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  • Sally Gutteridge

Why Fear isn't a Dog Training Tool!



Canine learning is experienced through classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Whilst both work, either of them can cause fear, sometimes accidentally which at times can't be avoided. Yet still too many trainers think it's acceptable to make a dog scared, to change that dog's behaviour - when it's most certainly not!


Classical conditioning means that the dog learns from making connections in their environment. An example of classical conditioning is the dog who adds a few things in the environment together with a belief that they are going to lead to a specific end result.


Pavlov’s dogs were the first to be reported as doing this, adding the presence of the lab technicians with the rattle of their food bowls, then salivating because they knew the food was next. Pavlov then tested the dog’s ability to make connections by adding in a bell, to which the dogs very quickly also associated with their food.


Classical conditioning of fear is common with dogs who have become scared of the veterinarian’s office. The scent of alarm pheromones in the waiting room, can link to a previously negative experience for them and the dog will stop short of going through the front door very quickly. Because the associations have made the vet’s office a worrying and scary place. Dogs who are scared of being left alone will make environmental associations in the same way. Any dog suffering from separation anxiety will look for departure cues, because they are scared their human is going to leave them. So, getting shoes out, locking doors and even the word “right” is a connection to a result the dog doesn’t want.


Operant conditioning means learning from consequences of their own actions (or things they believe to be triggered by their own choices). Operant conditioning is central to dog training and a good example is positive reinforcement (Or according to the dog – "I do this and something great happens"). If a dog makes a choice to come back when called, then receives a food reward, the dog is likely to associate the food reward with their return.


Unfortunately, operant conditioning is still used unkindly by some dog trainers, and is a welfare issue. Poor quality teaching involves the use of overt negative reinforcement ("I do this and this bad thing happening to me stops") and positive punishment ("I do this and something bad happens to me") and bad things happening will trigger fear.


For example, if a dog doesn’t come back when called, a bad trainer might shock him with a remote collar, to encourage the dog to come back. The shock will cause fear and the dog (if he’s particularly intelligent and can work out this poorly delivered, skill devoid lesson on his own) may then come back to avoid being shocked again. This dog is also likely to have a sad, depressed or worried body language whilst the one taught with positive reinforcement will be happy and relaxed. No-one wants an electric shock!


Fear includes negative, heightened physiological, emotional and psychological changes and it's not a teaching tool but a crippling emotional condition. If the dog cannot control their exposure to triggers, lifetime anxiety may manifest - meaning the dog will reach a long-term state of waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Bad quality dog trainers not only expose a dog to fear triggers, but they also do it on purpose.


With even the smallest amount of empathy and even minimal knowledge we can’t possibly believe that this type of training is good for a dog. Which begs the question - how little must these dog trainers actually know, how unskilled must they be, to believe that fear is a training tool?

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©2020 by Sally Gutteridge.