When our dogs get confused they show us in no uncertainty exactly how they feel. Confusion is defined as uncertainty about what is happening, intended or required. When a dog becomes confused or uncertain he may become stressed, particularly if pushed too far despite his confusion – without being given any extra information.
If a dog becomes confused about what we expect, he is likely to feel conflicted. He knows that we want something but doesn’t know what that something is. He wants to get it right but doesn’t know how so that leads to a conflicted inner state triggering conflicted behaviours. Another term for the signals we see from a confused dog is displacement behaviour.
Here’s an example of displacement behaviour in action and how it can be handled in two different ways, simply based on careful understanding, or lack of it.
Try to imagine that a dog is learning not to pull on the lead, for the first time in his life. Dogs are not born with collars and leads on so a slack lead is not natural to them. In fact, if someone put a collar and lead on you, out of the blue, you might just fight it too. I probably would. The teacher (which could be you or I with our dogs) in this case shows the dog what they expect by rewarding even the slackest lead and repeating that reward until the dog realises that not only does the teacher want a slack lead but also that they provide something nice in return.
If we move on too quickly the dog may become confused and show a sign of confusion – which is a communication to us, showing us to take a step or two back in the lesson to reaffirm our expectations. This is fair on the dog, because he’s not a mind reader. The dog is happy, learns and the teacher understands him. Communication is perfect based on the our own knowledge of signs of canine confusion.
Imagine now that force based trainer is teaching a dog not to pull on the lead and doesn’t make the lesson clear enough, so the dog becomes confused. Imagine also that the trainer doesn’t understand about displacement behaviour and projects his own meaning onto the dog’s confusion – for example he may assume the dog is being ignorant or dominant (heaven forbid). This trainer might become frustrated and blame the dog for his actions, which may include classic signs of confusion such as sniffing the ground or turning away. In their frustration the trainer could try to force the dog to co-operate assuming the dog knows what they want. The dog will naturally get more confused and the stress reaction will begin. Unfortunately for the dog it’s this point where force is introduced, there may be a check collar, general checking and the order to step back into line. This is a very sad situation for the dog because he doesn’t know what’s expected from him and now he’s also being abused and getting stressed. All based on a dog trainer with a lack of suitable education.
We can avoid putting our dogs into uncomfortable situations and understand them better if we learn and look out for signs of confusion. Try to imagine conflicted behaviour as the dog showing us he is confused and that he might even be trying to change the subject.