Many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we might look immature, or lose control and do something awful. “Good people don’t get angry”, many people think, so they aim to never be angry.
The trouble is: if we feel uncomfortable using an angry voice we can’t discipline our dog properly. We begin to overlook our dog’s unwanted behaviour and end up with a dog that is a nuisance to people. If our dog snaps at a cyclist, “So be it,” we shrug, “that’s what dogs do.”.
We need to express our anger with our voice. Growls and snarls are the language of dogs, so if we can properly discipline our dog with a snarling reprimand, our dog will become relaxed, happy and well-behaved.
Dogs want us to be the leader. They want to know the boundaries.
Let’s look at how a dog learns from a reprimand.
A man on stilts in a white smock whacks your dog with a flaming stick, and your dog is frightened and hurt. Your dog’s brain will not necessarily remember the incident, but if it sees a similar stimulus, such as a tall human in a white suit with a lit match, that stimulus might trigger the fear and hurt, and your dog will react. It’s an evolutionary thing. An animal can’t rely on its memory to tell if something is good or bad because its memory is poor, but its brain is adept at linking a stimulus with an emotion. So, a dog pricked by an echidna will come to forget what an echidna is, and when it sees an echidna it won’t recall having seen one. However, its brain will say ‘watch out!’ even though it won’t remember why it should watch out. With a world full of dangers, animals needed to evolve that response. (We have it too.)
We can use that to our advantage. But let’s first look another example: let’s say a cyclist rides into your dog, hurting it. The next time your dog sees a cyclist its brain may send the message: “Bad thing. Defend yourself, or run”. An unfavourable outcome follows. Your dog’s propensity to link a stimulus to an emotion has worked against it.
Now let’s say your dog chases a cyclist because it’s fun, but you rightly don’t want your dog to chase cyclists. You need the dog to experience an unpleasant emotion to link with the incident. To do that, give your dog a harsh reprimand. That way, the next time your dog sees a cyclist its brain sends a message: “Fun thing! Oh, no, wait . . . . it’s not fun. I don’t want to chase that bike.” (Or dog thoughts to that effect.) By harshly reprimanding your dog you have linked the incident with an unpleasant emotion. That unpleasant emotion will dissuade the dog from chasing a cyclist again.
Or, let’s say your dog attacks another dog. If you immediately harshly reprimand your dog, the next time your dog thinks of savaging another dog its brain will say: ‘Warning. Not a good idea.’ It won’t know why it is not a good idea because it probably won’t remember the previous incident or the reprimand you gave it. Nevertheless, it will lose interest in fighting other dogs because it has learnt that if it attacks a dog, ‘bad things will happen.’
That’s where anger comes in. The dog owner draws upon their anger to let the dog know they mean business. But some people don’t use their anger when they reprimand their dog, so their reprimand sounds insipid. “Oh, you have been a naughty dog,” they say softly, for fear of hurting the dog’s feelings. The dog might realise it has been told off, but it won’t care. And, because it has not been given a sufficiently unpleasant emotion to associate with the incident, the next time it sees a cyclist it will chase.
The “gentle” dog owner eventually gives up trying to stop their dog chasing cyclists. “My dog won’t listen to me. He’s very naughty,” they explain. Then under the threat of a fine they are forced to put their dog on a leash in a leash-free park. Or they take their dog to a different park, where the problem can arise again.
Note: if you have a dog that has been traumatised by a previous owner, the following reprimands may not be suitable. Seek professional advice on how to discipline your dog.
Here are three correct ways to discipline a dog:
(1) The harsh reprimand: an emphatic demand followed by an extended growl lasting up to a minute longer than the brief example given below.
A harsh reprimand is required when your dog has done something so wrong it must not happen again in any circumstance. It’s used to send a permanent, lasting message.
Give your dog a harsh reprimand when it, for example:
– chases a car, cyclist or jogger,
– attacks another dog,
– snaps, bites, or snarls at someone in your family (or at anyone),
– chases a cat,
– barks at someone riding a horse,
– barks simply because it likes barking (and you don’t want it to bark),
– snatches food from the table.
If necessary, give your dog a slap on the rump to get its attention as you begin growling. Continue growling while changing the situation. For example, if you are walking your dog, end the walk immediately and growl at it as you lead it back to the car. Or, if your dog is outside the house, send it inside, or if it’s inside the house send it outside.
By giving your dog an extended harsh growl, while changing the situation, you will give your dog a sufficiently unpleasant emotion. The next time it feels like misbehaving, its brain will send it a warning, “No, a bad thing will happen if I do this.”.
Your growl is a healthy expression of anger. Your dog is getting the strong message that you will not allow that behaviour. Yes, your dog will feel upset, but you want your dog feel upset and link that unpleasant feeling to its behaviour. (Remember the man on stilts, the echidna, the cyclist?) Give your dog the memory that ‘bad things happen when I do this’ so the next time it thinks of behaving in the same way, it quickly loses interest in doing so.
If your dog gives you the ‘Yeah, whatever’ signal, increase the intensity of your growl until it gives you the ‘Oh dear, I’m being told off’ signal.
(2) The firm reprimand is a demand followed by a growl, lasting only until it has done what it has been told to do. There is no need to make it a lasting message.
“Get off the road! + Growl.”
“No! + Growl.”
“Get off the couch! + Growl.”
“Get in the back! + Growl“(If your dog has jumped to the front seat of your car.)
Give your puppy or dog a firm reprimand when it:
– mouths your fingers,
– mounts (humps) people or other dogs,
– plays too rough.
– walks onto the road without permission. (You wouldn’t give your dog a harsh reprimand because there will be times when you want your dog to cross the road. Harsh reprimands are for behaviours that must not occur in any circumstances. You don’t want to give your dog strong but contradictory messages.)
You can also give your dog a gentle prod to get its attention.
If your dog ignores you, increase the intensity of your growl until it gets the message.
(3) The warning (a firm demand OR a growl).
Warn your dog when it is thinking of doing something it shouldn’t do. For example, if it’s thinking of walking on the road without permission, or thinking of chasing a cat.
You will rarely need to harshly reprimand your dog, but you might have to give it plenty of warnings!
Q. Some dog trainers say we should never harshly reprimand our dog.
That advice is for when you are training your dog. When your dog does the right thing you reward it with lots of love and praise so that it has an incentive to keep doing the right thing. To punish or reprimand your dog while it is learning will make it confused and stressed.
A reprimand is not for when your dog neglects to do something right, it’s for when your dog actively does something unacceptable.
Q. For how long should I harshly growl at my dog?
It’s hard to give a specific length of time because it depends on your growl, on your dog’s temperament, and on the situation. If your growl is too brief, your dog might not experience enough unpleasantness to link it with the incident in the longterm. If you growl for too long your dog may lose the link between its behaviour and your reprimand, and become confused and anxious.
It’s important that your dog links its unpleasant feelings from your reprimand to its bad behaviour, and not to anything else.
A very rough guide: growl for thirty seconds? In severe cases, a minute?
Q. How often will I need to harshly reprimand my dog?
It’s hard to say. On average, once a year, perhaps? Twice in its lifetime? It will depend on your ability to train your dog and firmly reprimand it. And, it will depend on your dog’s temperament. Most of the time, a firm reprimand or a warning is enough. A harsh reprimand should be a rare occurrence.
Q. What is the difference between a harsh reprimand and a firm reprimand?
A harsh reprimand is meant to give your dog such a bad feeling that it links that unpleasantness with the behaviour so it never behaves that way again.
A firm reprimand is designed to give your dog a firm message at that moment. There is no need to make it a lasting message.
Q. Why is growling at my dog acceptable?
In the wild, a parent dog needs to discipline its puppies to keep them out of danger. It can’t punish a puppy with a bite because a break in its skin might lead to an infection and death. So, it growls. Puppies respond to growls, as do older dogs. That’s why it’s okay to growl at your dog.
Q. If I harshly reprimand my dog will it begin to fear me?
If you hit your dog, or if you harshly reprimand your dog often, it will become fearful of you. It may even become aggressive. But when you are harshly reprimanding your dog rarely, and not hitting it, and if you are giving your dog plenty of love and attention every day, you will keep your dog’s trust and love, and have a happy, relaxed, well-behaved dog.
Q. I don’t like being harsh with my dog.
You might be one of those people who believes anger is a bad emotion to have. Whatever the case, put up with the short term discomfort. In the long term you will both benefit. You will enjoy the relaxed pleasure of a well-behaved dog which isn’t trying to cross the boundaries you have set, and your dog will get to experience the pleasure of running free off-leash without regularly being reprimanded. And, it will feel relaxed, because it will feel safe knowing that you are the leader.
Q. I tried to take my dog’s dinner away from it and it snarled at me. I harshly reprimanded it and sent it outside for twenty minutes. Is that all I needed to do?
Probably. However, it’s good to follow that up. From now on, regularly take its food from it. If for some reason the harsh reprimand has not worked and your dog still protests, try this: stand tall and slowly move closer to your dog’s bowl, (or toy) until you come between your dog and its bowl. Stay there until your dog gives up and walks away. Let it walk away defeated. Practise this every night until your dog stops objecting. Its body language should be ‘fully accepting’. If it relapses, try both approaches again.
When your dog doesn’t protest when you take away its food, give it a treat and then return the food.
Q. I don’t need to harshly reprimand my dog because I find that the ‘stand over’ technique is effective.
When you use the ‘stand over’ technique you are establishing that you’re the boss, and that is fine. But there is no guarantee that your dog will perceive the rest of your family in the same way. The harsh reprimand not only establishes who is boss, it also makes your dog disinclined to snarl at anyone, because unpleasantness has been linked to its snarling.
Q. My harsh reprimands are not working.
It’s either because your reprimands are not guttural enough (they’re not harsh enough) or your dog is one of the few dogs determined to get its way. Get professional advice.
Q. My voice is too soft to make a harsh guttural sound.
Work on being indignant. Work on allowing yourself to be angry. After all, you have every right to expect good behaviour from your dog. If you succeed in becoming indignant, the sound should come. If it doesn’t, seek further advice.
Q. You say I should harshly reprimand my dog if it snaps at my child. But my child was tormenting it.
Nevertheless, your dog should hide instead of snarling or snapping. It needs a harsh reprimand to instil within it the strong feeling that snarls result in “bad things happen”.
There are exceptions: a mother dog can be forgiven for snapping at a child when the child is approaching its puppies. Or, if the dog is being hurt by the child and can’t escape.
Of course, the child should be taught to treat the dog with gentleness, and be reprimanded when it doesn’t.
Q. Is it important to give the right reprimand in the right circumstances?
This information is a guide only. The intensity of your growl will depend on when your dog gets the message and on how adept you are at reading its body language. Just remember that it’s okay to be angry and growl. You and your dog will benefit.
Q. My dog dug holes in the garden. That must never happen again. Should I give it a harsh reprimand?
You wouldn’t give your dog any form of reprimand because it’s after the event. Don’t point to a hole it has dug in the garden and reprimand it, because your dog won’t know its crime. You need to catch it in the act.
Besides, unless you’re a truffle farmer, holes shouldn’t be such a big deal that ‘they must never happen again’. If you catch your dog in the act give it a warning, and if that doesn’t work give it a firm reprimand. Leave the harsh reprimands for significant crimes.
If your dog is digging holes it’s probably bored or suffering separation anxiety. What can you do to solve that underlying problem?