Early development

2013-06-27 00:00

training: Firmness without force wins

part 3

WHILE observing the caregiving techniques of 17 different female dogs with their offspring, Erik Wilsson, a Swedish researcher, noted that the level of severity used in altering the care-dependency relationship had a direct bearing on a pup’s future relationships with people.

Some mothers were less aggressive and groomed more, thereby resulting in stronger social bonds, and being more accepting of humans. The pups with excessively aggressive mothers proved to be more resistant to the presence of people later on. In the first case, the pups had a better adaptive intelligence, but in the latter, they were controlled, to a larger degree, by instinct or flight. Wilsson also observed that the less gregarious pups were more reserved in tests such as fetching a ball. However, in both cases, inhibited bites or mouth threats reached a maximum at seven weeks of age.

Learning about pack dynamics through maternal correction is critical for puppies. In experiments where puppies were raised under non-corrective conditions, they were extremely resistant to any later behaviour modification. Wilsson concluded that too little correction created a lack of responsivity, while an emphasis on force created inhibitions. There has to be a balance.

Let’s take a closer look at the departure phase of a litter. In my early days of dog training, I was taught to use flood and punishment methods, an approach that is still widely used today. My dogs would respond because they were scared not to. If they obeyed, everything was fine and if not, they would be leash-jerked or forced to submit. In retrospect, I have come to realise that this caused stress and produced a survival state of mind. Even though a canine mother may use excessive mouth threats, she is not harsh and the corrections stop at seven weeks. Now I come along using antiquated coercive methods, not only during the puppy phase, but also into adulthood. How ridiculous. When using force, most dogs will obey, but not only will it be temporary and selective, more problematic behaviours will surface as a result. Force can also bring about aggression, which may be directed at another dog, or worse, people.

Sadly, the number-one cause today of dog deaths is euthanasia. When behaviour becomes too problematic, attempts are made to train the problem away and when unsuccessful, the concerns are deemed to be unchangeable, resulting in rehoming or the pet’s demise.

Since the canine mind does not have the ability to understand inappropriate behaviour in the context of right and wrong, it is grossly unfair to use punitive techniques. Becoming impatient or angry only exacerbates the situation. Also, for example, how does coercion resolve astraphobia (fear of thunder) or fighting?

Whatever the unwanted behaviour, pets will live that which was learnt while under the control of their owners. The work done by Wilsson proved beyond doubt that firmness without force was, and still is, far superior to the yank-and-crank approaches, as advocated in the early nineties by trainers such as Konrad Most.

I have had many bad cases brought to me and incredibly, in a matter of days, dogs that were written off, changed into normal, well-behaved pets. Depending on the severity of the problem, some may take longer due to the situation, especially where family members are traumatised.

If owners modify their body language sufficiently, problem pets can become a pleasure to interact with. One thing I can say unequivocally, though, is that force is never an option.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website, www.dogtorsteve.co.za Advice is dispensed only in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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