Allowing our dogs to communicate appropriately

I was teaching a private lesson the other day and listening to my client talk about her experience with group classes at a very popular ‘positive only’ training facility.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe training our dogs with positive reinforcement and learning what motivates them is the way to go but there are, in my opinion limits on its effectiveness.  I also heard from her that in this training environment, dogs are not allowed to express themselves to communicate their feelings, unless of course they were only positive expressions.  We do not have the ability to explain and reason with our dogs.  Our forms of communication are different.  In the case of my client, it was time for some free play with the other dogs in the class.  My client has a small dog (under 20 lbs) and is a soft dog.  It has no aggression issues at all but it is wary of large dogs.  During play time this small dog was uncomfortable with the way another dog was coming into her space.  She raised a lip and maybe even gave a slight growl.  The owner was then informed her dog wasn’t suitable for off leash play and made to leash her dog.  What???  I totally disagree with this.  We need to allow our dogs to communicate to each other.  Dogs need to learn these signals from each other and we need to help them.  If the other dog did not read this message, the other dog’s owner or the trainer should have helped that dog learn the message.
If we suppress simple growling or lifting of a lip or something we deem inappropriate, what means do dogs have?  I’ll tell you, if we don’t allow our dogs to give warning signs of discomfort what they will resort to is going straight to a bite without the warning.  Not something we want and not something we should encourage.  Not everything in life is positive and we all need to learn to balance the positive with the negative, including dogs.  Let’s not suppress that ability.
The other thing dogs need to learn to deal with is pressure.  The world is full of pressure and we have to remember introducing dogs to appropriate levels of pressure is a good thing.  Avoiding uncomfortable situations is not always possible.  Sometimes we need leash pressure to help dogs.  Sometimes we need to teach spacial pressure to give appropriate boundaries.  We do this so that so dogs are comfortable in different settings.  Dogs learn very well with positive reinforcement.  We want to teach dogs behaviours utilizing positive reinforcement for sure, but what do we do when they don’t do what is asked of them, when they blow us off.  What do we do when the alternate behaviour we taught them, ie. sit instead of jump up to get that reward doesn’t work.  We have to offer a consequence to that behaviour to get that change.  The consequence has to be meaningful because sometimes the reward of blowing off a command is greater than the consequence.  Sometimes we just need to end a behaviour…sometimes it’s for the dogs safety and sometimes it is for our sanity.  Some dogs love to dig.  If they are engaged in a behaviour that they love they likely aren’t going to be very tuned in to you to listen.  If removing them from the situation repeatedly doesn’t work and each time they go back outside they go back to digging up your garden what are you to do?  Being realistic you aren’t going to leash up your dog and go out with them every time you go out into your fenced yard.  Besides, that is not fun for the dog either.  They need a meaningful consequence.   Just like some of us.  We won’t change behaviours even if we know they are wrong unless there is a consequence.  If we are in our cars and we speed, we know it is wrong but it gets us where we want to go faster.  If we are stopped and only ever got warnings we would not have an incentive to change our behaviour because there is no meaningful consequence.  If we got a hefty fine or two we’d likely slow down.
In summary, let’s let our dogs communicate appropriately, both positively and negatively and let’s teach them what we want from them clearly and concisely.  They will appreciate the clarity.
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