Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dogs Under Stress

Today we had a situation in which one of our dogs was ready to attack another. The dog that was doing the attacking is usually a very happy, stable dog. The one being attacked always seems to be stressed out and nervous.

It started off very well. I walked these two dogs together this morning. Both dogs assumed a calm-submissive state of mind right away so I rewarded them by giving them the full length of the leashes. Both dogs went out in front of me. Both dogs remained calm-submissive for the rest of the walk and their bodies reflected calm-submissive minds. Both dogs were loose and allowed their bodies to sway as the walked. Neither one was ridged. The sniffed each other and investigated the same smells and the same holes. They looked like the best of friends.

When we got back inside the building and to the large back room where we keep the dogs I handed the leash of the more nervous dogs to another volunteer. At that moment both dogs became stiff as they sniffed each other for maybe five seconds then the more stable dog growled and lunged at the other.

Why did two dogs that were the best of friends turn on each other?

Having had time to reflect on everything that happened this morning and also what I know about both of these dogs from other experiences with them, as well as other dogs I have worked with, it is quite clear why these two dogs 'turned' on each other. It goes back to a long debated question, how much is nature and how much is nurture.

Both nature and nurture have their places in this confrontation. The stable dog attacked the unstable dog: nature. This is what must happen in a pack of dogs to ensure that the pack survives. Cesar Millan often explains how stable dogs will attack instability because it is weak. Instability hurts the pack so it must either be altered or eliminated. The first message the attacking dog wanted to send was, "you are unstable but I am stable. You need to become stable like me." If the unstable dog does not respond by becoming sable then the message becomes, "you are weak and need to be eliminated."

I also said that nurture played a role in this incident. The unstable dog had been nurtured in his nervousness and in his stressfulness. If his nervousness and stressfulness had been corrected the first time he exhibited these mindsets and behaviors he would not continue to go back to those states of mind. The fact is that these states of mind have been reinforced by how people have tried to deal with them. Pampering reinforces the state of mind that the dog is in while being pampered, it does not change the state of mind from nervous-excited to calm-submissive. The unstable dog had learned that when it was inside the building that was a place where he was supposed to be nervous and stressful.

The unstable dog made himself weak because that is what had been reinforced in him by the way that people dealt with his weaknesses in the past. The stable dog reacted in the way that its nature had determined was the best way to make the pack survive: get rid of the weak behavior by either changing it to strong behavior or eliminate the one projecting it.

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