A common refrain we hear about punishment-based or “balanced” training is that the dog needs to know he’s wrong. Dogs displaying a wide range of aggressive behaviors are hurt or scared for their behavior under this assumption.
The vast majority of dogs that are labeled aggressive are acting out of fear. The barking, lunging, biting, and growling all serve the same purpose: to make the scary thing go away. And, for the record, all of these behaviors are fair game in dog language. Aggression tends to work really well for dogs, too; after all, how many of us are foolish enough to stick around when a dog is threatening to bite? (Please don’t answer that- it’s not a badge of honor.)
What happens when we hurt or scare (i.e. punish) dogs for behaviors based in fear? We may teach them it’s an unsafe behavior, one that causes pain, sure. That’s what this type of punishment does. But are we fixing the root of the problem? Teaching them they are wrong? Not even close.
So what? Why do semantics matter if the behavior is being stopped?
Well, it matters to the dog.
Let’s say we have a dog that is afraid of humans, and we hurt or scare the dog each time he tries to tell people to back off. What is he learning? He’s learning that people don’t listen to his requests for space; that they really are bad news. Each time a person approaches, he is hurt. We aren’t teaching him he’s wrong at all; in fact, we are teaching him he’s right to be afraid. That people are scary, that people do hurt.
If we hurt or scare him enough, harshly enough, we can make him stop warning people to back off. But each time, we are just showing him how right he is.
What do we do, then? Well, I propose a different solution: let’s teach him his fear, while once correct for the situation, is no longer necessary. In other words, we'll teach him that his opinion is wrong.
We aren’t going to hurt or scare him. Instead, we are going to teach him that people are safe, that they will stay away, that they predict good things. We’ll teach him that his opinion is wrong by showing him this, at his pace, over and over, until he is relieved of his fears. If he’s not afraid, he won’t feel the need to use aggression. As he learns that people are good (i.e. predict lots of snacks), he will learn that he was wrong about them, after all.
No hurting or scaring needed. Just a lot of patience, and even more snacks.