The Cost of a “Quick Fix”

Many pet stores and dog training websites offer plenty of suggestions on how to stop your dog from _____________. Just  fill in the blank. Many of these suggestions involve what’s billed as a “quick fix.”

These so-called “quick-fixes” involve shocking, spraying or other aversive stimulation intended to startle the dog or cause pain to the dog.

Some of these devices, such as invisible shock fences provide a warning signal before the painful stimulus occurs. It doesn’t take long for the dog to figure out (through associative learning) that the warning signal predicts punishment. While the dog may not receive the shock or other intended punishment, because the sound has been paired with discomfort or pain, the dog still has the same negative emotional response, which causes them pain emotionally if not physically. This can ultimately result in the dog no longer being as engaged with others and in some cases can lead to fearful displays and aggressive behaviors. Not what the dog’s guardian intended.

Let’s try to think and learn like a dog for a moment (they learn like we do!).

You are out and about doing what comes naturally when suddenly you hear a strange noise followed shortly by an unpleasant or painful experience. Wow, where did that come from? All I was doing was walking through the yard!

A little while later, you are out in the yard again and the same thing happens. Apparently, when I get near a certain place in the yard, bad things happen. You start to make associations between that place in the yard, that odd sound, and the pain. Now that I think about it, every time this happens there is a child near the fence. I think children are interesting, but this one isn’t nice because every time I go over to check him out, I get zapped and feel pain. From now on I am going to stay away from children. In fact, I pretty much don’t like them anymore and might bark or lunge or growl to try to make them go away.

There are so many unintended consequences to using aversive techniques.

The next day, out walking through the yard you hear that sound again. You freeze in your tracks, sure you’re going to get zapped again. Whew that was close! I heard the noise, but nothing happened. Regardless, your heart is racing and your paws are shaking, just as if you got zapped. Now you’re unsure what to do to keep from getting zapped, so you shut down, give up and don’t do anything. You’re in a state of learned helplessness, afraid to do anything for fear of doing something that will earn you a zap and cause pain.

This is what can happen to our dogs when we attempt to employ a quick-fix solution. It’s not good for the dog emotionally nor physically. A quick fix is usually neither. Instead of correcting or punishing undesirable behavior, let’s teach our dogs what we want them “to do” instead.

Jim Ross is the owner of Cold Nose College Blue Ridge. He studied at the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior, is member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, is trained in pet first aid and CPR and carries the Pet-Tech First Aid/Canine CPR caregiver designation. Jim is also a volunteer dog trainer working with the detainees and their shelter dogs within the Rescued Program. 

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