Emotions are a hugely tricky subject when it comes to dog training. There are various camps with strong opinions across a spectrum of ‘we should take emotions into consideration at every single step’ to ‘we cannot necessarily accurately identify emotions with other people so how can we identify them in a different species?’ I personally see all sides of the equation and tend to consider emotion with everything I train, but I am careful as to what I claim to believe I know is going on inside the head of another being, dog or human. But why should we care about emotion in the first place?
On an obvious level to some, training should be fun for all involved. If a dog is experiencing a negative emotion during training sessions, there’s an issue with how we’re training!
What if you’re dealing with something really serious though? Something that’s making you consider things like rehoming your dog or things that are really ruining your day-to-day life and impacting your stress levels and therefore mental health. Obviously, in that scenario you’re not having fun and the issue needs to be resolved quickly. Some consider the human need to outweigh the dog’s need and use that to justify training methods that are less than fun for the dog. When it comes to these contexts, I see their point. I’m not saying I do the same, but I understand where these people are at and how they’ve come to the conclusion they have. At the end of the day, the human end of the lead is the one making all of the decisions and if they’re not finding the relationship fun, their needs must be met before we can start worrying about the dog having fun.
Consider this though, when animals are in certain emotional states such as relaxed, happy or intrigued (I’m staying away from the scientific terminology for individual emotions here as that’s a whole can of worms!) they will learn more effectively. By this, I mean more of what the dog is learning in the session will be committed to long-term memory. That means that if your dog is in a positive emotional state (again, staying away from the scientific terminology here), they’re going to learn what you want them to learn faster and your problem is going to be resolved sooner. Yes, you may have a pressing urge to address your dog’s behaviour that is so strong it may outweigh the need to care for the dog’s emotional wellbeing but fostering your dog’s emotional wellbeing will benefit you in the short- and long-term.
On a more extensive level, understanding the likely emotional cause for a dog’s behaviour can change how you will treat the behaviour. Take Pumba for example, if he’s in a class setting, he can occasionally react to other dogs and look really aggressive. Now, if you didn’t know him, you’d rightly assume he were reactive to other dogs. But! If you watch closely, you’ll see that he only reacts when I’ve disengaged from him, especially if I’ve taken my phone out. You may have noticed that I said this only occurs in class environments. It doesn’t occur anywhere else, in fact out and about on walks Pumba communicates beautifully with other dogs and is fairly content to ignore them for the most part. So, he’s not aggressive to other dogs in general. His emotional state in training contexts when other dogs are present isn’t one of fear or aggression. It’s frustration! He wants to be training with me, not chilling out whilst I have a chit chat or check my messages. That means I can treat his behaviour differently than if he were reacting out of fear or genuine aggression. Understanding Pumba’s emotional context here allows me to treat his behaviour effectively and get to the root cause of the issue rather than applying a general training plan for ‘dogs that react at other dogs’ which doesn’t take the emotional context into consideration and may not be the most effective method to fix the issue with a dog who is reacting out of frustration rather than something else.
What can you do to learn more about your dog’s emotional life in order to improve your training? Learn canine body language! I recommend watching a few videos of body language on YouTube and then just observing dogs and trying to guess how they feel. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.