The educational value of analogy

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This chapter covers

Analogies to assist in understanding and explaining behavioural principles accurately but with no long words!

The Swimming Pool of Life

The Prodigal Son Principle

The Behavioural Iceberg

I am not one for trying to reinvent the wheel under other more fancy names. With respect to dog training and behaviourist colleagues over the years, I do suspect that this is exactly what has happened, to the confusion of all. A new way of describing an age-old truth is dressed up to sound like an invention and called so-and-so’s method or rules or even a ‘revolution’. The writing was on the wall with No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way. Using an amalgam of choke chains, taps on the nose, a commanding voice which brooked no argument and a claimed affinity with animals, her ‘way’ persuaded many to follow her example and emulate her supposedly unique abilities.

I make no such claims. Having said this, I have found the following analogies extremely useful to explain certain principles in different ways. Hopefully clear and easy to grasp, they are simply reflections of how I myself came to the realisations I did. Take your pick – mark, learn and inwardly digest whichever one you find most useful for you and your clients!

The swimming pool of life

When teaching a child to swim, if we have any sense, we do not throw her into the deep end of the pool and wait to see what happens! If we did, we would find ourselves having to perform emergency rescues on a very regular basis. Instead, we keep the child in the shallow end where they can be taught the motions of swimming while they still have their feet on the ground and therefore feels safe. We then very gradually move towards the deep end, ensuring that the child always knows where the shallow end is and how to reach it. Thus, they never have to panic and they develop confidence in the knowledge of how to ‘rescue’ themselves.

Yet so often we do not give dogs sufficient (or any) time and opportunity to learn how to cope with situations they find tricky. On a daily basis, dogs find themselves approaching a situation or context they find impossibly difficult to deal with. Because they seem so far outwardly ‘fine’ (as the child would appear while still on the edge of the pool or standing in the shallow end), nothing is done to intervene with educational guidance. Instead the dog is thrown into a metaphorical deep end. When unwanted behaviour inevitably arises, which illustrates a dog’s discomfort and inability to ‘swim’, it is too often assumed that the dog is being ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’, and he may well be reprimanded. This simply serves to convince the dog that their owner is just as upset by the situation as they are themselves. As such, the owners cannot be relied upon to give guidance and the dog must sink or swim on their own in whatever way they are able.

It is rare for a dog, whose owner has not had the benefit of behavioural advice, to be shown how to follow the steps as one would for a child in a swimming pool. Although this analogy may be applied to a great number of problem contexts, the behaviour of a dog who is intolerant of other dogs is a prime example of how a dog may be given inadequate or faulty guidance. Even those who have attended training classes may fall into the trap of trying to tell a dog what not to do – to stop barking, lunging and pulling on lead, growling, threatening to bite, etc. – instead of thoroughly teaching what a dog should do instead of these unwanted and socially embarrassing actions. Various means are attempted to discourage the dog as well as verbal reprimand, which almost inevitably includes tightening the hold on the lead. The sensation of having no way of escape, heading instead inexorably and unavoidably towards the ‘deep end’, is made worse should the lead be connected to a choke chain. Potentially indelible negative associations may thus be made with other dogs.

As with many behaviour ‘problems’, the solution is to train alternative, more acceptable behaviours by rewarding means. Over time, dogs will come to choose these behaviours for themselves, just as the child who has learned to swim. However, to achieve this, they must be given repeated and consistent information from the owner which predicts rewarding consequences.

We must therefore consider what rewarding consequences will be in this context from a dog’s perspective. Although it may appear that the ‘misbehaving’ dog is intent on battle with another dog, in reality the emotions underlying the behaviour are nearly always fear and anxiety. These emotions are inadvertently made worse by the owner. In other words, attack has become the apparent best means of defence. What such a dog really wants, above all else, is to increase the distance between himself and the other dog and thereby calm both himself and his owner. If restrained on lead and without being shown any other behavioural options, he will attempt to force the other dog to retreat.

The simplest behaviour to train may be the ‘sit’ while allowing other dogs to pass by, but this alone will not necessarily fulfil all the dog’s needs. By slackening the lead, turning away from an approaching dog and asking your dog to follow and move ‘This way!’, three important pressures are brought to bear on his subsequent decision. A dog will risk losing his owner’s company as well as the tasty food in their pocket if he doesn’t comply (negative punishments). He will also remain in a situation of perceived threat in the form of the approaching dog (positive punishment).

Conversely, if he complies and follows his owner, he will:

a.regain his owner’s company, given copious food titbits (both positive rewards), and will

c.relieve himself of perceived threat and emotional distress by moving away from the approaching dog (negative reward).

(For explanation of positive and negative rewards and punishments, see Chapter 4.)

A common mistake is to leave intervention too late. It is before a dog reacts, when the dog is still emotionally stable enough to think straight and concentrate, that guidance is required. So often we wait to interrupt a dog’s ‘bad’ behaviour rather than pre-empting it by giving him something else to do. I find that owners are tempted to test out the success of their training efforts by waiting to see if their dog will react. Never wait and see what a dog will do! Inevitably, if a dog has already reacted, what we want the dog to do (to pay attention to us) is in opposition to what he now wants (to drive the other dog away). To do what is uppermost in his mind is so at odds with guidance given too late that enormous emotional conflict is created. Attempting to force a dog to obey us does just this.

To reiterate, owners should never wait to see what a dog will do (the equivalent of waiting to see if he can swim in the deep end of the pool) as, by the time the dog has chosen the wrong thing for himself, the owner is very unlikely to be able to change the dog’s mind. Both dog and owner will therefore fail. One should always err on the side of caution. Giving guidance early to pre-empt arousal will ensure that what the dog feels he has to do does not outweigh his owner’s wishes. It will ensure that his decision is far easier to make and will keep the dog within his depth in his particular pool.

If an owner’s pre-emptive guidance is practised calmly and consistently in a light-hearted tone of voice, a dog may begin to anticipate his owner’s actions by looking in their direction whenever other dogs come into sight. This shows that they have learned that it is so much more pleasant to follow the owner and stay calm, thus keeping themselves out of the ‘deep end’ of the pool and in safety.


The accompanying diagram illustrates how the dimensions and shape of the swimming pool of life may vary according to the lives and behaviour of individual animals. The normal contour of a swimming pool has a gradual slope towards the deep end and plenty of opportunity to rehearse how to swim before it becomes essential. Two extremes are depicted – dog A, who finds much of life very difficult to cope with and therefore has a small shallow end in which to practise, and dog B, who misbehaves very rarely with an extensive shallow end.

However, neither dog has a slope provided for them upon which to learn, appearing to be ‘good’ (behaving well when they can stand) and suddenly ‘bad’ (as they fall into the deep end).

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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on The educational value of analogy

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