Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: To treat or not to treat

Ziggy — Danielle Zerbonne

Hi Tom,

I’m struggling with the idea of when to reward with a treat, and when to correct behavior without a reward. For example, I know you’re not supposed to coddle your dog when they are afraid of thunder, which then reinforces their anxious feelings (I think …). Saying “It’s OK, you’re a good boy” when they’re freaking out about something encourages their upset attitude, rather than calming them.

But I also know using treats to help a dog develop positive associations toward otherwise upsetting things can help them learn that good things can come in the presence of the something they usually find worrisome. So how do you know when to use a special reward for a positive association, and when a food reward would serve only to reinforce bad behavior?

In my case, when my dog is upset and reactive over something he’s afraid of, is that a time for correction (a sharp “no,” or pop with the leash), or special tasty treats (Here’s bacon! See, fireworks/skateboards/the vacuum ain’t so bad!)?

Thanks, Danielle

Dear Danielle,

Great question! Great because the answer isn’t a clear, black or white, straightforward response. Dogs basically live in the moment, and training a dog is letting him know you like or don’t like the behavior, AS IT IS HAPPENING.

So if a dog is jumping on your leg and you snarl “OFF” as you shrug him off, and smile with a pleasant “good boy” when he’s got four feet on the floor, and your timing is spot-on, he’ll learn to appreciate the value of not jumping. Again, timing is critical: As the behavior is happening, you love it or frown upon it.

Now enter the inadvertent rewarding of unwanted behavior. The puppy is barking at you for having the audacity to ignore him while you’re talking to your boss on the phone. So you toss him treats to shut him up so you can make sense of what your employer is saying without his asking you if you’re at the dog park or a pet store.

And it works!

The dog shuts up, and you have a reasonable conversation with your boss. But here’s the reality. It worked, all right, for the dog. You succumbed to extortion, with your dog basically saying, “You either give me treats, or you ain’t talking on that phone.” The inadvertent rewarding of unwanted behavior is much more common than most people realize. It can be very subtle. No domestic animal reads the body language of a human being better than a dog. They read two things, your body language and your voice intonation. I’ve lost count of all the times people inadvertently rewarded their dog’s aggression at the door when I was asked to come into the house.

The owner is holding the growling German shepherd back by the collar or leash as he’s petting him and saying, “It’s OK”, as I’m trying to cross the threshold into the house. If your 4-year-old child was frightened of the ghost at the door on Halloween, you could say, “It’s OK, it’s a little boy under a sheet,” and your child will understand. But if you’re petting your dog and saying, “It’s OK” when he’s growling, your body language and voice is rewarding the unwanted growling. A thousand times when entering a house I had to restrain myself from saying, “Is this the behavior you want? Then why the hell are you rewarding it!?” Why restrain myself? Because the owner had no idea he was saying “good dog” to the aggressive response to a visitor at the door.

So how does the “inadvertent rewarding of unwanted behavior” theory apply to a fearful response to thunder, or the screaming sirens of passing firetrucks, or malfunctioning smoke alarms going off? If your dog is cowering at the sounds of sirens or smoke alarms I certainly wouldn’t say, “It’s OK” and offer treats. I feel it would be validating the fear response, and the fearful dog won’t take the treats anyhow. My search and rescue Doberman Michelle was afraid of nothing, till age 13. Then, for the first time, I saw her cowering in fear at a booming thunderstorm. My response: I started playing wildly with her, rolling on the floor with her, being silly, conning her into engaging in play with me, quickly giving her a treat when she went into a half-a-play bow, or even smiled at my antics. It’s called “redirecting.” I worked hard at giving her something else to think about, something fun and happy to engage her in. However, thunderstorms add something else that is often upsetting to to our dogs — barometric pressure changes, which often result in static electric shocks.

I touch a sweater and get a mild static shock, no big deal, but the dog that sniffs the sweater and gets a shock, big deal. I’ve recommended “storm defender coats” for dogs that get freaked out by static shocks and thunderstorms, in addition to ThunderShirts. Literally, last week, all my smoke alarms had to be replaced due to old age and the fact that they were dying by “screaming.” Keep in mind that a dog’s hearing is far superior to ours, and the frequency and volume of the alarms was probably past the canine threshold of anatomical discomfort. Paula Jean, my 5-year-old poodle, was clearly scared by the piercing sounds, but I was able to mostly talk her out of her fear by acting like a playful lunatic and tossing treats around on the floor until I could get the batteries out and stop the alarms. If you want to work at desensitizing your dog to alarming sounds, get or make recordings of thunder and sirens. Then get your dog to hang out in a favorite spot and play these sounds softly enough that she barely hears them as you give her tiny pieces of steak from the Square Rigger. Teach her to love these sounds because they’re associated with steak. With success building on success, play the recordings louder and louder, making her less fearful of the noise. If it’s the sound of the vacuum, run it two rooms away as she gets her steak, and bring it closer as she learns that the vacuum sounds don’t hurt, but rather result in the consumption of delicious treats. Hope this helps.

Good luck,

The Dogcharmer

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