It was hard not to stare at the woman warming up at the obedience competition. She had a handsome Malinois on lead and was walking back and forth. Step, step, step, step, JERK!—as she took a 180 turn. Step, step, step, step, JERK! Over and over again.
I stopped fighting myself and watched. Her face was set in a rictus of anger as she popped the dog’s collar in rhythm. And rhythm it was, because often, the dog had already turned before she jerked the leash. She was jerking to her own beat that had little to do with the dog’s behavior. With a face full of rage.
At another show, in the crating area, I watched as a woman returned from Open competition glaring at her retriever. She turned to her crating partner. “He blew me off again!” Turning back to the dog, she snarled, “Just you watch. I’m going to give your breakfast to your sister! You can go hungry.” She made sure her dog could see as she fed her other dog. Maybe it was for the benefit of the human witnesses as well.
Anger as Part of Traditional Training
I remember the first time someone told me that anger should have no part in training. That if we get angry for any reason, we should stop training immediately. This was news to me, as a newbie to positive reinforcement-based training. Previously, I had gotten the impression that I was supposed to be angry!
Fifteen years later, I am thinking about that again. In the positive reinforcement training community, we frequently discuss the problems with force-based training. The dominance fallacy. The misunderstandings of how dogs learn. The harm. The abuse, deliberate or through ignorance. But what about the anger?
The emotion of anger makes the habits of force training more “sticky.”
Anger is built in. The punitive mindset begets anger. This anger is considered righteous and appropriate by some trainers. I’ve seen it firsthand, and heard them speak openly about it. They consider it a part of “showing the dog who’s boss.” In the obedience world, and U.S. culture in general, anger at dogs often gains social approval. Lack of it invites social criticism and pressure—people who walk even mildly reactive dogs find this out in a hurry.
We humans believe that anger is an appropriate response to being wronged. I agree. There is a lot in this world to be enraged about. The problem is directing that rage at dogs and other beings we control. We are encouraged to believe that dogs are morally wronging us, and that appropriate responses are anger and punishment.
Women in particular are not “supposed” to express anger about lots of things. But dogs are fair game.
I wrote this post after responding to someone on social media. They had asked for advice about changing their mindset as they crossed over to positive reinforcement training. This brave person wanted advice on how to stop jerking the leash and yelling at their dog. They got plenty of kind and helpful advice.
I got to thinking about learned behaviors rather than mindset, and here’s what I wrote (lightly edited for this post).
You asked about mindset but I’m going to talk about the physical aspect for a minute. If you have been trained to jerk a dog’s leash, as I was, that is some big-time muscle memory stuff that you have to overcome. It doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how much you want it to.
Think ahead and make a plan for what you will do when your dog does something like pulls on leash or any of the things that would normally trigger you to use force.
It’s super hard to think of other stuff to do when the whole thing is new to you, but it’s practically impossible in the moment.
I can’t get into a whole set of instructions (and I’m not the best person to do that) but you can make it your goal to get your dog gently out of situations in which he can’t cope (or as we are taught, “isn’t behaving well”). And work on not getting him into those situations to begin with.
If your dog is pulling on leash, you might slowly stop (don’t do it abruptly because that still amounts to a leash jerk) and take a deep breath. Then you can implement whatever training plan you might make for that situation. Again, I can’t tell you a training plan here; I’m just suggesting you interrupt your own impulses.
I hope I haven’t made any inappropriate assumptions here. It was just something that has been hard for me, on and off.
Stop and take a breath instead of yelling, too, if you can.
This is a wonderful thing that you are seeking to change your behavior about this. It gets easier as you go along, I promise.
Eileen Anderson on Facebook, September 2023
Old Habits Die Harder Than I thought
So yes, I, too, was taught that when my dog was acting as an independent being, with his own motivations and responses to the environment, he was being “bad.” That the appropriate response was for me to angrily push or jerk him around. In the examples I saw around me, the anger infected the human behavior: angry voices, frowns, harsh movements.
Growing knowledge led my emotions and behavior to change as I crossed over, but these things die hard. That makes sense to me. Certain old wrongs in my life may still trigger me. And I haven’t ridden a bicycle for a couple of decades, but I’m sure I could get right on and do it. I’m glad I didn’t practice jerking my dog around as long as I rode a bike.
I would have said my harsh handling habits were gone. It’s been so many years, and I never had the urge to take out anger or frustration on Summer, Zani, or Clara. Then came Lewis, and I learned the habits were not dead.
I don’t have much of a temper. I am tolerant of dog behaviors that many people find annoying. I’m the mild-mannered offspring of mild-mannered parents. But when Lewis picked on Clara, that old rage came back.
It was lucky that one of the first things I taught Lewis was a positive interrupter. (This is a dog training term, not from behavior analysis as far as I know. It’s a discriminative stimulus for the dog to orient to and approach their guardian, moving away from whatever they were doing.) I used it so very much that Lewis became accustomed to, um, varied tones of voice on my part. So whatever tone I use to speak that cue or his name, he comes trotting happily to me. Same thing if I yell “Hey!” Lewis’ trusting and eager demeanor as he comes to get his treat usually makes my anger dissipate.
But the tendency to get pissed spread to other situations. Lewis can be maddening. He’s persistent and he regularly hurts me or my partner (by accident). He pesters Clara. For the first time in my whole life, I investigated anger management. I emphatically didn’t want to lose it with my dog.
I haven’t jerked Lewis’ leash. But the urge is still there. So far, I’ve won that fight. And that’s where my words to the person on Facebook came from. Take a breath. It’s not just for dogs.
I had some interesting discussions when planning this post. I watched many videos of some of the more physically brutal, abusive trainers out there. But I rarely saw the rage I’ve seen in real life. Much more often, I saw blank faces on these trainers as they coldly, deliberately, and repeatedly hurt dogs. These were not the trainers who deny that they are hurting the dog. They are the ones who say that they know they have succeeded in the correction if the dog cries out. I don’t know if rage is part of what they do. I don’t want to speculate on what’s going on inside.
But also, a person doesn’t have to be in a rage to hurt dogs in the name of training.
My colleague Elizabeth Silverstein of Telltail Dog Training in Little Rock points out that a lot of physical abuse toward dogs comes from embarrassment on the human side. We get embarrassed if we aren’t in control of our dogs. I touched on it above regarding social pressure. Elizabeth and I had a great discussion on anger and she has written an insightful post on the topic. I hope you’ll check it out.
Elizabeth is right. Embarrassment is not one of my big triggers, but I know exactly what she’s talking about. If I’m out with Clara or Lewis, and they snark first at a dog passing by on the other side of the street, my impulse toward my dog is born of firmly established habits. I get them out of there and give them a calming spray of Easy Cheese. But also, I’ll loudly and cheerily address my dog for the benefit of the human across the street and say something like, “Oh, you silly.” I definitely feel that social pressure. But I learned an alternative behavior to jerking my dog around.
I commend that anonymous Facebook poster for trying to create and solidify new habits. I, too, learned when first working with my dog that it was not only acceptable, but appropriate to express anger when training them.
Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson
The photo of the pointing finger is from Canstock Photo. I didn’t put personal photos in this post because my heart didn’t want me to associate my dogs with the content.