Relationships. Lately, I’ve been finding myself reflecting back on the theme of relationships. What the essence of a relationship means between two beings, what it looks like and ultimately, how to build a mutually respectful and healthy relationship. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word relationship in this way: “the way in which two or more people, groups, countries, etc., talk to, behave toward, and deal with each other; the way in which two or more people or things are connected”. Connected is the word that stands out for me. Connected is the feeling of when two beings have fluid motion and can understand the core of one another without our own personal bias interfering or interrupting this understanding. When we are connected, we are grounded in ourselves and trust those around us with our safety, and most importantly, our hearts.
Relationships are built over time with an underlying trust we and the other person or in my field, dogs, build with their person. Trust is acquired through clear and consistent communication which establish boundaries. In grounding our theme of relationships with us and our dogs, let’s take a look at positive reinforcement versus positive punishment. I’ll start with positive punishment. Positive punishment is adding a punisher to correct the wrong behavior. It could be a hand slap, an alpha roll, a kick to a dog when the undesirable behavior happens attempting to eliminate the unwanted behavior. Let’s take an excited dog who loves people. The dog hasn’t learned much impulse control and jumps on people when they come into the room. The dog’s person walks in and the dog’s reaction is to jump on the her. If the person relies on positive punishment, a kick or a smack across the face when the dog jumps up is thought of, through the eyes of the person, as communicating to the dog stop it! In actuality, the act of aggressively putting your hand on your dog is communicating, not to trust human hands which can lead to increased aggression in your dog whereby your dog learns to react by biting to stop the punishment. On the other side, depending on the dog, it can reinforce the jumping because the dog is receiving attention albeit negative attention from their person. The dog may actually learn to continue the behavior because they are being rewarded for doing so.
Recently, I met an older client who I’ll name Tracy. Tracy has a very excited lab/boxer mix named Buttons. Buttons zooms around the house, knocks over glasses on the coffee table, gets into people’s personal space and basically takes things that doesn’t belong to her. Tracy grew up believing (which is inculturated into us) “I need to be the alpha”. So, in order to assert perceived dominance over the dog, Tracy puts her hands on Buttons by either pushing her to the ground or slapping Buttons in the face for knocking over a water glass. What I noticed about Buttons demeanor when Tracy, Buttons and myself began training was Buttons’ body language towards Tracy. Buttons cowered, ears pinned back and reluctant to go towards Tracy even when Tracy had a tasty treat in her hands. As soon as I called Buttons over, Buttons body language completely shifted. She was excited. She had a loose wiggly body, open mouthed and relaxed eyes. I immediately lured her into a heel position like she was doing this for years even though it was my first time working with her. Then I asked Tracy to call Buttons over again. Buttons’ body language shifted again, the same as before, lowered body posture, averting eye contact and timidness in approaching Tracy for the same exact treat I had in my hand. This told me a couple of things. It’s not about the treat, but about the person who is calling over Buttons and how Buttons perceives the person irrespective of the treat. I shared with Tracy the relationship between herself and Buttons is malformed. There is much more needed at this point in rebuilding a relationship rather than in progressing into basic obedience or behavior modification. You can’t change a dog’s unwanted behavior before changing your approach and your philosophy in understanding how a dog is communicating how she’s feeling.
Dominance Theory came about and permeated our understanding of canine behavior. It was incorrectly asserted that dogs are direct descendants of wolves thereby studying wolf behavior it will directly correlate with canine behavior. David Mech, a Senior Research Scientist spent his career in studying wolves and their social condition along with their social grouping and found wolves “are not dominated by an Alpha Wolf that is the most aggressive male or male-female pairing of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs are very similar to how human families are organized and there is little aggression or fights for dominance” (APDT Debunking Dominance Theory). Historically, dogs were bred to work with and for people. Dogs have a strong desire in being connected with their person(s). Dogs, like my little Boogs, my Jack Russell Terrier (JRT), his lineage was bred for hunting. As a hunting dog, JRT’s will follow alongside their person and on command will go and seek out and crawl into a foxhole. Their tenacious demeanor would not give up until he killed the fox and brought it out of the hole. At that point, the JRT would have a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment in his duties. Using this example of the hunting JRT, this is skill developed by mutually respectful relationship with his person and receiving a reward of a job well done after completing his tasks of killing the fox.
Dogs do not develop or try and maintain dominance through aggressive measures with people or amongst themselves. “Dominance comes into play in a relationship between members of the same species when on individual wants to have the first pick of available resources such as food, beds, toys, bones ect. Even between dogs, however, it is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully” (APDT Debunking Dominance Theory). Dogs are social animals which have the strongest bond with their human family members rather than with others in the same species. This is not to say dogs do not form bonds with one another. They most certainly do. Jack and Bernie have a very tight bond with clear boundaries and communication. But, Jack and Bernie clearly have the strongest relationship between myself and Eddie.
On the flip side, positive reinforcement is the act of giving praise (good job), throwing a toy or giving a treat for a job well done. In this realm of training, the dog learns what you’re asking for while remaining alert, happy and engaged with you for the next job. Your relationship greatly improves and the bond with you and your dog is unsurpassed. Dogs naturally want something to do and they will look to you for that that direction. Without the consistent rules, the dog is lost in how to navigate and will figure out something to do to occupy his time (Dr. Sophia Yin: Dominance Theory Myths). Positive reinforcement is not the same as lacking boundaries, rules or an otherwise free for all. It’s quite the opposite. Positive reinforcement is utilizing those things (toys, food, affection) which the dog perceives as the best thing in life and engaging the dog in following you. Positive reinforcement may take longer, but it strengthens the relationship between you and the dog and it yields more reliable behavior.
The quality of the relationship will determine how your dog will listen to you, respond to you and want to do those things asked of him. Implementing a positive reinforcement practice will make training more enjoyable for both you and your dog. Your bond will be rooted in love therefore creating a stronger and happier relationship.