You can’t treat fear with fear

We’ve all seen those trainers on TikTok, YouTube and Facebook, showing how they seemingly ‘fix’ the problem of an aggressive dog in no time. You may have seen tempting adverts from dog trainers who say they can ‘fix’ your aggressive dog in just one training session. 

They don’t.

They may possibly fix your stress and your embarrassment, but they don’t ‘fix’ your dog’s problem. That training where they use force and fear doesn’t ‘fix’ a fearful dog. The dog is just learning that thrashing around on the end of the lead to try and escape, or showing aggression to make the scary thing go away, doesn’t work. 

In fact, it actually makes it worse for him; because if he tries either of those things it will result in something much worse than just the fear he feels. If he shows aggression to try and make the scary thing go away, he receives a punishment. Trying to make the scary thing go away actually makes it worse, so after repeated attempts at this he may just give up trying.

That calm dog you see on the ‘after’ videos isn’t calm, nor is he ‘fixed’. He has given up. Given in to his fate. Inside he is just as scared, equally terrified but he has learned that there is no point doing anything.

‘just kill me now’

He is still scared, he just daren’t show it, because of the consequences of using his natural instinctive behaviours to protect himself.

If that doesn’t happen then the original behaviour may escalate; he may do it more often or start to react when dogs are even further away from him. Or his level of aggression becomes worse, the screaming, barking, growling, thrashing around like a drowning man trying to escape his fate.  Or he may turn on you as the source of his pain.

This is one of the big reasons why aversive based training should never be used with fearful dogs. For example; dog barks at a dog because he is frightened of the dog. The dog gets shocked by an ecollar (the ‘nice’ word for a shock collar to make them seem more socially acceptable), or he feels pain inflicted by a pinch collar, or is shouted at by an angry owner. Either way it is a punishment, it is aversive. 

The dog now starts to associate the appearance of other dogs with pain or punishment as well as with fear. He starts to dread seeing dogs, as a dog now equals fear AND pain, whereas before it was just fear. Of course, that will make it worse, how could it possibly make the situation better for the dog?

Even worse than that, timing mistakes can make this even worse. The trigger-happy trainer or owner in charge of the ecollar button may light up the dog before he even reacts. The nervous owner with a dog wearing a pinch collar panics at the mere appearance of another dog and tugs at the lead and punishes the dog before the dog reacts.

Now we have classical conditioning gone very wrong; the appearance of a dog is now a predictor of pain/punishment.

I was horrified and disgusted when I saw a public YouTube video posted by a so-called ‘trainer’ walking along a track with a Belgian Malinois and as another dog passed them, the dog he was training ignored the other dog and made lovely eye contact with the ‘trainer’ instead. You can clearly see by the dog’s reaction that he had lit him up like a Christmas tree with a shock collar as he did it. Not only had the dog been punished for ignoring the dog, he was actually punished for doing EXACTLY what he should do, looking away from the dog and making eye contact with his handler. He was punished for doing exactly the right thing. There were no words to describe the absolute idiocy of this so called ‘training’.

In some cases the dog may have even just been barking because he was frustrated and wanted to get to the dog to greet or play and was restricted by the lead. Now he starts to fear other dogs approaching because of the association with the punishment that he was receiving every time a dog appeared. 

We can’t treat fear with fear. We are just adding to the problem.

Aside from that, your dog needs to trust you, trust that you will protect him and keep him safe. What kind of relationship do you have with mans best friend if it is based on one party being in constant fear of being hurt by the other if they put a step wrong? 

That leads us on to learned helplessness, a dark place you don’t want your dog to be.

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