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  • Writer's pictureRain Jordan

Moving to the Way of Gentleness

A scolded dog shows nervousness and appeasement behavior.
A human scolds; a dog appeases. Humans can learn a lot from dogs.

Many of us grew up during a time when #spankings, #scoldings, and sometimes much worse were considered normal. Others who avoided that lifestyle for themselves may nevertheless have had plenty of exposure. There are some who were lucky to have avoided it completely. To be inclusive, we must acknowledge that there are those who believe growing up punished was character-building. Even if that were true—a premise not of interest here so no assessment shall be offered—the same can not be claimed true for non-human animals.

#Canines and other non-human animals, not having the option to engage in dialog via spoken language, cannot benefit from #punishment even if we believe that humans do, because canines cannot discuss with their punishers why they are being punished. Our dogs’ punishers cannot explain their rationale for the punishment in hopes of convincing the #dogs to ‘never do it again’ because our dogs do not understand human language that way. (And #deterrence is not a convincing argument since if that worked, one would never do any wrong thing more than once. Yet we all know that most people, and most pets, will just wait until no one is looking to do it again.) What our dogs will understand is that their #punishers are to be #feared, possibly #avoided, possibly defended against.

Without the luxury of language, dogs do not have the option of denying having done what their punishers accuse them of—e.g., the cat did it—nor can they explain their behavior—e.g., that the punisher does not have the entire story, that the dog had a valid reason for the behavior and therefore, punishment is not just and should not be delivered. Dogs cannot try to negotiate their way out of punishment or to reduce their punishment, nor beg for mercy with eloquent words, sob stories, etc., nor can they threaten to call the police. They also cannot actually call the police, nor wait for their punishers to fall asleep in front of the television, then sneak out the front door with the car keys and go to a domestic violence safe house. They will never lovingly be told that verbal and emotional abuse is still #abuse and that they did the right thing by leaving their punishers. Well, they might be told that, but they won’t know they are being told precisely that.

Why do we, supposedly the only animal with logic, who consider ourselves the most intelligent animal, continue to behave as if our dogs, who speak no human languages, who understand no human cultural or societal rules, who do not even have the same sets of *social mores or basic body language as we do—why do we for even one moment in our own logic-endowed lives treat our dogs with anything other than #compassion, knowing that they cannot possibly know what it means to be “well-behaved”? In most cases, dogs are perfectly well-behaved--for canines. It is we humans who become ill-behaved, when we act aggressively toward dogs for not understanding what we want, for forgetting, or for just being who they are. We humans, the 'logical, most intelligent creatures', are therefore the ones responsible for ensuring that the #innocent, #vulnerable creatures to whom we have made implied lifelong promises, are happy, safe, well, unafraid of us, and certainly unthreatened by us.

Obviously, I do not believe in punishing animals. I do not believe in punishment #training, overt or covert, harsh or mild. I celebrate those who reject #shock, #prong, #choke, & #bark #collars, among other types of #aversive equipment and methods. Yet as with so many things in life, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to learn, and in dog training, there are layers of aversive methods to recognize so that they may be peeled off and thrown away. A commitment to R+ training does not guarantee perfection of course--there is no such thing for us. But that is no excuse to not do our best possible work. Something is aversive to a dog if the dog would want to avoid or escape from it--this is nearly tautological. Since each individual dog may find particular things aversive in that s/he would rather they not happen (a type of ‘want to avoid’), I define aversive very broadly. If I slam the door when I leave the house because I’m angry at my spouse or frustrated with a bad service provider, my fearful dog will find that aversive even if he is not right there where he can see it. If I am temperamentally angelic, but the wind slams the door after I leave, the effect on that particular dog is the same. I am driving to a point, and it is this. Most of us, perhaps all of us, could possibly be less aversive, more gentle, with and around our dogs, even if only by being more thoughtful, more #prevention-minded, thereby helping them even more.

Risk hurting them less. There are so many ways. I could make a list, but instead, how about everyone make a list together? I’ll just start it. Dogs appreciate #tone even though they don’t speak our language, so speak to them—softly, calmly, happily, enthusiastically, depending on the context. While they cannot say and may not know words, for example, “tense” and “relaxed,” they can tell the difference in us. Our mood effects theirs. Our #attitude about things effect their attitudes about things. Our #demeanor effects theirs. The effects of our demeanor on our dogs is just one of many reasons to learn and conscientiously maintain a habit of R+ training, handling, and treatment of them—because the #training process, which culminates in the lifelong maintenance, handling, and treatment habits that follow it, saves them. Daily.

It can also break them. The choice is ours—is yours. Whether rescues or freshly purchased purebreds, the instant you take them in your arms and every moment they share your life thereafter, when you look at that face staring back at you, or that tail whisking away, each moment carries with it a choice: save or break. Save: A soft smile when you come home and they jump on you in excitement. Break: A shout and push away instead. Save: When you ask them to ‘Sit’ and they do, you celebrate with their favorite type of reinforcement. Break: You ask and they don’t sit, so you repeat, louder and more sternly, then insist, pushing them into position. No favorite anything.

I cringe every time someone proclaims that dogs “just want to please” us. Some people still believe that pleasing us is all dogs want and is the reason dogs do what we ask of them. But there’s a black hole sized section of that story missing, which makes the people-pleasing belief just legend. The reality? Dogs do what pleases us because we have reinforced them for doing so. If we have positively reinforced them for doing so, they are more likely to be happy to do it--not for the sake of pleasing us per se, but because we have built a strong history of positive reinforcement with them—of making them happy.

On the other hand, dogs who are placed in situations where they are left to experience humans as scary creatures who bark commands at them, who put tight hands on them, who physically force them when commands don’t work, or who don’t seem to notice or respond much differently anyway when they do do what was demanded—those dogs may become timid, skittish, fearful, anti-social, or self-protective (and then labeled quote-unquote-aggressive), the antithesis of the people-pleasers that society mistakenly believes dogs are, the stereotypical expectation that results in many #abandonment, #abuse, and #euthanasia cases each year. These dogs do what they do because they fear us. They learn from their experiences to fear humans because these dogs are not treated with kindness, respect, and positive reinforcement, but instead are scared, hurt, intimidated, or forced into further aversive situations. Some cases get so bad that a dog may respond aggressively, in attempts to defend himself from perceived or actual threats to his safety. So a perfectly normal dog is taken in and mishandled, perhaps simply because the handler was misled by someone else and didn’t know any better. Soon that dog becomes fearful, which may lead to an event in which the dog believes he is being attacked by his owner/handler--not infrequently the dog is being attacked by his owner/handler--and out of fear tries to defend himself. He is then swiftly killed for "aggression".

This is why I believe so resolutely in R+ training and non-aversive classical conditioning—for everyone. If there is pain, fear, threat, intimidation, or force used, it is part of the problem. If trainers, handlers, breeders, owners, adopters, fosters, rescuers, shelter workers, and animal welfare organizations do not all come to this realization, the scaring, traumatizing, harming, abandonment, and killing of dogs will never stop. To achieve a true no-kill nation, we must first achieve no shock, no prong, no choke, no pain, no force, no threat, no intimidation, no fear, no compulsion. Until then, all of these things and their aversive relatives will continue to keep the euthanasia room doors swinging.

*There are exceptions, such as the rules of play. Marc Bekoff explains: “Ample data for a number of different species [including dogs] show there are predictable rules of play that cross species lines, namely, ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit when you’re wrong.”

(I have a funny feeling dogs follow those rules more often than humans do.)


photo credit: Willee Cole / Shutterstock

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