If all your friends’ dogs jumped off a bridge…

Would you?

The alternative title for this blog entry would have been, “Toddler receives life sentence for having an accident in his big boy skivvies.”

It is easy for even the casual observer to note that dogs punish each other within the contexts of social interaction with conspecifics (other dogs). My clients are not oblivious to this fact of dog behavior and frequently ask questions like, “if dogs ‘correct’ each other [for rude behaviors], why shouldn’t we?”

This is a great question, because it gets people thinking about dogs and how they learn. However, it always reminds me of the question a mother would ask her teenager, “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” It also begs the question, is what’s good for the gander (dogs interacting with other dogs) actually good for the goose (you interacting with your dog)?


Why is it “ok” for dogs to punish each other but less advised for us to correct our dogs?

The simple answer is that dogs are very good at corrections and we are not very good at it.

I’ll take my Chow mix Mokie, for example. We call Mokie “the fun police” at play group. Most of the time, she will lie at my feet, boring holes into my eyes as dogs race and bark around her in play. Occasionally, Mokie will see something she doesn’t like, at which point she intervenes effectively. She makes my job extremely easy.

For example, Mokie’s Standard Poodle friend Thorby and adolescent Newfoundland Cooper were down at the classroom. As per usual, Mokie was lying at my feet staring at me.

Suddenly, the dynamic of play changed. Cooper began bullying Thorby, and Thorby didn’t like it. Thorby was offering calming signals to Cooper, but Cooper didn’t respond.

This would be my cue to intervene. Lucky for me, Mokie took care of it.

She sauntered over to the boys, inserted all 38 lbs of herself between 70 lb Thorby and 120 lb Cooper, looked directly into Cooper’s eyes and froze. Cooper paused for a second, Mokie uttered a muted “woof.”

Low and behold, big Newfie Cooper walked to the other side of the classroom and laid down. “OK, Mokie, whatever you say.” Mokie returned to my feet and resumed her down/stare position, waiting for the next infraction.

Like I said, a well-socialized dog is really good at this correction stuff; they almost make it look too easy.

We humans tend not to be very good at it. My colleague and friend, Steve White has provided 8 rules concerning the use of punishment. If you look over these rules, you can see how difficult they might be to apply.

Mokie’s first reaction was approaching Cooper and she did so immediately upon display of the bullying behavior. Then she inserted herself in between he and Thorby. When Cooper didn’t respond to this, she gave him a hard stare, frozen in place. Finally, she uttered her muted, nearly inaudible, “woof,” and he backed off.

Contrast this with the natural human approach to punishing unwanted behavior. Frequently in class or in play, when students observe their dog offering a behavior they don’t approve of (humping in play, barking, etc.), the knee-jerk response is to grab onto the dog, yell at the dog, and otherwise make a huge scene. Some dog trainers/handlers will automatically jump to grabbing a dog and throwing him to the ground, pinning him by the throat in an “alpha roll.”

Whoa! Back up! Who’s behavior is really over the top here, the human’s or the dog’s?

I have no doubt that if Cooper didn’t back off at Mokie’s “woof,” she would have escalated appropriately. Although she is only around 40 lbs, Mokie lives with a Saint Bernard and has no qualms whatsoever about “correcting” a dog more than three times her size. Mokie likely would have raised her hackles, and began growling quietly. This escalates fairly quickly into a sharp bark and air snap (biting at the air with her teeth, no contact).

So with Mokie, the punishment sequence looked like this:

1. Approach from a distance, stand beside.
2. Insert body between offending dogs.
3. Stare at bully, ears at 45 degree angle relative to skull
4. Woof at bully, ears flush with skull

and if this strategy had been unsuccessful, she would have escalated to:

5. hackle at bully
6. low growl at bully
7. sharp bark at bully
8. air snap at bully

So here we see 8 various levels of punishment, none of which even approached the level of intensity of a misguided (and decidedly “unnatural,” as research has proven) correction like an alpha roll. We didn’t even approach alpha roll!

Mokie’s punishment stopped the behavior at what was for this situation and for my dog a level four correction. Most humans would at least start out with a “hey, knock it off!” shout, which would be considered at least the equivalent of a level 7 (sharp bark) correction with no precursor indicators of disapproval!

See what I mean about not being very good at it? Let’s look at human consequences for bad behavior. Maybe we start out with:

1. an eye roll
2. a good ‘talking to’
3. grounding
4. cutting off allowance
5. spanking
6. extended grounding
7. military school
8. juvenile delinquincy program
9. jail
10. prison sentence
11. life sentence
12. death penalty

(NOTE: I am not saying this is an ideal punishment sequence, but it is a possible punishment sequence.)

Could you imagine a parent jumping to level 7 at the first behavioral infraction? Your toddler has recently graduated to “big boy underpants” from pull ups and at the first accident, you send him to military school.

Ludicrous, no? Does the punishment fit the “crime” here? Is it really a crime in the first place for a toddler to have an accident at this stage of training? If so, would it be better to set the toddler up for success (more frequent encouraged potty breaks, rewarded for successes) in the future or to send your tyke to military school?

While the answer may be obvious, it is a surprisingly mystifying concept to many dog owners. If Mokie rushed into that situation and delivered a level 7 with no precursors, chances are good that Cooper would have reacted negatively to her over-the-top approach with a similarly unnatural, unacceptable response.

Dogs are gloriously subtle in their communications with each other. Masters of wit and observation of subtle, minute changes in body posture and movement – they notice the stiffness of a limb, the chemical changes in scent composition that accompany arousal in an approaching individual, the rapidity or slowness of respiration, the glint in an eye, the whispered “woof.”

In doing an ethological “cost-benefit analysis” of corrections, it doesn’t behoove dogs as a species to be over the top with their corrections – aggression is what behaviorists call “expensive” behavior – it comes at a high cost and is thus, is a last resort. Similarly, you can imagine what would happen to the human species if we routinely delivered over the top corrections; if every toddler was immediately punished at level 12 (execution) for potty training mistakes, we would not be a particularly successful species – very few of us would survive to the age where we were physically mature enough to reproduce and raise our “young.”

We’ll never be able to mimic the subtle communications that occur between conspecifics. We cannot indicate with an ear flick to a dog that their behavior is unacceptable. I cannot mimic all the subtleties of Mokie’s communications and prefer instead to trust in them – I will let her intervene and correct other dogs’ unwanted behaviors because, well, she is better at it than I could ever hope to be.

The other reason we don’t have to and should not resort to corrections in training is because while we are not blessed with the subtleties of canine communication, we are blessed with bigger brains, a capacity for reasoning and planning and the ability to learn to train dogs effectively and humanely. Humans should concentrate on retraining and redirecting as opposed to correcting. Truly, “corrections” and punishment are for the dogs!

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One comment on “If all your friends’ dogs jumped off a bridge…
  1. Diane Garrod says:

    Excellent, as usual!

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