Buddy is an adult rescue dog. He was picked up as a stray and has an unknown history. The family that rescues Buddy is excited to have him and welcomes him home. Everything seems to be going well and right away Buddy is immersed into his new family’s life, full of people, new places, and things totally foreign to Buddy.
Buddy is not a bad dog but he seems to have quirks around other people and dogs. Around his family he is playful and seems quite normal, but with others he acts strangely stiff and seems very quiet and reserved. He follows strange guests or visitors to his home very closely, almost stalking them. He does not give them indications of friendliness even though they try to pet him and make friends. This seems odd to his owners but they brush the thought aside.
One day Buddy’s owners answer their front door and Buddy lunges at the guest, biting a pant leg in the process. Buddy’s owners are shocked and it seems to them that Buddy bit out of the blue. They are worried that he will do it again, and so Buddy is never loose anymore when they answer the door. The trust they had in Buddy falters a little.
Buddy’s agitation continues to silently grow without many warning signs for his owners. He is uncomfortable with the guests they constantly have and the level of activity that is going on in the home on a daily basis. It seems never ending to Buddy and the unpredictability leaves him on edge most of the time. It becomes too much and Buddy bites a guest, leaving marks on the skin but not breaking it. Once again this is a very unexpected event for Buddy’s owners.
The level of trust Buddy’s owners had for him sinks lower and now Buddy lives a very strict lifestyle where he has no contact with guests. Buddy’s owners have less patience for him and their attitudes towards him shift as the fears and uncertainty of what he’s capable of pile up. The interactions between Buddy and his owners are now more curt and are colder.
Buddy no longer feels as secure with his owners as he did before and his behavior on walks begins to change. He begins to become reactive and his owners try to gently correct him. After weeks of this Buddy reaches a breaking point and bites his owner multiple times during a reactive incident.
Buddy is put down.
Buddy’s owners didn’t do anything wrong. Punishments and correction easily create what I call powder keg dogs. These dogs often have pasts that involved corrections that fundamentally changed how those dogs react to given situations. These dogs for the most part HAVE NOT experienced abuse, I believe that the majority of them experienced inappropriate punishments or disciplinary action.
I personally have seen dogs that would bite with little to no warning because they were punished for giving these warnings (such as for growling). The last dog bite I received was from a dog with broken body language who had normal body language punished out of him. He was in the shelter system and could have been rehomed to an unsuspecting family.
Aggression and other behavior problems cannot be punished away. Only masked. Under the surface behavior issues become more severe due to continued use of punishments. The visible symptoms of the aggression go away, and now there is a ticking time bomb instead.
Teach and Train
The modern dog and owner should not be reaching for punitive methods, tools, or ways to discipline their dog to try to solve things. Most problems that dogs and owners have start small and stem from a lack of knowledge both in the owner and the dog. Our dogs would do the right thing if they were just taught how. It is up to us as owners to teach our dogs how we expect them to behave and to give them an education on the matter.
It is entirely unfair (not to mention totally ineffective) to punish an individual (dog or otherwise) for breaking a rule or making a mistake they didn’t even realize existed in the first place. Or for making a mistake when trying a new skill. Punishment does nothing productive to that end and is widely regarded as being completely unnecessary in dog training.
Everyone deserves to learn the proper way to behave in a given situation, including our dogs. Let’s do better than automatically choosing to discipline dogs and put training first.
If you need help with your dog, reach out to me! I’d be happy to have a consultation with you to help bring the harmony back to your home.