The Devastating Fallout of Suppressing Your Reactive Dog’s Behaviour

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The Devastating Fallout of Suppressing Your Reactive Dog’s Behaviour

July 4, 2023 Uncategorised 0

In the last few posts, we have looked at the stages of emotional resilience for reactive dogs. There are twelve core stages that will help our dogs who bark and lunge. As they move from reactive behaviour to adaptive behaviour, there is a lot we can do.

I have rooted these posts in both theory and practice. Much of the Resilience Roadmap is rooted in James Gross’s stages of emotion regulation. There is one stage that the Resilience Roadmap for dogs does not include: behavioural suppression. As adult humans, we can, from time to time, swallow our anger. We can smile though we’d rather punch somebody. When we have a full-blown emotional reaction, we can, as adults, choose to suppress it.

So why don’t I include this with dogs? Can’t they also suppress their emotionally driven behaviour until it goes away?

Our dogs need approaches that are effective but are also kind. There are many reasons I do not recommend punishment or suppression. Some relate to my ethical approach with animals; others relate to technical failures associated with behavioural suppression.

Just yesterday, I read a post from a person whose dog had gone to one trainer. The dog had been barking at cars. The trainer put a choke collar on the dog and then jerked the dog’s lead every time the dog barked. The dog was cured according to the trainer because the barking stopped. Sadly, the barking stopped but a whole raft of other problems started, including the dog biting the lead and nipping the guardian. The main problem, however, was much more serious: the dog simply hit the floor every time a car went by.

The fallout of punishment #1: poor timing

There was some quite predictable fallout. Although the trainer had quite good timing, the clients did not. Punishment, like reward, requires great timing. If we want our dogs to understand that the punishment is simply for lunging at cars, it has to happen when the dog lunges at cars. Unfortunately, the clients had trialled methods on the way home. From their video, it was easy to see the problem. They’d been jerking the choke chain every time a car passed, whether the dog lunged or not.

Five minutes into their return walk, the dog was hitting the ground every time a car went past in the distance. The dog had simply associated being corrected with cars. They’d not made the association between barking and lunging and the correction.

If we want to use punishment and corrections, we have to have excellent timing. We also need to make the pairing between the behaviour and the consequence really clear. And we need to do it every single time. We can’t afford to be ambiguous.

The fallout of punishment #2: punishment simply suppresses behaviour

There were further problems. When a car went past really close, the dog had been flat on the pavement, just as they’d done for the past ten cars. Because the car was came really fast and really close, the dog was unable to simply suppress their behaviour any more. He jumped off the ground and lunged at the car. It was pretty unpredictable, especially since the last few cars, he’d hit the deck.

The guardians weren’t prepared for it, so the dog nearly hit the car. Punishment may sometimes reduce behaviour, but on the whole, it simply suppresses it for the meantime.

Just like you might suddenly start adhering to every road rule when the police are driving behind you, it’s the same for our dogs. However, the more urgent our needs are, the less likely punishment is to keep suppressing our emotional response. If you’re on your way to hospital, you may think ‘to hell with the consequences’ if you can get away with it.

Punishment is much less likely to suppress strongly motivated behaviour. This is why dogs will sometimes do things even though they are being shocked by a shock collar. Corrections and punishment work on behaviour that has weak motivation or drive. Ironic, really, because that’s the kind of behaviour that’s easy to fix with rewards instead.

Behaviour comes back either when the punishment is inconsistent or absent. It also comes back when the punishment is not strong enough to suppress the behaviour. When emotions fuel the need that’s driving a behaviour, it becomes very challenging to suppress.

The fallout of punishment #3: punishment doesn’t address the underlying cause of behaviour

Emotional need often drives behaviour. Many emotion researchers propose that emotions exist to drive needs-driven behaviour. This may be even more true for animals animals than it is for people. Our needs can be complex and ego-driven. Even so, they’re our needs and they seem important to us. Just because other people don’t like them or don’t understand them doesn’t make them less of a need to us.

I was watching the episode of The Big Bang Theory this morning where Sheldon explains his love for Mr Spock. Sheldon longed for a logic-driven world free from emotional behaviour. The mythical Vulcans evolved in a world where emotions had no purpose. In reality, emotions unite mammalian species and drive much behaviour. We survive better because of them. We thrive because of them. In reality, the Vulcans would probably have died out.

According to researchers like Nico Frijda, emotions exist to drive behaviour. Motivation is inextricably linked to emotion. In a mammalian world where powerful predators could attack, fear serves a useful evolutionary purpose. Even in our highly intricate human social system, conflict with other humans is sometimes a significant threat. Fear serves a purpose there, too.

Emotions are also responses to the world. We sense things in our environment. They in turn alter our emotions. This in turn affects our bodies, our behaviour and our thinking.

Without ever dealing with why our dogs feel frustrated, fearful, excited or anxious, their needs are not addressed. No wonder many punishments are not strong enough to conquer behaviour entirely!

The fallout of punishment #4: punishment is less effective with more instinctive behaviour

When external rewards drive behaviour, punishments are sometimes effective. In reality, external rewards drive very little of our behaviour. I struggled to think of one single behaviour! Inner motivation may even drive simple behaviours like recycling bottles in return for money-back vouchers. We might recycle because we would feel ashamed if we didn’t. Or we might do it because we value recycling. We might even do it through force of habit.

If your bottle-returning behaviour was simply driven by tokens, then it’d be pretty easy to kill that behaviour stone dead. In fact, giving you no reward at all would probably reduce many people’s motivation to recycle those bottles for vouchers. Killing that behaviour completely by telling you off when you handed a bottle over would probably work really well.

Need is a strong motivator for behaviour. Every year, farmers try to reduce boar and deer damage to crops with electric fences.

All that happens is the behaviour goes elsewhere.

I was quite cross recently at a local dog field where someone had put dog poo in holes their dogs had excavated. I guess this was intended to stop dogs digging. It clearly doesn’t take a scientist to work out that the dogs just dig elsewhere. Also, it’s gross and spreads disease. A small patch of dog holes then turned into a much wider patch of dog holes. Sure, they weren’t digging where the dog poo was. They just started digging elsewhere.

Intrinsically motivated behaviour doesn’t respond well to punishment or correction. And emotional behaviour tends to be highly motivated from intrinsic, internal and personal factors.

The fallout of punishment #5: sometimes even extreme pain doesn’t stop behaviour

I worked last year with a dog who’d got into a cow field. A bull had trampled him and broken his pelvis. You’d think this would be punishment enough to stop that dog harassing cattle. His guardian really thought that the pain would stop the behaviour.

Not so.

Just as he’d healed, he got back in and did the same again. He’d had broken ribs that time.

If being trampled by an angry and territorial dairy bull isn’t enough to stop your dog chasing cattle, what is?

When extreme pain does stop behaviour, it can be almost as inconvenient and life-affecting. It can have huge fallout. Lidy bit a wasp a couple of years back. You can imagine how that ended. She learned not to pick fights with angry, fruit-drunk wasps. She’s now also petrified of all buzzing sounds and insects. They send her cowering beneath the bed.

So even when pretty bad pain stops you doing stuff, it can have repercussions. She spends all summer on guard for wasps and can’t tolerate open windows any more. That’s drastically affecting her quality of life. We don’t know if impulsive, intrinsically motivated behaviour will be punishment-sensitive (like Lidy) or punishment-oblivious (like the dog in the bull pen). Unpredictable consequences aren’t reliable enough for our dogs.

The fallout of punishment #6: punishment can add to frustration

Like the car-chasing dog at the start, a lead was contributing to his frustration in the first place. The dog clearly struggled around cars and needed support. Maybe that was anxiety. Maybe it was the simple joy of chasing moving things or trying to control their movement. Either way, the dog was frustrated and not coping well.

Restraint and management can contribute significantly to frustration. That’s not to say the dog should be chasing cars, but his owners need help in understanding why it’s causing so much of a problem. We also need to understand that frustration causes other problems.

One of those problems is that frustration reduces a dog’s ability to choose more appropriate behaviours. If you want a lesson in frustration fallout, just pop by when my computer needs an update! I do not cope well with frustration. I do not choose appropriate behaviours, let me tell you.

Frustration is also linked to redirected aggression. That’s to say it’s not uncommon for dogs to decide to take out their frustration on us, especially if we’re administering a punishment.

Frustration also breeds new problems. One way we cope when we’re frustrated is to come up with novel solutions to stuff. We don’t know and we can’t predict that new problems won’t be worse than old problems. One former client also had a dog who chased cars, so she got a head halter. Her dog just started biting the lead for the whole walk and barking instead. Then she muzzled him, so he started spinning on the spot. He also started giving her the run-around before a walk. Instead of popping the lead on, it was now taking her ten minutes to get out and her dog had started biting at her hands.

The fallout of punishment #7: punishment doesn’t teach our dogs what to do instead

If our dogs are frustrated, we know that frustration can be the mother of invention. Frustration can cause creative problem solving. Great. Just what we need. Whenever we stop one behaviour, we have to be aware that we may end up in a game of behavioural whack-a-mole, like my client whose dog chased cars.

It’s helpful, then, to focus on what we actually want instead.

Most of us just want our dogs to ignore distractions if they’re not life-threatening, and to get on with their walk on a loose lead. We can describe how that looks really clearly. Maybe it’s a dog with their nose to the ground, sniffing trees, bushes and lamp-posts. Maybe it’s a dog just walking with us, looking around but paying little mind to distractions.

If we want our dogs to do that, we need to teach it. We should never assume that our dogs know what to do instead. Worse, we can never assume that our dogs know what we want them to do instead.

The fallout of punishment #8: we assume when we reprimand our dogs or correct them that they should just know what to do instead

Most of us just assume our dogs will randomly chance upon the behaviour we actually want, or that they won’t bring their own style to it, like the car-chasing dog biting the lead as he walked. We assume they just know what we want. We also assume it’s easy.

Let me tell you about me learning to jump up and forward! There’s an ancient cinefilm of me, aged about three. I’m trying to jump streams on the beach. In fact, I’m jumping up and not out, so I’m jumping and then running through the streams. While I’m adequate at jumping streams these days (who am I trying to kid?!) that took coordination.

Many adults forget how hard learning to walk at different speeds is. We also forget how hard it is for children to learn how to walk alongside us. And we forget how frustrating it is. I remember the summer I went shopping with my grandmother in Bruges. She was very slow because she wanted to look in every shop window. I was frustrated and it was hard to walk as slow as she was walking. I was an actual adult!

In fact, it was uncomfortable to walk at her speed. It altered my stride and natural pace. I needed to concentrate on it.

We assume walking on a loose lead at all times is easy and we forget just how long it took us to get to our clumsy feet and walk at the same pace as other people. There’s a reason parades with five-year-olds look like my waistline – chaotic and bursting out in all the wrong places.

The fallout of punishment #9: punishment can reduce all similar behaviours

There was a reason the dog at the beginning of this post was making like a pancake during his walks. Punishment can reduce all behaviours designed to achieve the same goal. The dog’s goal was to move forward and approach cars. Jerking his choke chain effectively stopped all moving forward and approach behaviour. That also included walking.


A dog you have to drag along like a sledge.

The fallout of punishment #10: punishment can be confusing

Punishment needs to be effective and consistent. The learner has to understand what generated the punishment. If they don’t understand that, it’s just confusing. Although the trainer clearly connected the choke jerk to the cars, the owners did not. You have to be prepared to correct every single behaviour if you don’t want it to be confusing to the dog.

Now it’s tiring to keep giving my dog treats.

It’s extra tiring to keep having to correct them just because they need clarity. It’s one reason I became a behaviour consultant. The most local person offering ‘services’ jerked her dog on a collar five times in thirty seconds to stop him pulling forward. Her four-year-old shepherd she’d had from a pup. Honestly, if your purpose-bred herding dog hasn’t understood thousands of corrections, when will they learn?

The fallout of punishment #11: corrections can be rewarding to us

If corrections do work – even occasionally – it actually makes us more likely to do them in the future.

When I first started working in kennels, I was told by others to knee dogs in the chest if they jumped. It didn’t work at all so I stopped doing it. Also, I didn’t like doing it. It was an easy habit to quit.

But imagine if it had been successful?!

Even if it had worked only 1 in 20 times, it would have made it more likely I’d keep doing it.

That’s pretty ugly. In the lab, animals will work thousands of times for one reward. We can tolerate a very thin reward rate. Ask any lottery player. In fact, thin reward rates actually make it tougher to kill behaviour completely. Thank God I’m blessed with sense because I’d still be kneeing dogs in the chest despite how unreliable, dangerous and offensive it is.

The fallout of punishment #12: we’re humans

I don’t think it does us a disservice to remember how many times we lose our patience because we’re living, breathing humans, not Vulcans. And Vulcans had to try really hard to suppress their emotions because their emotions had once threatened to destroy their species. If we think our dog’s ability to keep cool is compromised under pressure, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves too.

Because we’re humans, we make decisions in the moment that we’d later look back on and scratch our head to wonder why we did what we did. Our own frustration plays a part in our own behaviour. If our dog’s behaviour is frustrating us, we’re going to diversify as well. Did you see how my client went from a head halti to adding a muzzle to stop the car chasing?

We don’t make good decisions when we are stressed. Neither do our dogs. The stronger habits we build about using rewards, the more naturally it’ll come when we’re stressed. The same with our dogs.

The fallout of punishment #13: it damages our dog’s trust in us

Anxiety causes a lot of problems for our dogs. We often see those problems as ‘undesirable’ behaviour. While fear and anxiety are far from the only reasons our dogs may be struggling, the last thing we need is to contribute to those feelings.

Whenever our dogs struggle to manage their own feelings, it really doesn’t matter what emotions are driving it. Adding anxiety about our unpredictable behaviour to the mix won’t help.

That was the saddest fallout for the guardians with the car-chasing dog… within 24 hours, their dog was avoiding them. The dog was also avoiding going outside or coming to have their lead put on. What had been their big moment of joy was now terrifying.

There’s more, but…

I’m pretty sure thirteen reasons is enough. They’re actually all technical reasons, rather than ethical reasons. I don’t even need ethical reasons when there’s such a litany of technical tensions in corrections, punishment and behavioural suppression.

We also fail to discuss the consequences of suppressing behaviour. There’s fallout at a physiological, emotional, cognitive and social level.

I’ve been rooting my theory and practice in the work of emotion regulation research, particularly the research of James Gross. In his research, he explores different ways that humans manage their behaviour. Although I read it with a human eye, I could not help but see that it also had implications for our relationship with our dogs. There are many parallels in how we can also help our dogs build adaptive competencies to cope with life.

Managing emotions

Gross explores five main components of how adults manage their emotions.

The first is in how we select situations to manage emotions better. For instance, if we struggle with a difficult mother-in-law, we might avoid seeing her as much. We might also choose to go to parties rather than seeing her individually, so it takes the pressure off us.

We also modify situations to make it easier for ourselves. If I’m trying to reduce sugar in my diet, it helps not to have sugar in the house, for example.

We manage our attention and our focus. If we have to go to visit our brother and he’s quite opinionated on topics we find divisive, we might choose to tune out some of their comments and daydream rather than dwelling on them. We can also pay more attention to the good things about them too.

Therapy also teaches us to reappraise situations and events so they are not as negative for us. We might rationalise our brother’s behaviour and come to realise he only does it when he’s had a few too many drinks and he quite likes the drama. Reacting might give him everything he wants. There’s also lots of evidence about acceptance too. This involves reappraisal at some level. We might simply decide that our brother has a right to his opinions and it’s part and parcel of who he is. Because we love who he is, we might just accept that they don’t agree with everything we think or say.

Gross also explores a fifth strategy – one that his collaborating researchers also agree happens but has harmful side-effects: suppression.

Suppression in humans

Humans use suppression as a strategy to manage emotions, often in social situations. We use suppression when we try to stop behaviour, when we try to bottle it up. Although Gross is not suggesting we go around living a completely unfiltered life, he does say that long-term suppression of emotional thoughts and behaviour has many, many side-effects. It’s not healthy in the long run to bottle up our emotions and to keep pushing them back.

There are significant physiological consequences. When people try to suppress their feelings, it actually increases our stress levels. It’s also counter-intuitive, because it makes the noisy emotional bits of the brain even more noisy and emotional. It also affects our digestive system too, as well as leading to some long-term health complications.

People who regularly try to suppress their emotions also have fewer positive feelings about the world. It contributes to anxiety too, as well as a whole host of other emotional issues.

It affects our learning too, as well as our attention. Suppression decreases our ability to concentrate and to focus, as well as making it harder to solve problems. In the long run, suppression also invalidates our feelings, which makes it harder for us to trust ourselves when we are safe or under threat. It impairs our memory. It also makes trusting others difficult too.

Suppression in dogs

While sticking a choke collar and a muzzle on a dog to teach our dogs that the world is an okay place may seem like it works, corrections and punishments have similar fallout for dogs as they do for humans.

There is one core difference: as adults, we are much more in touch with our ability to choose to suppress our responses. It’s our choice.

That’s not true for our dog.

So although I may decide that now really is not the time to get out of the car and tell that other driver exactly what I think of his driving, expecially if it risks getting me into danger, it’s a choice I make.

I mean the healthy thing to do is to stop thinking that their bad driving is related to me at all. In her book Rising Strong, BrenĂ© Brown refers to one of her teacher’s ways of processing conflict. Her mentor Jean Kantambu Latting called this the ‘hypothesis of generosity’.

What is the most generous assumption I can make about this person’s behaviour?

Quite often, when we ask ourselves that, we’re reappraising things and thinking differently.

We have the ability to do that, when we choose to take specific courses of action.

Our dogs do not. The only way their emotions can be suppressed is through coercion. Remember, we’re not talking about meeting their needs so they don’t need to bark and lunge. We’re not teaching them to think differently.

Ultimately, when we try to squash our dog’s behaviour, we’re saying, ‘Your reaction and your emotions are not valid. Don’t behave like this.’

The radish and the chocolate chip cookie

It’s also really hard to suppress your feelings for a long period of time.

In the 1990s, psychologist Roy Baumeister did an experiment with some students. Are you really a psych student if you aren’t participating in studies for credit or cash?!

The experiment involved three groups. The first group were a control group. The second group had the smell of chocolate chip cookies wafted into a room where they were asked to eat radishes. They had to suppress their desire to eat chocolate chip cookies and eat much less desirable radishes. The third group were worse still. They were presented with a plate of cookies, so they could look at the cookies and mourn those cookies as they ate radishes.

That was not where the experiment ended. The groups were then asked to complete a short task. Unbeknown to them, the task was impossible. Baumeister found that the control group persevered a normal amount of time on the task. The two cookie groups, however, gave up really quickly.

Suppressing emotions and behaviour in one circumstance depletes our ability to suppress emotions and behaviour in another. It makes us more prone to frustration too.

But the dogs, Emma…

We’re the humans with the big prefrontal cortex that manages all that suppression and inhibition. We like to crown ourselves the cognitive species, Homo sapiens. The ‘knowing’ humans. If we can’t eat radishes without losing our own ability to rein our emotions back in, why are we expecting our dogs to be able to?

I think that is quite silly.

Suppressing our emotions and our emotionally-driven behaviour is hard. It’s hard when you’ve a giant prefrontal cortex. It’s hard if you’re a fictional species in a sci-fi series.

How much harder is it for animals?!

I think we need to appreciate how hard it is for dogs to rein in their responses to exciting stuff. All that NOT chasing, NOT jumping, NOT leaping out of windows… that’s tough.

But it’s also hard for them to rein in their responses to things that worry them or make them feel afraid. Walking past cars if cars scare you is hard. Normally, our dogs behave in ways that show their behaviour so we can help them learn the skills they need to manage their own emotions and behaviour. We can teach them how to adapt and how to thrive. When we see our dogs struggling, we can take that information to help provide gentle opportunities to learn new skills.

In essence

Ultimately, there are many reasons punishment won’t work. But we don’t always think of the physiological, emotional, cognitive and social side-effects of corrections. We teach our dogs that their emotions are not to be trusted, at best. At worst, we force them through threat and coercion not to show how they feel even though they still feel it.

We can’t possibly expect our dogs to learn the skills they need to manage their own emotions if we use reprimands, physical punishment and coercion to impel ‘correct’ behaviour. All they learn to do is cope with that coercion. Sometimes, it’s understandable we might take that as a simpler option, especially because we’re human. Who cares, right? Especially if the behaviour is dangerous or antisocial, we may write off the potential side-effects even if we know them off by heart.

It is a challenge when we look at an advert that promises a fix in 30 minutes, especially when we can think of times this worked well with other dogs. We don’t focus on the potential side-effects. We simply focus on the rather depressing fact that our dog’s resilience and competency will take time to build. Who has time for that, right?

Ultimately, though, we have ways to build our dog’s competencies and skills to manage. We can teach them cooperative care, how to feel safe in their own skin, how to have absolute trust and faith in us to keep them safe. Hell, we can teach dogs to rappel out of helicopters and detect when our insulin is out of whack. Knowing how much guesswork is involved in punishment in terms of what fallout I’ll see, and knowing the very real side-effects of suppressing emotions and behaviour in the long run, I’ll take all the time required to work without harm.

Want more?

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