Violence not the way

2011-10-13 00:00

ABOUT 16 years ago I learnt about dog psychology for the first time. Prior to that my dog-training experience was based on force or fear methods referred to nowadays as flood and punish. The use of alpha rolls, choking, jerking, hitting (with sjamboks), kicking, and pinning to the ground were methods I was taught to educate my best friends. Sadly, my pets performed because they were scared not to. Just thinking back about it makes me sick to the stomach.

These harsh and cruel methods may subdue dogs if you are fit, quick, agile and strong enough. But many pet owners are not and it is simply stupid to go head-to-head with an aggressive dog, especially a large breed. In the long term, if dogs are confused and anxious about their interactions with people, they will resort more to instinctive survival behaviour which more often than not results in further dominance or fear aggression. Thus it is not surprising that dogs become dangerous and end up attacking people or escaping (off the property) from the source of the life-threatening action or event.

Behavioural science has shown that suppressing behaviour, especially through physical force or the threat of force, does nothing to bring confidence to a fearful dog or calm to an aggressive dog. Coercive techniques will only suppress behaviour in the specific circumstances. One may get away with a forced approach in the case of a placid Labrador, but try it with a powerful 70-kilogram adult, alpha male boerbul or Rottweiler and don’t be surprised if you end up being fearful of your pet because of a growl or bite. Once people perceive their pets as dangerous, the relationship is normally terminated by rehoming or euthanasia. It is not the time and money so much, but the emotional sense of loss that impacts the most. Or people are traumatised so badly that just considering the acquisition of another dog causes anxiety due to post traumatic stress.

A United States veterinarian behaviourist, Dr Sophia Yin, compiled a list of coercion-based approaches to canine aggression that exacerbated problem behaviours.

“The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the action was indirect.

• Hitting or kicking their dog (41% of owners reported aggression).

• Forcing your dog to release an item from its mouth (38%).

• Alpha roll (forcing their dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%).

• Dominance down (forcing your dog onto its side) (29%).

• Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%).

• Spraying your dog with a water pistol or spray bottle (20%).

• Forced exposure to something that is perceived to be life threatening (12%).”

So many people can testify to the above and what often makes it worse is they had trusted someone who instructed them to use these methods in the belief that it would improve the behaviour. It is unbelievable in this day and age, that methods, which became outdated in the sixties, are still widely used and, even more incredibly, touted as psychology.

So, in a nutshell, these antiquated conditioning methods may produce behavioural changes, but can also be counterproductive. Over the years many pets that were taken for some sort of training have been brought to me to sort out behaviour problems. On the behaviour-concerns page of my website there is brief account of one such pet, an adult female Rottweiler, Mosadzi.

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


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist. Contact him at 083 340 8060 or at

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