Companion Animal Training and Behavioural Problems

Chapter 9
Companion Animal Training and Behavioural Problems


Co-author: Iben Meyer DVM, PhD


Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Large Animal Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark



  1. 9.1 Introduction
  2. 9.2 Training

    1. 9.2.1 The purpose of training
    2. 9.2.2 The debate about dominance
    3. 9.2.3 Training methods
    4. 9.2.4 Cat training

  3. 9.3 Behaviour Problems

    1. 9.3.1 How might we prevent, solve or alleviate ‘behaviour problems’?
    2. 9.3.2 How might we deal with aggression and so-called dangerous dogs?

9.1 Introduction


Dogs and cats are domesticated animals, and their main biological niche is with the humans who take care of them. These animals have been selectively bred and have successfully adapted to fit into modern, urbanised human life, and overall their numbers have massively increased (despite a minor drop in the number of dogs recently). These animals are well fed (sometimes too well fed, as we saw in Chapter 8), they have ever more sophisticated veterinary care, and their safety is increasingly secured by various forms of control and confinement. As a result, they live much longer and safer lives than their ancestors.


However, one kind of deadly problem does not seem to be in decline. As has been eloquently claimed by Jonica Newby in The animal attraction: humans and their animal companions: ‘The number one cause of death of dogs in the Western world is not parvovirus, it is not being hit by cars; it is bad (read: “inappropriate”) behaviour’ (Newby, 1999: p. 250). While this seems likely to be an exaggeration – for example, many more dogs are likely to be euthanased for ‘old age’ – studies have shown that euthanasia for ‘behaviour problems’ is common. In Denmark, for example, ‘behaviour problems’ were the main reason, or part of the reason, for euthanasia of about 20% of all dogs euthanased by vets (Mikkelsen & Lund, 2000). Other dogs with problematic behaviour are handed over to shelters (see Chapter 13) where they are also likely to be euthanased. Probably an even larger number of dogs with problematic behaviour have strained relations with their owners and, as a consequence of this, are more likely to suffer from reduced welfare, for example due to lack of proper care.


In the case of cats, euthanasia due to behavioural problems is also a major cause of death and reduced welfare. Often the problematic behaviour in question, as we shall see later in the chapter, is perfectly natural for both cats and dogs, but it causes inconvenience to the owner. However, particularly in the case of aggression in large dogs, behaviour problems may give rise to serious ethical dilemmas concerning human safety versus animal life and welfare.


Given the severity of the possible consequences of behavioural problems for animals’ lives, and for both human and animal welfare, there are good reasons to try to prevent these problems from occurring in the first instance. The number one way to prevent behaviour problems, in the case of dogs at least, is proper education of both the dog and owner through training.


In this chapter, we review and discuss the literature on dog training from the earliest principles of dog training for military purposes. We identify three controversial assumptions on which these principles rely, and discuss them in the light of more recent literature, and in the context of different ethical views. We also consider the often-overlooked issue of cat training. Finally, the literature on behaviour problems in both dogs and cats is reviewed, and ways to deal with these behaviour problems, as well as the ethical issues to which these problems give rise, are considered. In this context, we also discuss so-called dangerous dogs.


9.2 Training


Humans have worked with dogs for thousands of years, and this has, of course, always involved some form of training. However, accounts of dog training based on psychological theory are a recent phenomenon. Konrad Most was one of the first writers to produce a systematic guide to dog training; his ideas provide a useful starting point.


Most started his career as a service dog trainer for the German police in 1906, where he developed new principles of training, published in 1910 in Training Dogs: A Manual (translated into English in 1954). Later, during World War I, he took charge of the organisation of canine services for the German army. He continued to work with military dogs until 1937, and was active in dog training until his death in 1954.


Most’s key insight was that dogs can be trained using simple learning principles: a dog learns to do what the trainer wants it to do by being rewarded for wanted behaviour, and punished for unwanted behaviour. Most’s training principles were in line with the theory of behaviourism (the major psychological school of the day), and with the work of contemporary scientists like the American psychologist Edward Thorndike, and the Russian physiologist and psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Some decades later, the famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner investigated in more detail the principles of so-called operant learning, according to which a behavioural response in the animal becomes more, or less, likely to occur, depending on its consequences. We will return to this later.


According to Most, dogs are ‘beyond good or evil, living in a world without moral values, learning … solely through the faculty of memory’ (Most, 1954: p. 13). So, there is no point in getting angry with a dog, or feeling disappointed about its lack of moral sense. Rather, we should give dogs the right kind of signals at the right time, allowing the dog to associate rewarding stimuli with wanted behaviour, and aversive stimuli with unwanted behaviour. Most argued that blaming or punishing the dog without creating proper associations is not only pointless, but may be damaging, by causing the dog to fear the owner.


Most maintained that the endpoint of dog training is to have a dog ‘that enjoys life and is happy in his work, putting all his heart into it’; and he underlines, rather out of tune with the military ideals of the time, the need for the trainer to show the dog positive emotions. When the dog makes progress the trainer ought:



not only to utter such words as “good boy” repeatedly in caressing tones, and fondle the dog, but also, if the exercise in hand permits it, to execute a dance of joy with the animal.


(Most, 1954: p. 34)


These ideas are largely in line with current thinking about proper dog training. However, at least three aspects of Most’s ideas are now highly controversial, concerning the purpose of training, the role of dominance in the relation between owner and dog, and the means by which dogs are trained. We now consider these ideas in more depth.


9.2.1 The purpose of training


According to Most, the purpose of dog training is ‘that the dog shall only do what we find convenient and useful, and refrain from doing what is inconvenient and harmful to us’ (Most, 1954: p. 24). As, on Most’s view, there is a clear conflict between what is convenient and useful to us, and what is advantageous to the dog, he envisaged a significant element of compulsion involved in dog training.


Many people now reject such a human-centred view, maintaining that dogs (and cats) are worthy of respect in their own right, and so this one-sided focus on what is convenient and useful to humans is a problematic starting point. Even people who in principle favour a purely human-centred ethical view, such as adherents to a contractarian view (see Chapter 5), may love their own companion animals and disagree with the need to train them just for the sake of human convenience.


This is not to deny that human convenience is a major part of the reason why dogs and cats are trained. For example, housetraining is essential to allow a reasonably harmonious relation between humans and their companion dogs and cats. While it is not directly problematic to a dog or a cat to carry out what is euphemistically called ‘inappropriate elimination’ (e.g. urinating or defaecating indoors), this is intolerable for most owners if it occurs frequently. Since the animal is dependent on the goodwill of the owner for its life and welfare, housetraining is also indirectly beneficial for the animal. The same may apply to some other forms of basic training, for example, to not chase livestock. So, human convenience matters not only in its own right, but also because ignoring it may, indirectly, lead to harm to the animals in question.


In the case of cats, the training required to function in a normal household is usually viewed as rather minimal. The cat must learn to use its litter box, and abstain from doing certain things, such as jumping onto tables or scratching the furniture; normally no structured training procedures are applied here.


In the case of dogs, particularly larger dogs, structured training is usually thought necessary to make them well-functioning members of the household and society. In many places, dog owners attend puppy classes, where they learn to train their dog to perform basic skills including leash-walking, recall, and basic commands such as ‘No!’, ‘Sit!’ and ‘Down!’ Such classes have the additional benefit of socialising dogs, and may improve owners’ ability to communicate with their dogs.


However, much current dog training aims to go far beyond making dogs a better fit for human lives and convenience. As we saw in Chapter 3, some dog owners engage in ongoing training with their dogs as a ‘tool’, as part of a sport, or as a hobby. This may be breed specific, such as tracking with hunting dogs or herding with sheepdogs. Most of the ‘modern’ forms of dog training – and breed specific training in particular – encourage dogs to do things they are naturally inclined to do, unlike Most’s military and police dogs, which for a large part were trained not to do things that they were inclined to do.


Breed specific training, and other forms of hobby dog obedience training, may be intended to serve further aims. First, dogs that are being trained will be occupied and get tired, in contrast to the inactive lives of many domestic dogs. Secondly, training allows owners to build a closer, and perhaps better, relation with their dogs. Some studies, at least, have documented positive effects, including fewer behaviour problems, as a result of owners spending time training their dogs (Bennett & Rohlf, 2007; Clark & Boyer, 1993; Jagoe & Serpell, 1996), although other studies have not found such effects (Blackwell et al., 2008; Casey et al., 2013).


Given this, training dogs as a sport or hobby may be a positive activity (depending on the type of training), from both utilitarian and deontological views that emphasise animal welfare. Contextual ethical approaches, which focus on the building of good relations between particular humans and their companions, also understand dog training as valuable. For instance, dog trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne claims, in Adam’s task: calling animals by name (1982), that training dogs is not only a potential way of enriching dogs’ lives, but also a human duty. If we create animals to live in the human world, then we have a responsibility to equip the animals with whom we co-exist to operate successfully in this world; so the ‘proper’ state for domesticated companion animals is to be trained. Using terms such as ‘beauty’ and ‘art’, Hearne claims that through training, the animals achieve a ‘virtuous’ character, which is unfolded and maintained in conjunction with the trainer’s similarly virtuous character. Here, Hearne moves far away from Most’s starting point where dogs are beyond ‘good and evil’. Underlying Hearne’s lofty words (it is not clear, for instance, what virtue means in the case of a dog) is the intuitively appealing idea that humans and dogs can inspire and get the best from each other through shared training activities, an idea also defended by the American philosopher Donna Haraway (2003).


Seen from this perspective, the purpose of dog training shifts from a focus largely on human convenience and benefit, to one that also promotes more fulfilling lives for dogs and their human owners. In ethical terms, this aim seems uncontroversial. However, while it may be uncontroversial that training should enable dogs to flourish, there is ongoing controversy about how far a trainer should dominate the dog.


9.2.2 The debate about dominance


According to Most, successful dog training requires that the trainer establish authority over the dog, by putting her- or himself at the top of a hierarchy:



As in a pack of dogs, the order of hierarchy in a man and dog combination can only be established by physical force, that is by an actual struggle, in which the man is instantly victorious.… If a dog shows the slightest sign of rebellion against his trainer or leader, the physical superiority of the man as leader of the pack must be given instant expression in the most unmistakable manner.… For, each time the dog finds that he is not instantly mastered, the canine competitive instinct will increase and his submissive instinct will weaken.… We are concerned here with a struggle for authority. The object of compulsion is to obtain the permanent and unconditional surrender of the dog. The intimidated state that accompanies it soon disappears, simply because peace again reigns as soon as the man is victorious.


(Most, 1954: pp. 35–37)


We can call this the Dominance Theory of dogs’ natures and of their relation to humans.


The most popular way to support the Dominance Theory is as follows: dogs originated from wolves, and their behaviour derives from that of wolves. Wolves naturally live in packs with a clear hierarchy, and an alpha-male and a dominant female at the top, a view supported by studies of groups of wolves kept in captivity (Zimen, 1975). To maintain the hierarchy, the alpha-male must dominate the subordinate members of the group, who regularly try to challenge the dominant members, and prevent them from becoming dominant by showing aggression. When we live with dogs, they view us as pack members and will naturally strive to rise above us in the hierarchy. To avoid this ongoing competition, we must confront and dominate dogs effectively, so that they accept their place below us in the hierarchy.


The Dominance Theory was widely accepted for most of the twentieth century, and following its premise, many dog owners adopted a training style where they would, for example, confront a dog protecting a bone, and forcibly remove the bone, to show the dog ‘who was boss’. When dogs showed signs of dominance, owners would engage in somewhat violent confrontations, such as doing an ‘alpha-roll’ on the dog (forcing it to lie on its back, and holding it there while staring into its eyes).


However, this theory has recently been the subject of intense controversy among experts in the field of animal behaviour. In 1999, the wildlife biologist David Mech published a study based on observations of wolves in the wild, rather than in captivity. He found that these wolves lived in family groups led by two parents. According to Mech:



The typical wolf pack, then, should be viewed as a family with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division-of-labor system, in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.… Dominance displays are uncommon except during competition for food.… Active submission appears to be primarily a food-begging gesture or a foodgathering motivator.


(Mech, 1999: p. 1202)


So, on this view, the natural life of a wolf is not a constant fight for dominance. Rather, wolves live in family structures where hierarchies are defined by family role; where young animals will naturally become leaders by leaving their parents and establishing their own families.


Following Mech’s study, influential dog trainers and experts in dog behaviour published further papers aiming to debunk the Dominance Theory. Wendy van Kerkhove (2004) argued that a number of earlier studies on feral dogs showed that they live in loosely organised groups rather than packs, which speaks against making assumptions about the social behaviour of dogs based on wolf behaviour. Further, she argued that aggression between dogs is better addressed by rewarding non-aggressive behaviour than by trying to punish signs of dominant behaviour.


A subsequent review paper by the ethologist John Bradshaw and colleagues from Bristol University, expanded van Kerkhove’s arguments, and questioned the usefulness of the Dominance Theory, concluding that:



… where a dog is anxious about the approach of an owner in a particular context (perhaps because the owner has previously forced the dog into an “alpha roll”), it may show appeasement, avoidance, or aggression to avoid the perceived threat. Since the first two are unsuccessful when owners persist in approaching and pulling their pet out from its hiding place, and the latter is successful, even if only momentarily, it is the aggressive response that is reinforced. Over subsequent encounters, if this response is consistently successful, the dog will become more confident in showing this behavior in that specific context. Similar associations can be used to explain how behavior that originates as defensive can metamorphose into the type of offensive behavior that is commonly categorized as “dominant”.


(Bradshaw, Blackwell & Casey, 2009: p. 143)


So, it is suggested here that the Dominance Theory, when applied in dog training, may serve as a self-reinforcing hypothesis: by using physical force, the owner elicits an aggressive response from the dog, which in turn is interpreted as a sign of dominance; alpha-rolls and other forms of physical confrontation may actually increase the risk of aggressive responses from the dog (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009). Bradshaw and colleagues conclude that it is



doubtful whether the concept of “dominance” can make any useful contribution to explaining dog–dog aggression, and it is therefore even less likely to be applicable to aggression directed at humans, given the added complexities of interspecies communication.


(Bradshaw, Blackwell & Casey, 2009: p. 143)


However, recently researchers have argued that it is premature to claim that dominance plays no role in dog–dog and human–dog relations (Schilder et al., 2014; Trisko, 2011). They argue that dominance can be used to explain the relation between individuals, that stable relations of dominance are observed for some (but not all) dyads of dogs, but also that, in contrast to the Dominance Theory, dominance relationships are maintained primarily by the low-ranking dogs voluntarily showing submissive signals to high-ranking dogs. The high-ranking dogs on the other hand mainly demonstrate their rank by posture and threats, and almost never by overt aggression (Trisko, 2011: p. 40).


These researchers agree with critics of the Dominance Theory that forceful behaviour is not a good way of ensuring that dogs are submissive to their owners. Instead, ‘adequate socialization of the dog and a clear and consistent behaviour by the owner’ is needed (Schilder et al

Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Companion Animal Training and Behavioural Problems
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