When is controlling our dog too controlling?

Dog trainingWhen teachers, psychologists and parents are asked which methods are more acceptable when teaching our children, they consistently prefer a positive-reinforcement based approach over the use of punishment. A punitive approach to behavior is not only less effective, but it also produces many side effects, such as increased aggression, generalized fear and escape/avoidance behavior (Sidman, 2000). When we look at the most common behavior issues expressed by our companion dogs, such as barking, lunging, destroying, biting, repetitive licking or jumping, which can also be considered as expression of anger, fear and anxiety, we can easily see where the effects of punishment are true across species. Why are we so prone to punish others? We’re seeking control. We don’t seek control because we’re control freaks or have a thirst for power. We try to control our environment, our family members and of course our canine partner because the desire to control the world around us is a fundamental characteristic of human beings, or should I say, is a fundamental characteristic of all beings. We rarely consider how our desire to control leaves our dogs powerless in their everyday life. Yet, this very condition may be at the root of many of their behavioral displays.

We force our dogs to go where we want, or do what we deem important. We restrain their movements by putting them on leash anytime we go for a walk, we crate them for extended periods of time even when they’re showing obvious signs of distress, we restrict them from certain rooms, from playing with the neighbor’s dog or from digging in the yard. Dogs have little control over their environment and over their life in general. Many behaviors that we consider problematic can be interpreted as an expression of frustration, anger, stress and anxiety that may very well be generated by a lifestyle of lack of control.

dog in kennelWhen people and animals believe they are controlled by external factors, they may develop what is referred to as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness describes a psychological condition where a person or an animal acts as if they were helpless, even when they have the power to escape the unpleasant experience. When dogs for instance, are shocked without any option to escape or avoid the electric shock, they stop trying. When later placed in a different situation where escaping is now possible, they no longer attempt to escape the aversive (Seligman19671991).

Lack of control leads to stress (Kivimaki et al., 2002). When we limit a person’s sense of control, when incarcerated for instance or placed in a nursing home, the stress level increases. Low income, demanding jobs with little control, abusive relationships can keep a person in a prolonged state of stress. Stress suppresses the immune system, leading to poor health and shorter lives. We become anxious, restless, irritable, angry, unfocussed, sad or depressed. When we feel as though we have more control over our environment, we tend to live longer and happier (Rodin, 1986, Kivimaki & al. 2002).

Dog on leash

Certain canine behaviors can easily be attributed to the dogs’ lack of control. Leash aggression, barrier frustration and separation anxiety all have in common the physical restraint of the dog that would undoubtedly choose to stay with his owner or run towards the other dog if given the option. When locked up in a crate or even in the house, they don’t have the ability to get out on their own will. Kept away from their caregivers, many get anxious, sometimes to the point of panic. Over time, some may develop coping strategies. Many others however, experience such high levels of anxiety that they urinate, have diarrhea, self mutilate, destroy the crate they’re locked in or the door that leads them to freedom. For more on separation anxiety, go to ‘Separation Anxiety in Dogs – A Consultant’s High Tech Toolkit‘.

In her recent book, Kathy Sdao (Plenty in Life Is Free, 2012), points out that, as trainers, we become skilled at controlling environmental stimuli to change a dog’s behavior. We manipulate the conditions to induce our dogs to behave in ways that we deem acceptable. There is nothing wrong with that and in many ways fitting into any social group requires learning social protocols and acceptable behaviors. But we can remind ourselves that training needs to be focused on the animal’s needs as much as on the human’s. Without respect for the dog’s ability to choose, we can easily develop an abusive relationship with our best friend. Even the concept of Nothing in Life is Free (NILF), developed with the best of intentions, could be considered another form of psychological control.

With the best of intents, we need to keep in mind that not all that we do is positive for the animal. Humane and effective training and behavior modification protocols shouldn’t only be judged by their effectiveness. They should also preserve learner control (Friedman, 2009).  Like humans, all animals can benefit from controlling significant events in their life through their choice of behavior. We can certainly all agree that using force or aversives when other methods are available is morally problematic. Dogs don’t have the option to choose a treatment over another. Just like children in a therapeutic situation, our companions are vulnerable parties in the working relationship we establish with their guardians. Like a counselor, we have to make sure that whatever intervention we choose will be as minimally invasive to them as possible. Our influence on the life of another being requires that we develop ethics in the choices we make.

Applied Behavior Analysis has been around for many years now. When dealing with children or adults with mental disabilities, the standard is to apply the least intrusive reduction procedure or ‘least Intrusive Behavior Intervention (LIBI). The advantages of applying this type of standard to our practice is that we minimize the side effects of using aversives but can also feel good about treating the animal (and sometimes the guardian) with respect for their autonomy and their dignity. With reduced problems and higher success rates, applying such a standard also benefits the professional’s practice altogether.

Figure 1. LIEBI (O'Heare, 2013) Algorithm for protocols in determining when to implement intrusive behavior interventions with a behavior reduction component.

Figure 1. LIEBI (O’Heare, 2013) Algorithm for protocols in determining when to implement intrusive behavior interventions with a behavior
reduction component.

O’Heare (2013) outlines a decision making algorithm to help trainers implement a behavior modification plan and decide when to use aversive training methods: the Least Intrusive effective Behavior Intervention (LIEBI). Its fundamental principal is to always favor non-invasive solutions first. Any consideration of using highly intrusive interventions is made very responsibly. This standard heavily emphasizes the importance of defining objectives, tracking and quantifying the dog’s behavior and re-evaluating along the way when needed. A savvy trainer or behaviorist should be able to apply this algorithm while avoiding almost all use of aversives in most cases. For a full description of this algorithm, visit http://www.associationofanimalbehaviorprofessionals.com/liebi50.pdf.

As trainers, and dog guardians, Reward-based training and clicker training in particular, allows us to interact with the dog without force, without unnecessary stress and constrain. We encourage the dog to offer behaviors without fear of being corrected for showing initiative. Dogs can give in to their curiosity and desire to have a good time with us and we can encourage them to make the appropriate decisions. Through counter-conditioning we can help them overcome their fears and develop tolerance for otherwise stressful situations. Human relationships often fail because we don’t pay enough attention to the emotional needs of others so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we easily favor our own need to control the unruly pooch over more respectful but lengthy processes. It’s our choice to continuously strive to better ourselves with both animals and people, for the benefit of all.

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Children, Dog behavior, Dog training, Dog/human relationship, Positive Animal Training
3 comments on “When is controlling our dog too controlling?
  1. Interesting! As a novice trainer, I have been reading as much as I can about the different means of training and “behavior modification” as I can get my hands on. Unfortunately, personal issues over the last several months have limited my opportunities for hands-on experience, which is my preferred method of learning. However, one thing I have learned is that teaching dogs new “behaviors” requires PATIENCE above all else — patience with the dog, patience with myself, patience with other humans & dogs in the household, and patience with the environment in general. My third dog — when we first adopted her from the shelter — tested my patience on a moment-to-moment basis. Once we started taking her to doggie daycare, though, she began settling down. The other dogs are closer to her own age than our senior Golden Retrievers, so they can can tolerate Ducky’s intense energy much more easily. And she has learned from her doggie friends how to “play nice”. Something even my more tolerant, older Golden Retriever could not achieve in the beginning. My own patience level tends to change with my mood, so I have to work on it. Luckily, I’m usually in a good mood, but when I’m not, I really have to keep my emotions in check around the dogs. Too bad I didn’t inherit my Mom’s saintly patience!

  2. Anthony says:

    Remarkable things you posted in here. It was very practical and well-thought of; and I would love to hear more of those soon. Anyway, I’m going to subscribe to this site on a regular basis, and curate it to my blog site so keep us up to date. All the very best!

  3. Tinafromeire says:

    Dear Jennifer, thanks a million for all your excellent work and sharing your knowledge. I am studying Canine behaviour and training (home study). Besides finding you very inspiring, you also help me so much “without a teacher”. You truly have a gift to teach! (only found you now while on canine learning, but will be your lifelong fan!) Greetings from Ireland. Tina x

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  1. […] think they perfectly demonstrate what Dr. Jennifer Cattet describes in her thoughtful piece “When is Controlling Our Dog Too Controlling?” A demonstration of the desire to control, not such a great thing to start with, gone completely […]

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