Help! My Dog Is Out of Control!
“In a very broad sense, predictability and controllability are empowering, and a lack of these capabilities is disempowering. - James O’Heare
Are you desperate to be in control of your dog?
There are many that feel the same way. Many dog trainers do not really like this term, however, dog guardians regularly express that control is what they need to deal with their dog’s behaviour. Why? Maybe they are worried their dog will get injured or harm another dog or person. Maybe they are elderly or ill and are worried about their own welfare. A lunging dog can pull their guardian over and this is obviously undesirable whether they have health problems or not. Even though to many positive dog trainers the word ‘control’ sounds negative, guardians usually express this need with the best intentions.
It's not unreasonable to want control, in fact without it you can feel rather helpless. It's like when we are driving a car on icy roads. When we suddenly lose control of the car, it's scary because we do not know what the consequences will be and we feel powerless to do anything. One of the hardest realities during this pandemic, has been being powerless to change or improve the situation.
We need to feel we have control, in order to ensure the best outcome in our lives. Hence, when you have a dog that you feel is out of control, you can become very stressed and frustrated. Having a boisterous or reactive dog can be embarrassing and emotionally exhausting. You can even feel like you're a bad dog parent and these negative thoughts are encouraged by the judgmental looks you get from other dog walkers on a daily basis. This just isn't how you pictured life with this dog.
It isn't surprising that so many dogs are left at rescues, rehomed or even abandoned because dog guardians can't cope. However, please know that you are not alone and that so much can be done to improve life with your dog. You always have the power to change your dog’s behaviour if you are willing to learn. Firstly, we really need to consider what is truly meant by the term control. I believe for most, this term isn't intended to be negative, however it can affect your judgement of your dog’s behaviour in a significant way.
When looking at their dog’s behaviour, many dog owners automatically think "how do I stop this behaviour?" A reasonable question no? But thinking this way can cause you to become stuck. Why? Well, you are focusing on what your dog is doing wrong and this gets you nowhere. You can become frustrated and angry because you feel powerless.
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any" (Alice Walker)
If you feel powerless, you may not have the motivation to try new approaches or you may not allocate enough time for your dog to fully learn the new concepts. However what happens if you ask yourself "What do I want my dog to do instead?" By asking this, you are already brainstorming how to replace the behaviour with something positive and motivating yourself to address the behaviour, thereby restoring your power to cause change.
For example, change ‘I don't want my dog to bark at other dog walkers’ into ‘What do I want him to do instead?’ ‘I want him to walk past calmly.’ How do I accomplish that?
Can you see how considering what you want your dog to do, rather than what you don't want him to do, is the first step in improving your dog’s behaviour?
Now I'm sure many would agree that the goal of control is not the removal of their dog’s freedom, but rather having some. When guardians don’t trust their dog to go off lead because they don’t have reliable recall, they have to restrict their dog’s freedom, which is not what they truly want. Many dog guardians say their dog is so unpredictable and that makes them incredibly nervous so the dog’s choices become more restricted. This anxiety contributes to feeling the need to be in control. Thankfully, there are many ways you can make your dog's behaviour more predictable without restricting them.
Obviously knowing what behaviour to expect and when to expect it, increases control, however, using aversives and corrections has the opposite effect. It’s ironic that such tools are used to “control” a dog, when in reality they make your dog’s behaviour even more unpredictable. Why does this happen? Well firstly you are not addressing the reason behind the behaviour, thereby suppressing it for future fallout (see blog Is it Okay to Punish Your Dog? (pawchores.com)) Secondly, the dogs associations with the discomfort/pain caused by a correction, shock or pain from an aversive collar, cannot be controlled. So the dog is unlikely to associate the leash correction etc. with his barking and will likely associate it with something he is actually barking or looking at, like a dog or car.
Next time he sees a dog or car he remembers the negative experience and becomes reactive as a result, creating an endless loop of unpredictable behaviour. Thus, aversives, punishment and corrections do not effectively control your dog’s behaviour in any sense, they just make your dog’s behaviour even more unpredictable and damage your relationship with your dog. They only increase the likelihood of negative experiences and the development of fear and phobias, which to many looks like uncontrollable behaviours.
Providing our dog with choice can also make their behaviour more predictable. I know what you are thinking. How on earth does giving my dog choices make their behaviour more predictable? Surely that makes them even more unpredictable!? Well many behaviours such as reactivity towards other dogs can be deemed uncontrollable or unpredictable behaviour, however, it’s the removal of the dog’s choice that causes this behaviour. Dogs should have a choice whether they want to go in a certain direction or greet other dogs. If you know they bark at other dogs but you insist on walking them near other dogs, then you are putting them in a situation where their unpredictable behaviour is actually justified.
Whereas if you use a high value reward and use it to lure your dog in a direction away from the other dog, you are providing your dog with another choice that is rewarding. In some cases, you don’t even need a reward because moving away from the other dog is rewarding in itself (functional reward). Having the choice to move away from something your dog fears is empowering for them and keeps them calm and confident in your abilities to keep them safe. If they feel safe they don’t need to bark and lunge and now that you have moved away from the other dog, you have made their behaviour more predictable. How?
In every situation you have to consider your dog’s threshold. What is that? Well we know a pain threshold determines what level of pain a person can endure. Similarly, a dog's threshold is what level of exposure to their stressor they can endure. If your dog becomes unpredictable around other dogs ie barking and lunging, this tells you he has gone above threshold and can no longer cope. The rational thinking part of his brain shuts down and the emotional part takes over. So how do you stay below threshold and keep your dog’s behaviour more predictable? Well the answer is not controlling your dog but controlling their stressors through management.
Distance is always key. Your dog will have a specific distance he can cope with, however this may vary if the other dog is large or running around off-lead etc. When you ensure your dog can cope in certain situations by managing their exposure, you can create positive outcomes, thereby controlling or managing your dog’s behaviour in a way that benefits you both.
Your dog’s threshold also depends on how many stressors your dogs had that day. I'm sure you've heard about the final straw that broke the camel’s back. We've all had a day when so many things go wrong and then a small thing happens and it floors us. It wasn't the small thing but the accumulation of all the stressful things that happened. In dog training we call this trigger stacking and in order to try and predict your dog’s behaviour, you need to recognise your dog’s stressors. How can you do that?
Understanding your dog’s body language is essential in predicting his behaviour and recognising the emotions driving it. Your dog is constantly communicating their internal emotions through their facial expressions, posture and position of their ears and tail. There are actually plenty of subtle signs your dog gives before reacting to a trigger. Imagine if you could recognise these early signs and could effectively prevent a negative reaction. Well you can! There is an amazing app called the dog decoder, which teaches you how to read your dog’s body language. The Canine Principles college also offers an amazing Canine Communication Accredited Diploma as well as other small courses and webinars on the subject. (https://www.canineprinciples.com/course?courseid=Canine-Communication-diploma)
Understanding your dog’s communication gives you the power to prevent any opportunities for your dog to become distressed, whether this be on walks, during interactions or when being handled. You will be able to recognise any trigger stacking and adjust your walk or daily activities to ensure your dog makes positive choices. This ultimately sets your dog up for success and really strengthens your bond, empowering you both.
“When voluntary behaviour can be used to bring about desired or beneficial outcomes, an individual has control.” (Moscarello and Hartley, 2017)
You can also utilise reinforcement to help produce behaviours that will become reliable in many situations. Reinforcement is information and it better equips your dog in understanding what behaviour has the best consequences. So, you need to positively reinforce all the desirable behaviours your dog displays, no matter how small, as a behaviour practiced is a behaviour learned. The more access to reinforcement your dog has, the greater control you will have because you will be teaching your dog how to behave, making their behaviour predictable. See it as preparing your dog to navigate through our confusing and sometimes frightening world.
A lot of emphasis is put on us being the ones in control and while that is sometimes the case regarding boundaries and safety, your dog needs to feel a level of control too. Providing enrichment and opportunities to engage in natural behaviours, such as man-trailing, digging, swimming, free work, problem solving and scent work all create opportunities for your dog to experience control over their environment. Enriching activities provides dogs with control by allowing them to participate in behaviours that result in positive outcomes. This builds their confidence and resilience, which can improve their emotional and physical health. This will then reduce the likelihood of fearful and reactive behaviours that leave you feeling powerless.
Maybe all this seems like a lot of effort but there are no shortcuts to making your dog’s behaviour desirable and reliable. When it comes to dogs, there are a lot of factors that may contribute to undesirable behaviour, that are totally out of your control, such as their genetics, experiences, past training, breed traits, health and their personality. However, you still have the power to train him, but your attitude towards your dog and his behaviour will significantly influence the effort you put forth to help him.
The two things in life you are in total control of, are your attitude and effort. (Brian Cox)
Hence, when you feel that your dog is out of control, remember that feeling powerless results in relinquishing any power you have to change your dog’s behaviour. You don’t need to control your dog to accomplish this, rather you need to give your dog choices, provide enriching experiences and manage your dog’s stressors to ensure he is only exposed to situations he can emotionally cope with.
Thus, the only way to ensure your dog’s behaviour is predictable, is by recognising the power you have to shape his behaviour and that’s the only control you will ever need.