The Contradictory Dog


Contradict: 1. to assert the contrary of : take issue with

2. to imply the opposite or denial of

I consistently meet this interesting group of dogs that I shall call the “contradictory dogs” – dogs who are beautifully obedient but have horrible behavior – human aggression, dog aggression, resource guarding – usually it’s some form of aggression.  From the springer spaniel with extreme resource guarding to the pit bull that would growl and show her teeth at any human touch but when asked to perform her plethora of party tricks would do so with a wagging tail and relaxed face, this contradiction isn’t breed, gender or age specific.  9 times out of 10, the guardians (or shelter staff) will look at me, shrug, and tell me the dog has been to obedience/basic manners/ puppy class, sometimes multiple times.

For all behavior problems, we have both a genetic and environmental influence.  Remember the age old nature vs. nurture debate – well, we’ve figured it out – it’s both!  “A dog’s genotype provides ranges … for various traits that may contribute to [behavior problems].  Within this biological (genetic) range of potential, the dog’s actual phenotype (observable behaviors) will depend on the interactions between the genotype and the environment” (O’Heare, 2007, p. 67).

While the dogs I have met may have had a genetic propensity towards whatever behavior problem they may be displaying, what has happened in regards to their environment?  They’ve clearly received training, but where has it fallen short?  Bear with me on my theories.

Theory #1 – obedience via positive reinforcement

This sounds plausible – the dog has been taken to a training class that used positive reinforcement training techniques where she learned a variety of party tricks and her basic obedience.  This dog had fun via operant conditioning and while learning these behaviors via treats and fun, those good times spilled over to the people as a byproduct of the operant conditioning.  Remember how respondent (aka classical) conditioning and operant conditioning are always occurring  at the same time– Pavlov on one shoulder, Skinner on the other?  Thanks to the class’s trainers, the dog is happy performing tricks for people.  However, left to the dog’s own means, she chooses not to interact with people, growling and showing her teeth upon approach or touch – where did those good feelings about people go?  Clearly they were exclusive to the tricks and behaviors – perhaps those provided a very predictable scenario for the dog’s interactions with people, whereas less structured scenarios were anxiety/panic/fear provoking, which caused the dog to display language that clearly signaled to people that she would like them to go away.

Theory #2 – obedience via aversive stimulation

This dog appears obedience but is he happy?

This dog appears obedient but is he happy?  What is he wearing?

Sounds weird right – a dog that is aggressive to people but is very obedient – quick to respond to many commands.  No wiggling or wagging though, not much eye contact.  Often, when left to his own devices, this dog will remain in his sit-stay or down-stay, facing away from the person and not choosing to interact unless requested.  I assessed a springer spaniel like this once – labeled dominant and aggressive by the shelter, I showed up to assess the dog, and the shelter trainer proudly exclaimed that she had worked him hard for 1.5 hours on obedience that morming (with choke chain in one hand and shock collar in the other).  I bit my tongue and promised myself a stop at the liquor store on the way home from the shelter.   The dog was obedient but distant – he wasn’t interested in making a connection with me, he went through his commands and our walk together like a robot, despite my best efforts and treats to engage in some shaping fun.  Bring out a valued item, and the little springer showed me his audition for Stephen King’s Cujo.  This is a dog who not only had poor behavior (resource guarding), he had likely been trained using aversive stimulation (positive punishment and negative reinforcement), and he would work to avoid those aversives, but he wasn’t too crazy about people.  Why bother when they just bring pain and discomfort?  This poor dog was displaying learned helplessness, a condition in which an animal (including humans) fail to respond even though opportunities are present for the animal to remove himself from unpleasant circumstances or gaining positive rewards (Wikipedia).  Learned helplessness, while revered by many a television dog trainer, makes me sad.

Commonly, when addressing behavior problems, the contradictory dog seems to have been subjected to some sort of “alpha dog” theory – whether he was pinned for growling over a Kong or hanged on a prong simply for being difficult, these sorts of experiences make us people less than favourable in the dog’s eyes.

So what are we to do?  Be savvy about your dog’s training classes – ask questions, ask to

Carmac & Shorty missed out on "obedience" school because I refused to use choke chains, which was all that was available in my area (unless I was the one teaching the class!)

Carmac & Shorty missed out on “obedience” school because I refused to use choke chains, which was all that was available in my area (unless I was the one teaching the class!)

observe the class, interview the instructor to ensure that you’ll get what you want out of the class.  Concerned your dog needs more than sit-stay-heel-shake a paw?  Look for a behavior consultant that uses humane, modern dog training methods – interview him/her, ask for referrals, and possibly ask to observe a class (even if it doesn’t pertain to your issues) to ensure that the dogs and people are happy and having fun.  Obedience is great, but an obedient dog doesn’t guarantee you a behaviorally well or behaviorally sound dog.


Posted in classical conditioning, operant conditioning.

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