A few days ago I shared a link to a study on my Facebook page. It discussed the connection between our choice of training and its short- and long-term effects on dog’s mental health. The results clearly showed that aversive-based methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement – in other words, commonly used practices such as yelling, using training gadgets or any other form of punishment that make the dog do something to avoid pain or discomfort) not only lead to immediate stress and anxiety symptoms (lip licking, panting, yawning), but caused higher levels of cortisol and made the pups more “pessimistic” leaving them in “perpetual stress” in the long run.
If you allow me to take a step back from the study, I would like to quickly show you why the damage hidden under a simple word “stress” is far more dangerous than many would imagine. As the cortisol levels rise, the body has to dip into its own resources reserved for other systems (think nutrients, hormones, neurones etc.) – and swiftly relocate them to manage the stress levels and ensure that the adrenal glands that secret the hormone remain as functional as possible. This causes a chain reaction when the deprived systems and hormones including brain, heart, pancreas, nervous, reproductive, digestive and immune systems begin to suffer. In addition, the adrenals that don’t get a much needed break become exhausted and eventually turn a perfectly “normal” dog into a fearful pet that suffers from anxiety, reactivity and aggression simply because his body cannot cope with the external stressors effectively any longer.
On the other hand, the study demonstrated that the group of dogs trained through positive reward-based training remained happy, bouncy and, even though this wasn’t measured, full of endorphins. Even better, the dogs felt emotionally connected to their human companions.
The analysis was the first of its kind (though I do like the one from 2014, too) and I was very grateful to see these outcomes as a proof that kindness can go a long, long way when it comes to dogs.
Even though this seems very obvious, this simple rule of treating your dog with love and kindness no matter what is easy to forget at times. Life can get in the way. Things can become stressful causing us to react out of frustration. Not because we don’t love dogs, but simply because we are imperfect impulse-driven species.
And even though we cannot completely change the imperfections in us – we can alter our attitude towards our beautiful practically perfect dogs. So next time you feel like “losing it” and yelling at your pooch, stop for a second and look at him… Look into his eyes… see how they are still full of affection… Think of how much your dog wants to please you… And remind yourself that he is, after all, an animal and your communication is more like a chat between you and a 5-year old foreign baby who has absolutely no idea what you are talking about (which can be rather scary for a kid!)
Then breathe, hug your dog and see him gazing back at you. This feeling alone can cure any pain and stress you’re dealing with. And if you do feel like screaming – there is always a little cloak room to lock yourself in for a moment. It’s a perfect place for flushing our all the verbal negativity once and for all.
And don’t forget to give your pup a treat when you come out… Because kindness comes in all sorts of forms – chicken and biscuits included.