Are you familiar with serious working dogs? The ones who will play ball until they drop of heat stroke? Hang onto a bite suit in spite of intense and repeated external punishment to make them let go? Complete the retrieve of a shot bird even though they broke their leg on the way back? Chew their tails off and break their teeth on their kennel door when another dog gets a turn before they do?

These are true stories. Some of you know all about these dogs. Dogs like that? I love them the best of all, but if you’re not paying attention you’re going to be in over your head very quickly because “this hurts” doesn’t work very well to change their behavior. If it did then the dog wouldn’t self-mutilate since one presumes that chewing off your own tail off when you got left in the kennel is pretty extreme “this hurts” behavior. And yet, the dog will do it again and again in the same scenario unless something external happens to intervene and prevent it.

High drive dogs are bred to obsessive-compulsive tendencies and as a result, the basic rule of operant learning that dogs will do more of what works for them and will avoid things that are unpleasant runs into a fatal flaw: emotions trump reason. Operant training assumes a rational learner. What is a rational learner?

One who is able to 1) recognize their own behavior 2) make the connection between that behavior and what happens next 3) change their behavior to maximize their self-interest. But what happens if the dog is so emotionally wired up that he is unable to do all of these things? Then learning will not occur at all or will occur extremely slowly.

Here’s a human example. I tend to “rock” when I talk. I am not aware that I do it; it’s an unconscious habit that I only learned about when I saw one of my live presentations on video after the fact. If you didn’t like it and you yelled at me (or worse) each time I did it, then I still wouldn’t have changed my behavior – I cannot choose to change behavior that I am not aware of. If you got me to the point of being so afraid and shut down that I stopped doing anything at all and therefore stopping rocking – you might think I had learned – made a choice. Of course, the opposite result is equally possible – I become so afraid that I move even more hysterically; I stress up. And then you’ll think I did not care enough to change so then what? Increase the aggression towards me?

The same fear and desire to avoid distress but two ways of responding from the learner. Sound like any dogs you know? Could you be the handler, increasing aggression when you don’t get what you want?

Training dogs who are “over threshold” (too excited, angry or worried to recognize their own behavior) is painfully slow because the dog cannot make the necessary connections to learn in a conscious fashion.

But what if the learner is perfectly aware of the relationship between their behavior and the end result, yet still does not change to maximize their apparent interests? What might be the explanation there? Maybe they do not change their behavior because of their brain wiring. A person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who washes their hands 50 times a day knows perfectly well why their hands are bloody and infected. But that’s not the point; they cannot stop. The brain wiring is off. It’s not a lack of understanding of consequence; it’s an inability to apply that knowledge because of other (often unidentified) factors, such as physical or mental pain or disability.

If you don’t think dogs can have obsessive-compulsive behavior then you haven’t watched enough working dogs.

What’s the point?

Dogs have an optimal place where they can learn. Too low in arousal and you’ll get nowhere. Too high and frantic and you’ll get nowhere. You need a learner who is conscious of consequences and with reasonable brain wiring and sound health. This may be hard to understand if you never experienced a dog who will self-mutilate to the point of requiring surgery because it was not his turn to work; apparently, his emotional distress was significantly more powerful than the painful chewing that should have alerted the brain to change direction.

I talk more about emotions in training than anything else. Now you know why. You need an emotionally stable learner who is in a place to learn.

Not progressing in training? Check your dog’s overall arousal. If he can’t stop moving you have a problem. If he’s screaming and whining and cannot relax you have a problem. If he’d rather nap on the couch you have a problem.

What should you do? You can try all sorts of things – from increasing your reinforcement to training calm behavior to adding choice to your training to recognizing signs of mental illness and physical discomfort, but I can tell you what does not work for sure:

More of the same.

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