The Pursuit of Happiness – Is There Room For Emotion In Dog Training?

Jane and Zulu

Changing Values

We live in a golden age of dog training, and this is an exciting time to be a dog trainer.   Just a few decades ago, Karen Pryor and the Baileys launched training technology which ignited a huge paradigm shift from “dog-breaking” to “relationship-making,” and there’s been no turning back since.

In just the last decade or so this paradigm shift has taken off like a rocket.  Only a few years ago, I could expect to be challenged at seminars by people who did not believe a dog could be trained without force.  Their entire belief structure about dogs, themselves, and the world, was based on assumptions of dominance, obedience, and “because I say so.”   Fast forward a few years and we see a completely different picture at seminars.  Sure, the old values are still there, but increasingly we see students rolling in with a stated goal of making their dog “happy” or “making it fun” for their dog.   This is a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to see.  But, I have to ask, is there room for emotion in dog training?


I’m OK, You’re OK, But Are We Getting Anywhere?

I am a tireless advocate of measuring behavior rather than guessing at a dog’s motivation and emotion.  I persistently work to re-direct students who diagnose their dogs in emotive or moral terms, such as, “He’s blowing me off”,  “I want this to be fun for him”, “I want him to be happy, “ “he needs to be close to me to feel safe.”   I try hard to get those students to let go of their emotional presumptions about their dog,  see their dog’s behavior for what it presently is, and get down to shaping the behavior they want.

Why am I so dismissive of  ascribing general emotional content to behavior and training goals?  Because it’s just not useful information.  It’s stuff that interferes with seeing what’s in front of you, and changing it to what you’d like it to be.  It’s stuff that keeps you from sitting down and learning the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and mastering how to use the universal laws of learning to shape the behavior you want.

Wow, that sounds so cold.   Does that mean I don’t care about emotion in my dogs?  Well, here’s a quote from one of my Clean Run articles:

While we certainly care about outward indications of a happy, relaxed, emotional state, those are criteria we shape for, not a definition of whether something is reinforcing or punishing. 

Truly, we do not know what our dogs are thinking, but there are some relatively objective criteria that we can articulate and measure that will honestly tell us what our dog’s inner feelings are.  Saying “I want this to be fun for my dog” is a nice sentiment, but it does not move the training story forward. So often, people who say this engage in “play” or “encouragement” that actually backs the dog off or arouses them in uncomfortable ways.  If they stopped for a moment and actually looked at their dog, his body language, and whether the target behavior was increasing or decreasing, they often would find that their idea of “fun” was in fact “punishing” to the dog.

Think about this quote from that same Clean Run Article:

Your dog can be wagging his tail with a soft, open countenance as he takes the treat from your hand and runs away, but that does not make that treat a reinforcer for anything related to agility!

And therein lies the rub with focusing on general emotional states or attitudes. If you just want your dog to be “happy,” I’d say doing whatever he wants and getting fed for nothing will please him greatly.  If you want to train your dog, you need to shape him to be happy doing the things you would like him to do, which is a scientifically much more complicated proposition.


Shaping What Can’t be Held

Now, here’s the dirty secret. My entire training program is fueled by pure emotion.  Every training choice I make is governed by my love for dogs and my wish that they enjoy whatever we are doing. In all my seminars and writings, I have been consistent in believing that emotion not only counts, it’s the first and most important thing I shape for.  But I’m not talking about me having a smile and a sunny disposition, I’m talking about metrics that I can touch and see.  If  I can get my dog to heel for a half an hour in technically perfect heel position, but his ears are flat and his head is down, in my opinion I have not trained heel position.  I’m not enjoying it, and my dog arguably is not, either.  My criteria requires that my dog heel with his head up and tail wagging,  with his pupils not dilated, mouth relaxed and his breathing elevated, but not manic.  If I can get my dog to do one step that meets my criteria, I have at least shaped one step of heeling, and I’m way ahead of where I would be if my dog heeled for a half hour with his head down and his ears back.

I start from the premise that I love dogs and I have dogs because I want to make meaningful connections with other living beings.  I want to enjoy my dogs, and have them enjoy me, too. But I have found over the years that just generally saying or wishing for those things does not make them come true.  In my observation, unless you selectively look for and shape relatively objective indication of those desirable emotional states,  such as “enjoyment,” and “happiness,” they will slip through your fingers like so many grains of sand.

Most of my students have the will to bring happiness to their dog, but they lack the training chops to find the way to do so.  That’s where I come in.  I support their will, and I want to give them the way.  My mission is to give students the mechanical skills to shape whatever behavior they want, including and especially emotional states in their dogs.

In sum, I’m suggesting that not only is there room for emotion in dog training, but that joy and happiness are the most important criteria of all.  But they’re criteria not constructs. They’re things that have to be pursued and maintained with excellent training skills.  It appears to me that happiness, for dogs as for people, is not a wish that is granted, but a goal that is shaped.


***The article quoted in this blog, Consequences, Schmonsequences: Understanding Reinforcers and Punishers originally appeared in Clean Run in January 2010.  You can read the entire article, HERE

Facebook Twitter Email
This entry was posted in WPF. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Pursuit of Happiness – Is There Room For Emotion In Dog Training?

  1. When Pigs Fly is my favorite training book bar none, not only because I have a weakness for headstrong, whipsmart, impossible dogs (and three of them contending for my attention) but because I think it gives the most beautifully lucid account out there of the benefits and techniques of free-shaping. As someone commented on an earlier post, the strong engagement that it promotes is a boon to every dog and his/her human, but it’s indispensable for self-directed types at both ends of the leash. Your Consequences, Schmonsequences article is similarly excellent in its clarity and independence of perspective. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the prevalence of negative punishment (esp. the absence of expected reinforcement) in colloquially “positive” training, and about the bad ethical rap (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) on negative reinforcement – your thoughts are helping me to clarify my own. Thank you! I’m so glad to find that you’re blogging now.

  2. Denise Fenzi says:

    Wow; this must be the season; I also wrote a blog post several weeks ago about Emotions in Training at:
    I agree with quite a lot of what you have said above. My strong difference of opinion comes with the idea of “shaping” a happy demeanor. I train a lot of dog breeds, and some are more naturally interactive and easy to play with. But I have never met a dog that did not show an increase in enthusiasm for their work (as defined by wagging tail, increased respiration, forward ears, etc.) when the handler expressed their pleasure in their dog’s behavior along with a classic reward (cookie/toy). I HAVE seen dogs that have learned that praise and play only happen when there will be no treat – and those dogs actively avoid their handler’s alternative efforts. That wrecks havoc when you compete and classic rewards aren’t an option.

  3. Sara Reusche says:

    Lovely piece on the behaviorist’s view! This was very interesting timing, as I just posted a blog post on the same topic this morning.

    I think we both have the same goal, but approach it in slightly different ways. As someone who uses a wide variety of secondary and tertiary reinforcers, it’s important to my individual training program that I “[have] a smile and a sunny disposition” when training, as those things become secondary reinforcers due to my careful insertion of them in the reward sequence. Understand here that I’m not saying that I’m cheerful across the board. Instead, I use the Premack Principle to make my smile, praise, or touch predictive of a primary or other strongly-conditioned secondary reinforcer.

    I absolutely agree with you that shaping towards the outward manifestation of a “happy” dog is crucial. If my dog is not giving me a sparkly, joyful performance (ears, tail, and head up, animated without being frantic), I’m going to lower or adjust criteria. In what ways do you adjust criteria if your dog is showing you by his body language that he’s uncomfortable or uncertain Jane, or do you?

    I agree with you that I want a dog who’s an active partner in our performance. I want that one step of “happy” heeling, not 50 steps of drudgery. My current dog can be worried by social situations, so I want him to feel safe in heel position (as shown by his ability to maintain focus on me rather than feeling the need to scan). My simple goal in many situations with him at this point is indeed “to find joy in working,” however, I have very specific criteria that mean “joy” to me. “Joy” is simply an easy shorthand definition of my criteria, but I’m specifically training towards a very concrete picture (as I described above). I believe that in some situations, there’s nothing wrong with a little anthropomorphism. We know that dogs have nearly identical brain structures to our own in the center responsible for emotions, and the outward manifestation of these emotions is again very similar to our own (as Patricia McConnell so wonderfully spells out in “For the Love of a Dog”). Allowing one’s perception to become clouded by a preconceived notion of the dog’s internal state (“stubborn,” “dominant,” “pushy,” etc) does no one any good (least of all the dog!), but describing a dog whose pupils are dilated, commisure and ears are pulled back, body is crouched, fur is piloerected, and tail is tucked as “fearful” simply saves time and allows us to get to the oh-so-important task of adjusting criteria so that the dog’s posture (and thus, emotions) can change for the better.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  4. Leslie Perry says:

    I read both your blog and the clean run articles and enjoyed them so much. There is just so much information available from so many sources, but having a WPF dog myself, I find your insight and expertise in dog training so very beneficial. Thanks so much for helping us be the best team that we can be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *