Dog training: When being too ‘bossy’ backfires

2011-12-08 00:00

PRIOR to consulting me for behavioural issues, many pet owners have taken their puppies or adult dogs through some sort of “education” process. Quite often, I am told that the behaviour deteriorated markedly during or on completion of the course.

Just recently, I saw a programme where a 12-month-old St Bernard puppy was dragged up a flight of stairs with a leash and choke chain, and was strangled every step of the way.

The “trainer” had first tried to use an older dog in an attempt get the puppy to follow. When this failed, a leash and chain was fitted. Once the poor animal reached the top of the stairs it was pulled down to the ground floor and then dragged all the way up again. After this, the puppy went up to avoid being choked.

When the owners, who had been asked to wait outside the house, came in and saw their canine best friend at the top of the stairs, panting and wagging it’s tail, they assumed the problem had been solved. What they did not realise was that the poor, stressed animal went up the stairs eventually, quite simply, because it was scared not to.

I was stunned when this dog abuser referred to his abusive methods as “psychological”.

A true canine-behaviour expert would firstly have determined that the puppy’s resistance to stair climbing was possibly due to some past unpleasant experience.

If any post traumatic stress was present then it is inhumane and cruel to use methods which cause further discomfort. Abusive approaches may subdue a dog for a while, but in the majority of situations the original behaviour problem will resurface or lead to other concerns.

The second possibility is the pet’s perception that the human pack members have less status. This means that every time the family attempted to coax it upstairs, the puppy would see it as submissive behaviour.

Because dogs are different, the above example of harsh training will have different outcomes. When experiencing a leash and chain for the first time, most dogs or puppies will pull back. The person holding the leash reciprocates and immediately chokes their unsuspecting pet.

Size and temperament will definitely be a factor. Dogs may whip their heads from side to side, roll over repeatedly on the ground, urinate or yelp in their attempts to flee. Once aware that escape is impossible, they may just lie down and ‘freeze’.

Eventually, the owner gives up and removes the chain, and the next time the pet sees the “pack leader” approaching with a leash, it will immediately resort to avoidance behaviour. If the pressure becomes too much, dogs may try escaping over boundary walls and fences, or run off properties in their desperation to get away.

Needless to say, this may end in injury or, sadly, even death. If escape is not an option, some dogs can become aggressive and bite their way out of a threatening situation.

So, in an innocuous attempt to take their dog somewhere on a leash, the owner ends up with a pet that avoids leashes, escapes, freezes, urinates inappropriately or behaves aggressively to the point of being dangerous.

Understandably, in certain circumstances the use of force is un-avoidable when attempting to save dogs from life-threatening situations. But when it is done in the name of canine education, it should be exposed and condemned by all responsible and caring pet owners.

Should you have any behavioural concerns, please contact me or your vet’s practice.


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist. To contact him, phone 083 340 8060 or visit www.

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