By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
A couple nights ago, I had a personal experience receiving dangerous advice from someone trusted. Typically, I am not witnessing these events for myself and instead I hear about them from new clients describing aggressive episodes with their dogs. I was on a Zoom meeting with a breed club to hear a presentation. Well-known breeders run these presentations, and this group of breeders is generally more responsible than most breeders as far as health testing and breeding for temperament. The breeder leading the presentation suddenly diverted from topic to disparage positive training as something that does not work and can be inappropriate for Kooikerhondjes. She claimed that they need a harsher approach to keep them in line. This inaccurate assessment of rewards-based training was bad enough, but then she encouraged pet owners to flick the face or hit the bottom of a dog during an aggressive episode to train him that this behavior is not ok. She encouraged people to raise their voice at their dogs when they are displaying aggressive or reactive behavior.
It is an understatement to say that I was dumbfounded. Startling a dog who is fearfully growling, lunging, or barking at something is never a good idea. Redirected bites happen very quickly when a dog is highly aroused and fixated on a target in front of him, only to be startled by something to the side or behind him. In fact, I have heard countless times from clients describing how they or their children were bitten by their dog after touching his rear end, grabbing the collar, touching his ears or face, or even just walking up behind the dog while the dog was fixated on something concerning. In many instances, the dog was already barking or growling at something, while in other instances the dog was staring at the thing making him nervous. Other family dogs redirect bites onto one another in similar fashion. An example is if they are growling and barking at the backyard gate upon seeing other dogs walking in front of the house. One of the family dogs may turn and bite the other family dog who is near him. There have been recent studies linking poor training outcomes and poor animal welfare when using training that involves punishment.
In the case of this Kooikerhondje breeder, this was even more egregious given the disposition of Kooikerhondjes to guarding and reactive behavior. The names of Kooikerhondjes who were euthanized for aggressive behavior came to mind when I heard this "advice". It is not unusual for a Kooikerhondje to growl, bark, or air snap defensively if an owner yells at them. They are very sensitive dogs. Why would we do something to escalate a situation and put a dog in a position to bite? Bites are the quickest path to behavioral euthanasia.
Why would someone dole out dangerous advice?
People turn to punishment and control when the limit of their training abilities has been reached. They have reached a point where they do not know how to train the behaviors they want to see or how to change a dog's emotional state in a particular situation, so they try to suppress it. While this breeder's "advice" could stop the behavior in that moment, there is the lurking danger of a serious bite -- and this is not a slim possibility...it is a very real threat. This will not train a dog in the long term not to growl or bark at something. Instead, it will likely cause him more stress in the long term when he sees the thing again that causes stress or fear. It could create a lack of trust in the owner due to inconsistent behavior.
Who is a trusted source of information?
There are different levels of trusted sources when it comes to training and behavior. I will start at the top with the most trusted sources, which are those professionals with postgraduate work in animal behavior and training...the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). They are the veterinarians who address the most difficult of animal behavior cases and work with credentialed, experienced trainers and behavior consultants (e.g. IAABC, CCPDT, KPA) to bring about behavior modification:
"The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) advocates for teaching animals through the reinforcement of desired behaviors and the removal of reinforcement for undesired behaviors. The ACVB also encourages modification of the environment, and, if needed, the use of psychoactive medication and other products to create a learning environment where training methods based on respect of the animal’s welfare can be most effective.
The ACVB stands against training methods that cause short or long lasting pain, discomfort or fear. Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury."
Another trusted source of information is the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which is comprised of veterinarians who focus on behavior medicine:
"...the AVSAB emphasizes that behavior modification and training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors, avoiding the reinforcement of undesirable behaviors, and striving to address the underlying emotional state and motivations, including medical and genetic factors, that are driving the undesirable behavior.... Owners must avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviors and only reinforce the desirable behaviors frequently enough and consistently enough for the good behaviors to become a habit."
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) is generally considered a trusted source of information for American pet parents when seeking suitable trainers and trusted training advice:
"Positive reinforcement should be the first line of teaching, training, and behavior change program considered, and should be applied consistently. Positive reinforcement is associated with the lowest incidence of aggression, attention seeking, avoidance, and fear in learners....
We focus on reinforcing desired behaviors, and always ask the question, “What do you want the animal to do?” Relying on punishment in training does not answer this question, and therefore offers no acceptable behavior for the animal to learn to replace the unwanted behavior. "
"Far too many times, dog owners have been given advice to “show the dog who’s boss” and “be the alpha.” ... Such misinformation damages the owner-dog relationship, leading to fear, anxiety and/or aggressive behavior from the dog...."
Where does the advice of your friend, neighbor, rescue group, or your breeder fall?
Well, their advice may be appropriate and helpful. Conversely, it may be dangerous in the long term, or it could even pose immediate danger if followed. Always view it through the lens of these trusted sources. Consider whether their advice is consistent with the position statements of these trusted organizations who base their positions on evidentiary-based studies, medical science, ethology, and the welfare of the animals and clients they serve. Reach out to a trusted behavior or training professional when in doubt or if you need assistance with a difficult problem.