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Dog Training and Behavior Modification




by Chad Mackin

All movement is induced by pressure. Once we understand the nature of pressure, we will see clearly there is no exception to this law.

Pressure may be internal or external. It may wear the disguise of curiosity or hunger. Pressure may come from the environment or from the prompting of the body. Pressure may be real or imagined, but without some form of pressure, no being moves.

Pressure creates a desire to change one’s circumstance. All desire is then the result of some form of pressure.

This is the fundamental law of behavior that cannot be circumvented or altered. If a being is to move, it will move in response to pressure. For every pressure, there is a perceived relief of pressure.

It is this release that is sought by all actions taken. If I am hungry, eating is the release of that pressure. If I itch, I scratch in an effort to relieve that pressure. If I am bored, I seek mental stimulation to end that pressure.

Every man, dog or snail lives by the code of pressure and release.

Understanding this fundamental fact seems to be the most startling answer to the endless arguments about dog training methods and methodology. There is no such thing as reward-based or compulsion-based training.

Withholding a treat or favorite toy is an application of pressure. The reward is the release of pressure.

So it could be said that every effective training method creates in the dog a desire to change his circumstance, and allows him to find the way to do that. Any method that fails to accomplish both of these goals is a failure as a training methodology, at least in that particular instance.

This principle survives the confines of strict behaviorism and operant conditioning, the theories of ethology, and as the broad vistas of cognitivism. No theory of behavior offers a reason to dispute this simple truth.

I desire change, therefore I seek change. One does not seek change when one does not desire change. When one feels no pressure, one desires no change. An animal at rest is then content. An animal in constant motion is not content. Such an animal seeks to resolve some pressure and is aimlessly seeking that release.

Sometimes, paradoxically, that release comes in the form of increased pressure. The key to understanding
this phenomenon lies in understanding adrenaline addiction.

Dogs who lack appropriate mental stimulation or clarity in their role in their society often learn that
when they reach a certain level of anxiety they start to feel less stressed by their circumstance. This is because when their adrenaline reaches a certain level, the cognitive portions of their brain (the parts needing mental stimulation) shut down. Moreover, the adrenaline converts in the system to dopamine which creates a euphoric effect in the dog. The result of this is that many dogs create within themselves a highly developed adrenaline loading routine. They take minor stressors and focus on them, usually performing repetitive behaviors, such as rhythmic barking or whining, pacing, chewing or any of a number of other patterns. They will often stare at an object or place that represents the source of their stress. For a case of separation anxiety, this may mean fixating on the door through which their owner just left. For a “dog aggressive” dog, this may mean staring at the strange dog who is walking by on the sidewalk across the street. In both of these cases, it is likely that this fixation will be accompanied by a rhythmic “loading” behavior as well, but not always.

Once the dog’s adrenaline levels reach the critical point, the dog feels less pressure, but his body is under incredible pressure nonetheless. No doubt he is happier than before he anesthetized himself, but “happier” does not mean “happy.” It means he has found the best compromise he can to make his life bearable. I believe we owe our dogs more than this. I also believe that we can readily help the dog out of these situations if we choose to do so. It’s not even particularly difficult once we make up our mind to help him out.

There is another reason to help the dog out of adrenaline. Aside from house training and medical related issues, I’m hard pressed to come up with any common behavior problems that occur outside of that highly adrenalized state. Excessive barking, whining, leash pulling, jumping up, destruction, charging through doors, charging up or down stairs and nearly every form of aggressive behavior, to name a few, can be linked to, and in many cases are dependent upon, heightened adrenaline states.

The causes of these heightened states are typically fear, anxiety, excitement, frustration, boredom, confusion, and habit. Of these causes, habit is the most difficult to deal with. It is also the most prevalent. In this state, the dog is running in a severely diminished capacity. He is incapable of making good choices, because he is incapable of making choices in the first place. In this state, the dog is merely responding to stimuli, absent any deliberation. He is not reflective, but purely reactive.

For some training applications, this state of mind is highly desirable (largely in competitive and working applications), but I see little value for the average dog owner.

If we take as our primary objective a dog who is happy, well-mannered, emotionally and psychologically healthy, and reliable at liberty, it should be easy to see that this type of adrenalized lifestyle presents a clear obstacle to that end.

For me, any training technique or exercise that increases the dog’s adrenaline response is contrary to my goals. An exception might be made in the case of an exercise that increases adrenaline but also teaches the dog how to shut that adrenaline off. Even so, I am slow to recommend any such exercises to the average dog owner.

The further into adrenaline the dog gets, the more pressure will need to be applied to get him out. A “red zone” dog is nothing more than a dog who has been allowed to get so far into adrenaline that his cognitive and impulse control functions have been completely shut down. Being able to see the signs of increased adrenaline and acting to interrupt the adrenaline loading process should be in the primary skill set of any trainer.

They key to solving the adrenaline issue is also pressure/release. I have a video I show in my workshops of a boxer using spatial pressure and release to bring a golden retriever out of adrenaline. When the dog gets too amped up, he moves into the dog, and when he starts to relax, he backs off. It takes about 12 minutes to complete the process. Timing is important here.

It bears repeating: the common thread running through all training methodologies is pressure and release. Mastering the pressure/release paradigm and learning to interrupt the adrenaline cycle effectively and early will allow you to quickly solve many training puzzles that leave many other trainers uncertain and confused.

If you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere. Happy training!

Chad Mackin has been training professionally since 1993. He created the Pack to Basics system of socializing difficult dogs and teaches workshops around the country. Chad is a past President of IACP.