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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).