Why Good Dogs Go Bad

'Confrontational' training only makes your pooch more aggressive, study shows.

February 24, 2009, 6:37 PM

Feb. 25, 2009 — -- People who are overly zealous in disciplining their dogs will probably make the animals even more aggressive, not less, according to a new study by veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania.

The study involved 140 persons who turned to the animal behavior experts at Penn because their dogs needed help. The findings are consistent with other studies showing that discipline may not be the best way to correct an errant pet's attitude, but some of the statistics are a little surprising.

It's not startling to learn that kicking a bad dog will probably make him or her angry and likely to bite, but it turns out that even yelling "no" can have the opposite of the desired effect.

"This study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates," said Meghan Herron, lead author of the study, published in the current issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science. "These techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression."

In other words, if you kick your dog because he tried to bite you, he might end up owning your foot.

The study involved dogs that were so problematical that their owners were willing to seek professional help. A high percentage of the dogs became even more aggressive when they were kicked (43 percent), or the owner growled at the dog (41 percent), or something was physically removed from the dog's mouth (39 percent), or the dog was rolled onto its back and held down (31 percent.)

In many cases it didn't take much to make the pooch more agitated.

The researchers found that 30 percent of the dogs became more aggressive when they were "stared down" by the owner. That's defined in the study as "stare at dog until he/she looks away." Only 13 of the owners admitted they actually "growled" at their dog, and nine of those dogs (41 percent) "responded aggressively."

Pitfalls of 'Confrontational' Training

The vets describe that type of treatment by the owner as "confrontational," and in all too many cases, it backfires.

An aggressive response by the dogs ranged from zero percent for pooches who had their noses rubbed "in house-soiled area" to 43 percent of the dogs who were hit or kicked.

Apparently, what it all comes down to is dogs, like children, are more easily trained when rewarded than when disciplined. The researchers point out that too much discipline leaves the dog frightened and riddled with anxiety.

"Frightened animals are often self-defensively aggressive," the study notes, so "it would not be unexpected, then, that dogs respond aggressively to such provocative handling."

Of course, an owner may not be able to talk a dog out of biting the hand that feeds it, and when all else fails, the vets concede, a muzzle might be necessary.

The study is the latest in a growing library of research into human interaction with canines, which began around 15,000 years ago, according to studies published a few years ago in the journal Science.

That's when man first domesticated the wolf, or as some researchers believe, wolf first domesticated man, who had a tendency to leave tasty scraps around the campfire.

Eurasian wolves, according to those studies, accompanied humans into the new world around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, and became partners in the hunter-gatherer social order.

The animals probably didn't change all that much until about 500 years ago, when selective breeding started an avalanche of changes in the canine world, leading to everything from powder puff pooches to Doberman pinschers.

They have found their niche in everything from cheering the elderly to making their owners get out and walk, which by the way, is as good for the owner as it is for the dog, which is likely to be less aggressive if it gets more exercise, according to the Penn study.

Somewhere along the way, of course, the human-canine love fest got a little out of hand. Seriously, folks, one study out of the University of California, San Diego, confirmed a widely held belief that dogs and their owners do tend to look alike. Especially if the dog is a purebred.

But unfortunately, as the Penn study shows, the relationship is not always that harmonious.

A bad dog can be a serious threat to humans, especially children, and the vets caution that when a dog goes bad, professional help is essential. Kicking the animal won't help, and could make things worse.

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