A friend of mine once was awakened at 3 am by an explosion in her bedroom.
Two of her five dogs were lip-locked, and not in a good way. One was latched onto the other’s face and would not let go. When her husband started yelling, it didn’t end the fight; it led to the others joining in.
The biggest shock wasn’t the fight itself, though certainly it must have been a surprising way to be hustled out of bed. The real surprise was that the dog implanted into the face of the other was the gentlest dog of their crew. It seemed their little lovebug had morphed into munitions.
Landmines work by being armed, tripwired, and buried just beneath a surface, where they then lie silently in wait. The inner workings of dogs are not that simple, but a sufficiently set animal can be triggered to blow. Sometimes it may be the result of something relatively natural, like tiny disputes between dogs over time. Other times, however, it can be the eventual result of training and handling them in ways that suppress—i.e., bury—rather than change their feelings about things.
Here are some tips to help you encourage your darling dog to stay Lovebug:
1: Instead of threatening, enrich. After all, when is the last time a passing threat really worked on you? If your boss threatens that she’ll downgrade you from an office to a cubicle if you don’t stop sleeping at your desk, is that going to make you any less sleepy? It might make you find a way to hide your sleepiness, but sleepiness itself won’t be changed by the threat. Only addressing the cause by, e.g., getting more or richer sleep at night—perhaps by resolving whatever worry is keeping you from good sleep—is likely to resolve day-sleepiness. When we threaten a dog to get them to stop doing something we don’t like, we might scare them into the inaction we desire at that moment, but it doesn’t change the underlying feeling that led to the undesired behavior, so the scare tactic isn’t a permanent solution. Though each dog may find different things enriching, there are many forms of enrichment for dogs in their daily lives: Playing, digging, chewing, yard-'hunting', and exploration such as sniff-mission walks, also known as sniffari, are just a few of many possible options. An enriched dog is a happier, less stressed dog, and a happy dog’s behavior tends to exemplify that happiness.
2: Instead of nagging, invite. Anyone who has ever been nagged knows that the more it happens, the less effective it is, because you learn to tune out the nagger. Anyone who has ever been the nagger knows how annoying it is to be tuned out, and how the nagger-naggee dynamic becomes an exhausting vicious cycle. Oftentimes we ignore a nagger because we think we already know what is being said or requested, and it’s nothing new or worthwhile to us. It’s the same for dogs. If the barking dog hears “Rover, stop it” 20 times a day and knows from experience that fulfilling that request will result in nothing but the end of fun or attention, what’s in it for them? On the other hand, if you invite the dog to do something equally or more exciting, nagging soon falls away, and so does ignoring.
3: Instead of punishing, reward. So, your boss catches you sleeping in the office again. This time she docks your pay. Maybe she even throws a pile of paperwork at you. That ticks you off, but you want to keep your job, so you just take it. Because you are angry but have suppressed your feelings, that anger brews into long-lasting resentment, frustration, and a sort of tripwire tendency whenever anyone even mentions the boss or the situation. Now what if instead, your boss were to notice and reinforce the behavior she desires—your staying awake and working in your office—every single day? Perhaps she gives you a daily big smile, thumbs up, and ‘attaboy’ as she walks by. Maybe after a month of noticing that you’ve not slept in your office at all, she calls you in for a performance review, tells you what a great job you did on your recent project, and then gives you a merit raise for increased productivity. The following month you get more sleep at night so that you can continue this positive streak at work and save your work relationships. When a dog is punished for undesired behavior, whether by scolding, leash jerking, or other corporeal punishment, the punishment may once again stop the behavior temporarily, via suppression. Since punishment tends to scare or intimidate if not hurt, most dogs will do what makes the discomfort stop. However, suppressing behavior does not solve it. On the contrary, suppressed behavior tends to rise back to the surface eventually, exploding with even more energy, sometimes in baffling contexts or shocking ways. This is why sticking with positive reinforcement training is so important. Reinforcing desired behavior, by responding with a paycheck of something that the dog really loves and needs, will result in an increase in that desired behavior. And voila! Through rewarding the dog for good behavior in this way, the desired behavior becomes a replacement for the undesired behavior you thought you had to punish.
My friend will never know what tripped the wire to her lovebug's fight. Perhaps the dog had been living in a suppressed or agitated state in regard to the other dog, who had been a bit of a bully, however infrequently, over the years. Since the tools our beloved pet dogs are armed with aren't thumbs, but teeth, and since they do not have the luxury of their preferred means of conflict avoidance—leaving when they feel threatened—we need to avoid loading them with potentially explosive emotional material.