Your rescue dog is not a child – the dangers of treating him like one
How to ensure your dog is happy and has no behaviour problems.
A quick walk through a park and you will find walkers talking to their dogs, asking them to do something like sit down, leave that dog alone, come back here, do not eat that. Most of these commands are verbalised by the owner whilst their dog has their back to them and is concentrated on the prospect of another dog to smell, some food to eat or a jumping squirrel to catch.
The dog owners quickly get frustrated at the lack of reaction in the dog, in the same manner we would do if we were asking a four-year-old to do something and they refuse or ignore us. They quickly reprimand the dog.
When at home, most of us talk to our dogs in baby voices and just maintain a general chit chat with them that makes us very happy. Who does not like telling their dogs what a lovely boys or girls they are all day long? Nothing wrong with that if we do not expect them to understand what we say or answer us back.
Most of our interactions with dogs seem to display a parent – child relationship and that is even more apparent when we have adopted a dog. Even the language we use, reflects that. The rise of the term fur baby, the way we congratulate dogs’ owners on father or Mother’s Day.
We love our dogs like children and that should be a good thing, right?
The answer is that treating dogs like children can be a big problem and these are the reasons why you should not do it.
When you think about your dogs as children, you love them like you would love a child. The problem is that you may find it natural to tell them off or verbally punish them to teach them as you would do a much-loved child. However, when you tell your rescue dog, he has been a bad dog in a stern voice, the dog just simply does not understand what he has done wrong. This is a source of unhappiness, distress, and multitude of behavioural problems in dogs. When dogs are told off harshly, they feel unsafe, anxious and overwhelmed.
What does science tell us
Dogs are not children and with that we mean they are not human. Janine Davenport, experienced behaviourist says:
“they are a different species with their own rules and communication systems. They do not communicate like humans do, nor they understand our language as a child would do. In addition to this, dogs do not think about right and wrong in the same way we do.
Jean Donaldson in her book The Culture Clash explains that
“Dogs are amoral. They cannot move mentally forward and back through time and although they learn to discriminate the relevance of certain words, they do not understand language”
Dogs are unable to think or reflect about the past or the future. Dogs live in the present. So do not expect your dog to understand why you are telling him off for a shoe he destroyed whilst you were out of house.
As Jean Donaldson says:
“Dogs learn by the immediate results of their actions and by tip-offs to important events in their lives”.
If your dog looks contrite when you arrive home, it is not because he knows he did something wrong, it is because he can read your anger in your body language. He does not know what for, but he will try to appease you anyway he can, so he feels safe.
Dogs understand that actions have consequences and if these consequences are positive, they will do it again more often. They learn by operant and classical conditioning. Karen Pryor in her book “Do not shoot the dog” explains that if we give a dog a reinforcer, that is a treat at the time the dog exhibits a behaviour we like, the dog will be more likely to repeat that behaviour.
A simple example, if we call our dogs and every time, they come to us they get a tasty biscuit they will be more likely to come back to us again. On the reverse if every time we call a dog, we punish it with a harsh word or strong pull off the lead, the dog will be more reluctant to come back to us when called again. When they fail to return, they do not do so knowing it is going to upset you and they are not trying to impose their will and rebel as a child may choose to do. They do not come back because what they are doing is simply more interesting for them or because they are afraid of you telling them off if you have done that in the past.
Because we treat dogs like children, is easy to for us to move from sweet words of encouragement when we are happy to telling them off when they do not behave as we expect. As we would do with a child, we may think it appropriate to raise our voices, we may say to them in a harsh tone that they have been bad dogs. Soon this will increase the natural levels of anxiety in your dog who may start to display problematic behaviours, such as excessive fear of new environments, separation anxiety, reactivity, or toileting in the house.
What can you do?
It is your responsibility to learn about how dogs think and interact with the word and the environment they live in. You need to learn how to best communicate with them in a way they understand. This will help them feel safe, happy and content. You can take advantage of the fact that dogs are the best animals in the world at learning with positive reinforcement.
There are some basics steps you can take to help your dog such as:
- Reading books that teach you about positive reinforcement techniques and explain how dogs think
- Ensure that you talk to an experienced behaviourist or fully qualified trainer by IMDT, or APDT. Always ask for qualifications as the word of behaviour and training is highly unregulated.
- Remember that your dog does not speak your same language, but you can learn theirs and that is the best act of love towards your dog and in particular your rescue dog.
Thank you to Janine Davenport and the positive reinforcement behaviourists that have informed the content of this blog
Blog written by Victoria Vazquez, Five Circles Dog Rescue