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Mary and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Neighbor AKA, why I Don’t Use Fear in My Training

I’m going to start this blog post with a story; it’s going to seem like a longwinded, irrelevant story, but I promise I have a point! Just stick with me.

Way back in August (remember summer? I miss summer!) I was walking Regis and Phoebe; when it’s nice out we typically walk 2-3 miles, sometimes 4. It’s a great way to start our day and keeps the dogs happy so I can get some work done later on. On our walks Regis and Phoebe can sniff as much as they’d like as long as there is slack in the leash; they sniff bushes, trees, sometimes it seems like every blade of grass.

Dog standing on a log
Did someone say walk?!

Well this particular morning, the dogs were sniffing a shrub next to the sidewalk when I heard someone yelling at me from across the street. It was somebody I had never seen before (we were about two miles away from home) screaming at me for letting my dogs pee on the bushes. I was confused at first; they were just sniffing, not going to the bathroom, so I said “Sorry but they’re just sniffing”, at which point this neighbor continued to scream at me, calling me a liar and other names, and telling me I was a horrible neighbor and to be ashamed of myself. I would be lying if I said I was kind in my response to him; I called him crazy and continued walking down the street to get away, and this man followed me all the way until I turned the corner and left his sight, yelling at me the entire time. By the time I had moved away my hands were shaking and my heart was racing; it was a hugely unpleasant experience. I am terrible with confrontation (especially when I am POSITIVE that I hadn’t done anything wrong!!!), so this interaction ruined my entire day and it’s negativity bled over into the next several days as well.

It’s been 6 months since that day. Since then on my walks I have avoided that street entirely, going out of my way to avoid it; additionally, when I see someone who looks remotely like that neighbor I am on edge and I try to get my dogs to move faster and increase distance from them, even though since then I have not had another negative interaction like this.

OKAY. So what the heck does this story have to do with dog training, other than me holding an audience captive to tell them my story about how anxious I am and complain about a crazy neighbor? It’s because THIS is why I don’t use fear to train dogs. Because even if there is no physical impact after something scary happens, there is often an emotional impact that we do not foresee, and that emotional impact, if based in fear, can be difficult to extinguish (she says, still thinking about a singular unpleasant experience from 6 months ago).

Technically this man was hoping to use positive punishment in his interaction with me. He added something I found negative/aversive (his screaming at me and name calling) in the hopes that he was decreasing a behavior he didn’t like (his perception of me letting my dogs pee on a bush, when they were just sniffing).

Did this work? Let’s see, I still let my dogs sniff as much as they want (so this behavior did not decrease) , but I did learn to avoid his street entirely, and I now have an anxious negative emotional response on my walks when I see people who fit into his demographic. So he didn’t succeed in the behavior decreasing, he just taught me to do the it elsewhere (which we commonly see with dogs who have been punished for going potty or chewing on something; they just get really good at hiding it!), and at the same time has made my walks more stressful and less pleasant for me, i.e. negative emotional fallout.

Dog sitting on a walk
"How dare you accuse me of peeing on that bush!"

This is what positive trainers see all the time with dogs who have been exposed to aversive and punitive training. Scream at your dog when they pee in the house? They’ll learn to only pee when you’re out of sight, which makes potty training next to impossible. Stack cans high on a counter to ‘teach your dog a lesson’ for counter surfing when they fall down on them? Maybe now your dog is afraid of the kitchen entirely. Use electric shock to keep your dog contained inside the yard? Every time they see a person at the fence line they run up to say hello, are shocked, and very quickly learn that people passing the house are a threat to them, which turns into aggression.

Anyone reading this who is more confident or less anxious than I am might think that I sound like a crazy person, and I get that; why let something like this stress me out at all, it’s just some crazy old dude! This situation may have been no sweat off your back and maybe wouldn’t have impacted you the way it did me BUT there’s no way to know that unless we try, and that’s essentially gambling with someone’s emotional and mental well being. This is what we do with dogs all the time when we use punitive training, and unfortunately by the time we realize we’re doing damage, it’s often too late.

I’m a human being with a big brain loaded with grey matter; I pride myself on my critical thinking skills, and feel like I’m a pretty logical person. And yet this single interaction continues to occupy space in my mind six months down the line. I can’t imagine what our dogs go through emotionally when we rely on aversive consequences to train, how confused and stressed out they must feel. If something like this can impact a person this way, think about how it can impact our dogs! Behavior change techniques matter, and if we rely on punishment for our training we run the risk of emotional fall out, suppressing overall behavior, and other negative side effects. SO. Don’t be the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad crazy old man neighbor. Be better. Do better. For your dog.

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