Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Gaye Amick
Gaye Amick, CPT
Local dog trainer Gaye Amick gives tips on communicating with your dog.
By: Gaye Amick, CPT
Northern Sky Obedience Academy 
Our relationships with our dogs are intricate and many faceted. With each new client, I become aware of the different ways they communicate and bond. While some interactions are more conducive than others in achieving a well mannered pet, there is one item in the relationship that never seems to be lacking – affection.
Owners enjoy giving and receiving affection from their dogs. We spoil them to no end, offering belly rubs,ear scratches, pats,an abundance of treats, hugs and kisses.  Affection commonly demonstrated through the purchases of cute,colorful toys to amuse our dogs. Okay,  I’ll admit it, I take  my dogs to Wendy’s on their birthdays plus bake a carrot cake!
Dogs, for their part,  respond to our emotions as only sentient beings can.  Like a six sense, they pick up on our emotions and respond with mirror-like accuracy. When we show playfulness, the dog is right there ready to participate.  When we are calm and relaxed, dogs like nothing more than to nap at our feet.  When we return form work, tired and frustrated, dogs can even sense when its best to leave us alone until a better moment.
So how can affections, such a seemingly genuine and sincere demonstration of our feelings for our dog, be anything but good in the relationship?  Is affection the most beneficial way to respond to our dog’s emotions?  Or is there a down side?  The answer is both.  To understand we must see affection through the eyes of our dog, for better or worse.
As a social creature, dogs enjoy and look for physical contact with others.  Observing a room full of dogs you’ll see them, touch, mutual groom, lick, paw, brush against and past each other, and generally sleeping in a communal manner.  Humans are social creatures too, but our touch tends more toward stroking and caressing.  When used as a communication device for dogs, human touch becomes a nurturing, reinforcing type of behavior.  It is used as a way of acknowledging acceptance or approval of the dog, and the behavior “of the moment”.  I’ve learned over the years how much affection can mold dog behaviors, both good and bad.  Unfortunately, pet owners often seem to be unaware of the impact of the dog’s psyche,  It is probably the single most insidious mixed messages humans send to their dogs.
A lot of the negative aspects to “bad” affection come down to bad timing. We should be tuned in to our dog’s state of mind and energy level before adding physical affection.  I’ve seen people insist on trying to pet a rambunctious puppy, even though he’s biting (mouthing) them. Then there are those who try to pet and or soothe their dogs during moments of stress, or respond dismissively in a half-playful manner during an aggressive display.  In all these situations, where petting is part of the communication, the message being sent to the dog is approval and reinforcement for inappropriate behavior.
Affection and petting can easily interfere with obedience and/or the psychological growth of a dog when it is used to excess or in the wrong settings.  This is common in situations where love abounds, but rules are extremely lax or non-existent.  As I mentioned above, giving affection to a new dog or puppy is how owners attempts to convey acceptance to their pets. However, when one sees the “translation” of these behaviors into a dog’s language, it becomes a message “who is fawning over whom”. “Un-earned” affection has a much reduced value in the eyes of a dog.
A few years ago, I was contacted by a family who’s miniature poodle,Zena, had serious aggression problems.  It revolved primarily around the issue of grooming.  Zena had such a reputation with area groomers, that no one was willing to take her anymore.  As I sat with the family at the initial consultation it was obvious to me that Zena was stressed and feeling insecure.  I observed the owners giving her almost non-stop attention, as she wandered from one person to the next, and then to the next, jumping on their legs and barking with each stop.  Each “well-trained” family member responded in their conditioned manner, reaching out and giving Zena a pat or an ear scratch and soothing words.  By constantly fawning and trying to calm Zena they were contributing to her insecurity.   Too much petting can thwart a dog’s psychological growth.  Zena was already disposed to timidity and social reserve  providing too much affection became a way for her to hide from the world, seeking validation and security from the things that threaten her.
It may be an unconscious reaction with most owners when they see their dog exhibiting fear-quivering bodies, tucked tails, ears plastered against their head.  The tendency for humans is to step in as the “emotional rescue squad”, picking the dog up to “protect” her, gently stroking with a cooing voice, or whisking the dog out of the stressful environment.  Unfortunately  this has serious backlash, perpetuating the dog’s fear,  Remember that petting is “nurturing behavior indicating approval”. Though it may be a sincere attempt to “help” the dog, Zena’s owners were actually keeping her trapped in her own fear.  By responding in these situations with more emotion, rather than logic, Zena’s owners unknowingly validated her insecurity  thus reinforcing it (praising her for feeling insecure).  Learning alternative techniques that help the dog work through their fear and/or psychologically disconnect from the emotion are far more beneficial over time. Another case involved a couple of Yorkshire Terriers with an annoying problem of displaying serious defensive and territorial  aggression whenever people came to the house.  The owners “solution” was simply to pick the dog up in her arms (after all they only weigh  5lbs). Needless to say, the behavior didn’t go away. As a matter of fact it had become steadily worse over time.
Other dogs are highly volatile when it came to physical touch.  While they crave it, their temperaments are always at a low simmer, and so petting often just sends them over the edge, and they explode with out of control excitement.  With these highly playful and energetic types, an approach that motivates with calmer praise and verbal acknowledgement works better. It is counterproductive to add excited affection if it sends the dog into la la land.
Acknowledging, on the other hand that a dog wants and needs physical contact from us, petting and affection can then be used as a powerful motivator for training.  Pet owners just need to be taught to view affection as a “resource”, controlled and dispensed as it is earned.  Showering affection constantly throughout the day devalues its worth.  All to quickly, it becomes mundane and routine.  If the dog’s “cup already runneth over”, why bother.  On the other hand, withholding affection under certain conditions and dispensing it abundantly at others can teach a dog to “respond” for the physical contact he craves. Take,for example, a dog who can not be coaxed into “Come” for any reward – at least it seems that way until you become a little stingy with affection. By modify the amount of “free” affection your dog will gladly come when called to receive the affection it craves.
Much like humans, dogs vary greatly in their need for contact.  An owner must be intimately familiar with their individual dog’s personality in order to use affection as needed to achieve the greater goal.  Some dogs perform well with very little, others require a lot more. Using just the right amount, at precisely the right moment in time can produce a highly motivated dog, especially when training. Rather than relying on food as a primary motivator, I prefer using affection as the positive reinforcement in my training programs, as I have found that it keep the dogs more turned in to the owners.  Keeping positive touch involved in the training process helps the dog be aware of their psychological needs more than their physical.  Just as effectively, it can communicate approval to the dog regarding an emotion state or general demeanor.  My dogs receive a huge amount of affection throughout the day, usually because I feel they are earning it through behavior I find acceptable.  The receive petting for “Sitting” when I  ask them, “Coming” when called and throughout the day when I see they are calm and relaxed.
Affection in moderation doesn’t mean that your dog will necessarily get less affection in the end. Rather,we learn to budget the total amount, giving affection in situations when it is definitely needed (GREAT JOB), and holding back at other times to indicate “less” approval or even “no approval. In certain cases, “less” just might be the best thing to heightening a dog’s responsiveness and over all motivation.  Are you using too much of a good thing?
Gaye Amick, owner of Northern Sky Obedience Academy is a locally based dog trainer with years of experience. She writes regularly for The Boyne City Gazette and can be contacted at (231) 237-9510.

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