Dog’s Eye View: The way we were
While attending a seminar on canine behavior during the weekend, I was reminded of the long journey of growth in the world of dog behavior and training I have taken through many years’ time. Things have changed.
Part of the seminar related to reactivity in dogs. The presenter very clearly pointed out that the term “reactivity” paints a picture of a dog barking and lunging at another dog. The word “react” is key here. This is usually a learned behavior. Dogs are highly sensitive and susceptible to a silent stare and/or threatening display from another dog.
Which came first? Is it the still, silent stare or the responding bark and lunge from the dog being stared at. Is it the sound and fury of a barking, lunging dog in proximity to a young, impressionable dog that might be wondering if he is in danger? Is it a young dog going through a fear period that barks at new and novel things in his environment?
Any of these scenarios is possible. What we all tend to focus on is the dog’s behavior, and who wouldn’t? The seminar presenter showed multiple video clips of dog reactivity at the end of a leash in many different locations, both in cities and rural environments.
One thing she asked us to pay particular attention to was the behavior of the owners, not the dogs. Generally, they had little or no control over their own dogs and were not able predict or prevent a reactive outburst or protect their own pets. Often, they were walking their dogs while talking on their cellphone (distracted dog walking). Many owners were walking two or more dogs using multiple retractable leashes. This, in itself, diminishes control over the dogs.
The presenter reminded us of a time when many of us, myself included, began training our pet dogs. For me, this was in the 1950s, when group pet dog training classes were just becoming popular. The methods used were similar to the way dogs were trained for military service.
Picture a very large room with perhaps 20 or 30 people walking their dogs in a large circle around a drill sergeant barking out commands of, “forward,” “halt,” “come front” or “reverse,” among others. We all used choke chains and 6-foot leather leashes. The training was based solely on punishment.
The classes produced very disciplined owners and dogs, but this training method came at a price. Thankfully, the application of the science and study of canine learning and behavior change can produce the same great outcome without the trauma and possible damage to the dog, the owner and their relationship.
We saw fewer reactive dogs back then. Most people had only one pet dog, and these owners were much more focused on and accountable for their dogs’ behavior. The dogs were not allowed to bark and lunge and were taught to be absolutely responsive and attentive to their owner, rather than the environment.
Among the few pet dog sports at the time were American Kennel Club obedience trials, which, to this day, are very structured. At dog shows, the dogs need to be able to walk through crowds of hundreds of people and dogs just to get to their competition ring.
Perhaps, through the years, we have thrown out the baby with the bath water. There’s been a major shift in accountability. Today, we seem to want our dogs to relate more to other dogs than to us. A well-trained dog that’s responsive and accountable to his attentive and vigilant owner is a more confident dog that doesn’t need to bark and lunge to keep a very uncertain world at bay.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC, with more than 30 years of experience.
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