“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”
– A helpful suggestion?
I was reminded of this phrase recently when it was used during a heated debate on an online forum. From what I could tell, it was used in a situation which was at risk of becoming a virtual group attack on a single individual with opposing views. A sort of “look if they are not happy with this discussion, they could always walk away.” But could they? Is it really that easy? There are a lot of reasons why humans and animals put themselves into, or remain within, unpleasant situations and walking away can be the hardest choice.
What we are often dealing with is conflicting motivations. I see a lot of cases in the clinic where a nervous dog rushes over to greet another dog. “But surely this shows he is friendly?” explains the owner. Or a dog, with stooped tense body language, rushes into their crate when the owners leave. “She loves her crate” is the obvious assumption. Or maybe it’s the noise sensitive dog that hangs out in the kitchen even though every little bang and clatter makes them shy and flinch. Why stay in the kitchen when it makes you so unhappy? These motivations don’t always make sense to us but when we start to understand what’s going on better, then we can start to help the animal make better choices.
So why does a nervous dog choose to approach another dog, and not just avoid the interaction altogether? There are a several reasons this could happen, for example: they need to understand the threat better; they want to show the threat that they are not a threat themselves; they want to proactively tell the threat to keep away from them, or a mix of these. What about the dog that chooses to go into the crate but all the body language says they are unhappy? Maybe they are keen to avoid the nagging to go into the crate or maybe they are predicting that the owners are about to leave and just see it is a safe haven for when the humans are out – a sort of better of two evils. Remember liking and tolerating are two very different things. And the noise sensitive dog that hangs out somewhere that clearly makes them jumpy? Most likely there is a history of getting food in the kitchen and / or a desire to be close to the family members.
We can also ensure we don’t contribute to the wrong choices by creating opposing motivations. For example, it is not uncommon for people to try and want to help their stranger-nervous dog by asking a stranger to feed the dog treats. This is a nice attempt at counter conditioning but with a small mistake on the delivery that could lead to big consequences. By asking the stranger to give treats, we are motivating the dog to go very close to something they fear. The motivation of yummy treats will over-ride their healthy desire to maintain distance and the risk is that they are suddenly in a place where they may have to escalate threat avoidance behaviours – particularly when the treats stop. In addition, it is dangerous for dogs to turn their back on something scary, and we are now expecting them to do this at much closer proximity than if we were working them at an appropriate distance. Much more effective, and safer, is to allow the dog to remain at a distance that is comfortable for them and where they can learn about the threat at their own pace. This is how long term changes in perception are made.
With all these examples, by understanding the motivations involved we can improve our management and training approach. With the nervous dog greeter we want to both change their perception of other dogs and remove their need to approach. With the crate nervous dog we might want to understand better what is making their nervous – is it the crate, being left or a combination of both. When we understand, we can treat. And with the flinchy kitchen dwelling dog, we can start by both motivating the dog to hang out somewhere else and treat the noise sensitivities too.
So when something doesn't make sense, don’t just expect them to “get out of the kitchen”, think about the different likely motivations and how we can help our pets make better choices.