Look beyond a carrot-and-stick policy

Look beyond a carrot-and-stick policy

Our furry friends are sentient beings who deserve recognition for their innate abilities and it is time we replace training with understanding.

Late last year, a couple in my neighbourhood welcomed home a young puppy and named her Lucy. Sarah, their five-year-old girl, was ecstatic and came home running to break the news to us. She had elaborate plans made for her evenings with Lucy — walks, toys and play — all charted out. “I had asked for a dog two years ago, but mum and dad told me that I had to wait until we got a big house. Now, after moving here, we brought Lucy home,” she gushed. Last week, I noticed that Sarah’s favourite blue shoes had a small hole, and it was evident that it was Lucy’s doing. When I asked, “Oh, Lucy chewed on it,” Sarah grumbled and said that her mom smacked Lucy for that. “She cried, but mom said that’s how she will learn!” 

It was not the first time I heard of people using some form of force to ‘teach’ their dogs something. I have seen people beating, yelling and using tools that inflict pain to ‘correct’ their dog’s behaviour. Some also make their dog ‘repent’ for his ‘mistake’.

Years ago, when we did not know better, we did that too with our earlier dogs. What struck me with Lucy was that her parents, a young couple in their 30s, wanted to do the best for their dog. Unfortunately, they did not know how much science has caught up with understanding dog behaviour. 

More than 70 years ago, Rudolph Schenkel published his remarkable study on wolves, where he observed that wolves fight within their pack to gain dominance and become the ‘alpha’ of the pack. Since dogs evolved from wolves, it was thought that dogs too vie to become the ‘alpha’ in their pack. Soon, dog trainers caught on to this idea and started telling their clients that the dog and its human-family was a pack, and if not shown who the boss was, the dog would become the ‘alpha’. Although the alpha theory was debunked owing to the many flaws in its methods, it stayed on with dog trainers, who advocated the use of force to dominate dogs. 

Constant stress

Beating, yelling and using pain-inflicting tools like choke collars and prong collars (which are now banned in many countries), became the tricks of the trade of dog training. “Any bad behaviour should be corrected with force. If not, the dog assumes dominance and becomes stubborn,” the trainers said, and the unassuming pet parents complied. Some still strongly believe in this flawed theory. Over time, out of fear, most dogs may stop showing the one bad behaviour, but with constant stress and fear, other problem behaviours emerge. Needless to say, the bond these dogs share with their humans, which is built only on fear, is precarious.

Multiple behavioural studies on dogs have now shown that the use of force and punishment greatly reduce a dog’s ability to learn new things, decrease its problem-solving skills and kill its self-confidence.

The resulting chronic stress, due to constant fear, also affects its physical health. There are also some of us who wrongly attribute human emotions to dogs and then try to correct them. While dogs have certain cognitive abilities, like recognising faces and words, they are incapable of complex emotions like being ‘stubborn’, ‘having an attitude’, ‘being needy’ or ‘feeling guilty’. 

The last two decades have been instrumental in changing the landscape of our understanding of dogs and their behaviour. A new field of research, called canine ethology, is gaining ground, where we are now studying dogs in their natural habitats. Free-ranging dogs, or street dogs, are guiding these studies that help decipher what is natural and innate behaviour for dogs. The insights thus gained can be used to interpret what our pet dogs do and why. We now know that chewing is not ‘destructive’ but a dog’s way of coping with stress and boredom; biting and growling are reactions of a dog that is in severe discomfort or is feeling threatened rather than having an intent to harm. 

With advances in science, we can look forward to replacing ‘training’ with ‘communicating’ and ‘understanding’ our dogs better than ever before. Cementing the timeless human-canine bond, with a better grasp of understanding a dog from a dog’s perspective, could open up a whole new world. Isn’t it time we moved beyond carrots and sticks? After all, our furry friends are sentient beings who deserve recognition for their innate abilities!

Tailspin is your monthly column on everything that’s heartwarming and annoying about pet parenting.

The writer is a science communicator and mom to Pippi, a four-year-old rescued Indie, who is behind her drive to understand dogs better. She tweets at @RamanSpoorthy.