Avoiding conflict

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Part i Avoiding conflict between dog and humans

All that has gone before in this book should, if marked, learned and inwardly digested, result in a better understanding of dogs. It has dealt with their true nature and how they express themselves, what obedience really means and how to ensure they have as good a veterinary experience as possible. If this book has a single aim, it is to reduce the conflict that often seems to exist between our two species, despite the historical ties that bind us inexorably together. Such conflict is most significant if and when misunderstandings result in aggression.

The ‘Whose idea is it?’ rule

Once a dog has begun to threaten aggression, there will have already been countless number of interactions of all kinds between dog and owner. Most of these will have been pleasant and agreeable to both sides. But what about the nagging and grumbles between the parties which occur when a relationship is not at its best? They may have seemed inconsequential at the time and easily resolved. However, such minor disagreements will have a drip-feed effect which may culminate in disaster. Avoiding any routine disagreement is crucial in preventing the emergence of aggression, as well as resolving it once it has become a treatable ‘problem’.

The ‘Whose idea is it?’ rule is a really painless way of avoiding disagreement between dog and owner. If meaningful communication with their pet is established routinely throughout the day, conflict and argument as far as possible can be avoided altogether. This can be achieved by advising clients to follow this rule.

It often seems that dogs are only thought to learn anything when deliberate teaching is being carried out, either in training class or during a training session at home. But dogs, as children, are learning constantly. Many opportunities to teach appropriate lessons, as well as to avoid inappropriate ones, are missed. But any routine interaction between dog and owner has the potential to steer behaviour in the right direction (or conversely the wrong one) whether or not we are conscious of it. Thinking of these interactions as a continuum within the routine day rather than ‘we must do some dog training now’ ensures that they become an automatic part of life.

Quite simply, the owners should ask themselves, whatever their dog is doing at any time, whose idea was this particular behaviour? In other words, who started it? Is he running about, barking at passers-by, emptying the wastepaper bin or just lying down calmly in his bed? Was the idea theirs or the dog’s?

The chances are of course that everything a dog does when at home and not being deliberately ‘trained’ is his own idea. His idea may or may not be convenient to his owners or indeed socially appropriate. What one can be sure of is that the less-than-desirable, irritating behaviours will always be noticed and reacted to in some way. The far more convenient, calm behaviour will be taken for granted and usually ignored.

Even if noticed, meaningful reward will not be thought necessary. Why on earth reward a dog for what he is already doing of his own volition? Training mantras, such as ‘nothing in life is free’, tend to leave dog owners with the impression that rewards always have to be earned. Some effort is therefore required on the part of the dog before he can be deemed to be worthy of reward. If he is just lying down, how can that be called work?

But how do we know what a dog has managed to ignore in order to remain calm? A car backfiring, the rattle of the letter box or knock at the door and the telephone ringing may all be obvious to us. But what about sounds of frequencies inaudible to the human ear or so ubiquitous that we have come immune to them? We tend to ignore the central heating turning on or off, the buzz from a laptop, the whirr of the tumble dryer and even the clamour of incessant TV adverts. If a dog is lying down calmly and we want him to remain able to ignore such acoustic intrusions, he needs our meaningful appreciation.

I’ve never yet been asked for help regarding a dog that was ‘too calm’. The dogs causing their owners trouble are often those reactive dogs who seem unable to tell the difference between environmental stimuli that are relevant and meaningful to them (salient) and those of no relevance whatsoever (non-salient). As such almost anything they hear is responded to in an alert and aroused manner. They do not seem to be able to filter out stimuli of little or no importance. Alternatively, non-relevant stimuli have become linked to relevant ones (via associative or classical conditioning) and thus come to generate a similar behavioural response.

The same is true for visual and olfactory stimuli, but when at home, what a dog hears is likely to have the greatest impact. Sound sensitivity is extremely common and may be misdiagnosed as separation anxiety when owners find evidence of canine distress on their return home. The first time a dog experiences a thunderstorm or fireworks, a fearful response may be triggered. Anything in the future that reminds the dog of these events, the weather conditions or time of day or night for example, may result in the same response. If the owners also happened to be absent at the time, then any subsequent departure on their part may trigger the same fear and distress.

If we want calm dogs, then we cannot afford to let calm, non-reactive behaviour pass us by unnoticed and unappreciated. It is when dogs seem to be doing nothing that they need to be given ‘something in life for free’ if we are to guard against reactivity and promote peacefulness.

The ‘Whose idea is it?’ rule is simple to follow. Whenever their dog appears relaxed and calm, the owner has two choices:

1.To reward the calm behaviour (the dog’s idea) by linking praise (i.e. human pleasure) with what he’s doing, as in ‘Good bed!’ or ‘Good lie down!’ and/or approach to drop a food treat in front of his nose without saying anything. The aim is that over time the owner will be able to approach and praise the behaviour without the dog moving at all. The calm behaviour should not change but continue as a clear indication of what is required from the dog has been given.

2.To use a calm moment in order to practice changing the dog’s mind (the owner’s idea). Many routine commands and behaviours are simply insufficiently (or never) rehearsed when the dog is calm enough to reliably comply. Asking the dog to ‘come here’ between different rooms in the house is in effect the rehearsal of recall which, if carried out when the dog is calm to begin with, reduces any risk of conflict and competition with other distractions.

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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Avoiding conflict

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