By Lynn Whittaker, Bow Wow U
If there is one major mistake that well-meaning dog owners make, it is to inadvertently reward undesirable behavior. As we have covered in past articles, to have a happy and healthy dog that compliments your lifestyle, it is important to select the right breed, train the dog and provide good nutrition. There is more to it than that, however. At times, dog training is as much art as science, and there are many factors that play a part in shaping an animal’s behavior.
Dogs, like other living creatures, go through specific phases of development. The experiences the animal may have during any one phase can impact the dog for life. One such developmental phase is the “fear-impact period”. During this phase, the puppy is interested in exploring its environment, but it may be overwhelmed by the flood of new experiences, thus resulting in a certain degree of fear or anxiety.
In the wild, to survive, it is important to learn what to be afraid of and when to run away, and what not to be afraid of. Traumatic experiences during this developmental period may cause a dog to forever fear the situation that created the fear originally.
For example, as a puppy, my dog Sirius was frightened by a child on a bicycle. The child rode up to him quickly and rode around him in a tight circle. After that, Sirius had an acute fear of bicycles. It may take only one instance, as in this example, to create a lasting fear. It is at that moment though, that dog owners make the big mistake. It would be natural when a dog acts in a fearful manner to coddle the dog, pet it and say soothing things, such as “that’s OK”. But this is precisely the WRONG thing to do.
As I am fond of saying, dogs don’t speak English, what the dog hears is “blah, blah, blah”. What the dog experiences, however, is that it receives attention when it acts a certain way. Thus, the dog learns that there is a link between acting fearful and getting desired attention. The result is an increased likelihood that the dog will act fearful more often.
In psychology, this is called “positive reinforcement”. Parents are very familiar with this technique. When a child does something right, like get an A in school, they might get a “gold star”, or simply a heaping of praise from the parent. However, if we reward undesirable behavior, like when a dog is acting aggressively towards strangers, we can strengthen the desire of the animal to engage in that behavior again.
In conclusion, my simple advice to you is to examine your own behavior when your dog does something you don’t want it to do and see if you might be unknowingly causing the dog to continue in that behavior.