Shaping behaviour

2011-07-15 00:00

IT is wonderful to see how many pets have a good quality of life. But what I find disappointing is that addressing unwanted behaviour incorporates beatings, leash jerking and choking or kicking and shouting. People mostly live that which they have learnt as children. Normally adults who were disciplined physically as a child will carry on the tradition with their own children or pets.

Dogs or puppies do not have a moral intelligence. They are incapable of understanding right or wrong and are therefore not able to experience feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment. Words such as “punish”, “reprimand” or “discipline” are not applicable to dogs. More applicable are words such as “shaping” or “modification of behaviour”.

Many times people have told me that their pets were aware that they had committed some sort of offence. For instance: “I shook the dead chicken in my dog’s face and it knew it had been naughty.”

I then ask: “Is that the last chicken that was killed?”

“No, it is still doing it.”

I then get the owners to agree with me that by addressing the dog with the dead chicken they are referring it back to a past event. My next question is whether they tell their dog to sit for food, to which they reply in the affirmative.

“Okay, call your dog here and tell it that you expect a perfect sit tonight when presented with food.” Or, please tell it that when it was fed last night, it produced a lovely sit.

Obviously, nobody has ever carried out my request, simply because it makes no sense. The point is, why is it possible to refer a dog back in time to that which is unacceptable, but it cannot be referred forward to acceptable behaviour, or vice versa? Furthermore it stands to reason that if a dog is able to understand about the legalities of killing chickens then surely there would be no more repetitions after the owner has reprimanded or warned it. Also, let’s not forget that dogs are born with predatory instincts and that most owners don’t allow for inter-species imprinting, especially with regards to bird life such as chickens.

People also tell me that their pet knows it has been bad because its ears are pinned back with lowered head and tail. I then ask them to stare at their pet, count from one to 10 in a loud voice and pretend they are angry. When they do this the pet immediately produces submissive behaviour and the owners then realise the pet is responding to their raised voice and body language.

Dogs’ behaviour is associated with everything that takes place in the moment, through their senses. If a stimulus has enough impact on their psyche, it will produce a response. These responses are either determined by their instinctive intelligence or from what they remember from a past happening. To be able to refer to a past or future event, dogs must be able to think, analyse, ponder, mull over and so on. The canine mind is incapable of these achievements because it does not have the cognitive abilities of a human.

So, in human terms, when regarding moral intelligence, a dog has the same abilities as that of a six-month-old baby. Nobody in their right mind beats a baby. Then why is it acceptable to treat our so-called best friends in a harsh or cruel manner?

If you have concerns about your pet’s behaviour or intend introducing a pet to the household, please contact me or your vet.



• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted at 083 340 8060 or visit

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