Fuel that Drives the Behavior   by Roger Hild

If you’re anything like me you will hear many complaints from dog owners about how their dog is behaving.  Very often they will tie the behavior to an emotional state.  The behaviors will range from using the floor as a bathroom to using the mailman as a chew toy.  The descriptions often sound like: 

  • “My dog pees in the house when he’s upset with me.”
  • “My dog gets so excited when he sees someone he pulls like crazy and won’t listen.”
  • “My dog gets frightened around company and will nip/bite if someone moves too quickly.”
  • “My dog has fear issues and growls at everyone - other dogs etc.”
  • “If I discipline my dog, he won’t like me.” 

Average pet owners are not the only folks to look for the feeling-behavior connection.  There has been much discussion recently, among trainers and behaviorists, about such topics as separation anxiety, fear aggression, fear of loud noises, and various other “phobias.”  Throughout all these “issues,” is the suggestion that there must be some underlying emotion that is being expressed through various forms of behavior.  This move (toward assigning emotional motives to various behaviors) follows on the heels of a similar move in the human pop-psychology and self-help movement.  It would seem that in the process of trying to find a balance between the head and the heart, between the rational and the emotional, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the emotional.  All too often, when debating what decisions must be taken, a well reasoned, well thought out position will be met with a, “well I just feel…,” rebuttal.

Is emotion the final arbiter of behavior?  My purpose in writing this piece is not to deny the important role emotions play.  I do not deny that feelings play a role in many decisions and underlie, to some extent, certain actions.  I am simply concerned that the, “get in touch with your feelings,” movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s is now driving far too many agendas (including dog training).  While developing an awareness of one’s feelings and seeking an appropriate expression of them was a healthy venture, dwelling on them and allowing the heart to rule the head has proven to be more problematic.  Personally, I am convinced that the mantra, “If it feels good – do it” of the 70’s has become the, “road rage” of the 90’s.  With our dogs, I believe the excessive focus on the dog’s feeling state has, at times, led to a whole new host of problems.  The simple fact is that emotion expressed without the moderating influence of sound judgment and common sense, usually results in poor decisions and unacceptable behavior. 

The move in this direction has led to treatment approaches that focus almost entirely on the feeling state and ways to change it.  Just browsing through the writings some popular ‘dog behavior experts,’ I note things aimed at understanding body language and emotion of dogs and I note an emphasis on ‘dog friendly,’ techniques.  There are numerous examples of using techniques such as; counter conditioning, desensitization, habituation, flooding etc.  The attempt is to “disrupt the association made by the animal between the fear it feels and the stimulus it perceives.”  There is no denying these techniques play a useful role in the overall treatment of certain problems.  However, I believe that if the entire focus is directed toward the feeling state and all work is aimed at trying to change the feeling that has become “conditioned to the stimulus,” such a program is doomed to failure.  There is the theory that if you can change the feelings the behavior will change BUT of equal importance is the theory that if you work to change the behavior, the feelings will change. 

There is ample evidence to show that at times when emotions are running high and many are gripped by panic, there is no substitute for good training.  Training is what allows one to carry on and function during the most stressful of times.  Training offers more options and can keep one from running off or engaging in irrational behavior.  I’m sure that firemen and police feel fear, along with a wide range of other emotions, and yet they are able to concentrate on what needs to be done even when the danger is ever present.  This is when the discipline of solid training helps get them through the worst of times and saves lives.  Training that only holds when everything is at an optimum is of very little value – it is when the training holds in all possible scenarios that its’ true value can be appreciated.  Having a job that has to be done and having the training necessary to do that job, is one way to get through some very emotionally loaded situations. 

Can this same emphasis on good training work with dogs that have problems?  I believe it can.  In some instances, a program that is aimed at balancing the emotions and offering that along with a balanced behavioral training approach is what I believe will work well.  Teaching the dog what he has to do when confronted with an emotionally loaded stimulus, can allow him to gain the confidence that only comes from doing.  With repeated successes over time, I believe the dog can and will adjust his own feelings. 

I realize that when expressing my opinions, I often use human examples.  I do this because it promotes easy understanding of the points I am trying to make.  Sometimes I am accused of anthropomorphism and you will perhaps find examples of it in this piece.  Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.  Dog trainers are ever cautioned to guard against engaging in this activity (such as when we might speculate on what a dog is thinking), however, those behaviorists who ascribe emotional motives to every problem behavior, are practicing anthropomorphism of the worst kind.

Just one point of view,
- Roger