An article by Grant ‘The Paw Man’ Teeboon

Force is one of the most misunderstood aspects of canine communication. Many a time I have had quite heated exchanges with people who are positive-only trainers who are vehemently against the application of force to a dog…well they ‘think’ they are against the application of force to a dog but actually they do it all the time without even realising it. They did not actually understand the principles of force in canine communication.

What is your dog’s primary means of communicating with other dogs?

If your answer was anything other than Body Language then you may have a bit more learning to do before this article will make sense to you.

Whilst dogs do have a verbal language it is their secondary means of communication. Humans of course are the reverse of this, our primary means of communication is verbalisation and our secondary means of communication is body language.

Let’s look at human verbal communication first and then draw parallels to the dog a little later.  In a typical situation where a parent wants to make a child clean up their room the parent may be walking past the child’s room, look in and see the messy room and the child sitting on the end of the bed and say to the child “Clean up your room.”

Ten minutes later the parent may walk back past that child’s room again and see that the room is still messy and that the child has not even moved off the bed, so the exasperated parent will repeat that exact phrase to the child again but the second time the parent says those exact same words to the child, the words will sound ‘very’ different to how they were said the first time.

How has the parent changed the delivery of those words? They have added ‘emphasis’ which is typically done by raising the volume and lowering the tone of the words…. So the first time it was just “Clean your room” but the second time is was delivered to the child with added emphasis it sounded more like “CLEAN YOUR ROOM!!!”.

An interesting way to look at this is to say that more verbal ‘force’ was added the second time to create emphasis.

Now whilst it may be true that the human’s body language would also have been more emphatic the second time round.The primary communication emphasis was delivered verbally.

Because dogs are primarily body language communicators they add emphasis to their primary means of communicating in a similar way to us but it is not by raising volume and lowering tone. No prize for guessing how dogs alter their body language to add emphasis to a message they are sending…I’ll give you a clue, it starts with ‘F’ (and no it’s not THAT F word) and it is the title of this article.

Force is how dogs add emphasis to their communication. Now the moment people are told this they automatically think about one particular end of the canine communication spectrum; the discipline end, because that is where we assume that all the force is needed… But let me take you on a journey to the other end of the spectrum.

Imagine your dog sitting in front of you, looking up into your eyes with its tail wagging gently back and forth. My question to you at this point is; What state of mind is your dog currently in?

Your answer would most likely be ‘Happy.’ So what happens to the answer to that question if we double the force with which the dog is wagging its tail so that it is now wagging back and forth quite briskly? Your answer would most likely be ‘Very happy’.

And if the dog now adds so much force to the wag of its tail that its entire back end is also swaying from side to side then now what state of mind is the dog now in? Answer: extremely happy!! Essentially the dog just wagged its tail at you…

But it was the amount of force that the dog applied to that body language gesture that added the emphasis that went from Happy to Very Happy to Extremely Happy. The only difference in the message from the dog was the amount of force applied to it.

OK, so let’s now look at the other end of the canine communication spectrum, the negative end. A bitch has just given birth to a litter of pups and like all pups the moment they are born they seek nourishment… so all of the pups are happily feeding off the bitch. But one of the pups is biting the teat too hard causing the bitch great discomfort so she moves to extinguish the discomfort by applying an aversive to the pup in question. At this point in time it is worth pointing out that the newborn pup is completely defenceless and the bitch is a fully mature adult canine… physically capable of killing a pup with a single bite if that was her intention.

So how does she deliver her body language message to the pup to extinguish the unwanted behavior? She applies carefully measured, non-injurious force to the pup. But how does she know when she has delivered the correct amount of force to the pup to extinguish the unwanted behavior and not just interrupted it? The answer to that question is very interesting because both dogs and humans have what is known as a Threshold Of Discomfort or ‘TOD’ and that is the level of tolerance of physical force before the recipient perceives that force as a negative.

Both dogs and humans have a behavioral indicator that is usually present when our Threshold Of Discomfort TOD is reached…… we verbalise, we say Ouch or we cry, and dogs give a little yip or yelp.

When you watch a bitch discipline a pup you can see that the bitch releases her disciplinary nip of the pup the moment the pup vocahalises. When you see two young dogs playing energetically with each other, play fighting if you will, and one of the dogs applies just a little too much force to the other dog, that dog will give a yip or yelp and the play will immediately cease.

Parallel that with two young boys play fighting in the back yard exuberantly, until one boy applies force above the other boys TOD and all of a sudden we hear a cry, the play fight immediately ceases.

When we physically discipline a child, what is the behavioral response that we get from the child the moment the child recognises that the applied non-injurious force is a negative? They cry.

Now at this point I would ask anyone reading this that is of the Politically Correct ideology and thinks that smacking a child is not necessary….. please don’t bother contacting me, your argument will fall upon deaf ears. I am not Politically Correct (PC).

I do not believe that PC has any place within dog training and I also believe that children should be smacked when they are disciplined and I don’t care to hear your argument to the contrary. I have already raised my children and whilst I am far from the perfect parent and whilst I did make mistakes in raising my children, they turned out OK and I am proud of them and I know that if I was not allowed to smack then to discipline them then I would have done a far worse job of raising them.

I remember the first time I ever smacked my son, the first time I smacked his bum his reaction was to smile at me and giggle….. so in attempting to deliver an aversive, that was a ‘fail’. But one second after that, I succeeded with my second smack….. how did I know I succeeded? Because he immediately cried….. message received and understood.

OK, let’s get back to dogs….. Let’s say that a dog handler is very clumsy with his feet and stands on the dog’s paw three times. The first time he does it the dog will most likely yelp and show a degree of avoidance, which is a very low force response.

The second time he does it the dog will yelp and possibly growl at the handler (a little more force directed toward the handler), and the third time he does it the dog will escalate the force significantly and maybe deliver a protest nip to the handler.

Now that protest nip is not designed to injure the handler. It is not done with the intention of tearing flesh from bone….. it is just a front mouth bite with the canines…. a disciplinary nip. Designed to send a message with non-injurious force…. However if that message is not heeded in the dog world, the next time that same message is sent it will be sent with more force.

Another example of force in canine communication; You are sitting in your lounge in your favourite chair with your arms resting upon the chair’s armrests. Your dog approaches you, sits to the side of you and looks at you….. but you are so engrossed in watching the TV that you don’t notice the dog.

After waiting patiently for a response from you the dog gets frustrated and gently nudges your arm with its nose. You briefly look at the dog and then return your gaze to the TV….. the dog’s frustration grows so now it nudges your arm twice and a lot harder. You can clearly see by these examples that force is part of all canine communication to each other and also to us.

Likewise our communication with the dog also involves the use and application of force to the dog. Here are a few parallel examples; You are teaching your dog to sit and you say the word Sit, guide the dog into position (using force) and then when the dog is in position you praise the dog verbally and apply more physical force to the dog in the form of patting. You continue teaching the dog to sit, following the above methodology and then the dog sits on the verbal command alone without you having to guide him into position, so now the amount of physical force you apply to the dog is a lot greater, showing the dog you are a lot happier.

So the teaching point here is that in all canine communication increased force equals increased or greater emphasis.

By far the most contentious area of dispute amongst trainers is the use of force for the purpose of extinguishing unwanted behaviors. Force applied to the dog for this purpose is referred to as an ‘aversive’.

Words like ‘punishments’ and ‘corrections’ and ‘hitting’ are not technically correct and are overly emotive. I should again point out here that ALL force that we apply to a dog as an aversive is non-injurious force; we do not want to physically harm the dog.

Every time I do a consult with a new client I ask them some standard questions, one of which is; “When your dog does something very wrong, what is your normal means of disciplining it?” Or alternately “What is the harshest discipline this dog ever gets?” The answers I get to this question are often amazing and leave me open mouthed in disbelief. Here’s a couple of them;

‘Oh, I’ll do better than tell you what I do, I’ll show you what I do.’ At which point the client walked over to their refrigerator, opened the door, reached in and pulled out a cooked lamb chop. She then walked over to the dog, leaned forward and held the lamb chop directly in front of the dogs nose and said “See this? Well you’re NOT getting it!!” and then she withdrew the lamb chop and returned it to the refrigerator.

Another client’s answer was to point to a doorway off the kitchen and say “Oh he goes straight to the time-out room!” The amazing thing about this answer was not so much what the client said but what her dog did the moment she answered…… as soon as she pointed to the door the dog leapt to its feet and happily trotted over to the door and waited to be let in to the ‘time-out’ room.

The error in both of these client’s answers was that the dog’s owners were disciplining their dog from a human perspective and not from the dog’s perspective.

The correct way to extinguish an unwanted behavior is to pair it with what the dog perceives as an aversive. If done correctly you will only have to repeat that aversive three times and the dog will understand the message and choose not to repeat that behavior.

The application of non-injurious force to a dog for the purpose of extinguishing undesired behaviors is not something that we have just thought up, but rather it is how dogs control unwanted behaviors within their own social groups and when we include ourselves within the dogs social group then communicating with the dog using force as a normal part of that communication is actually speaking to the dog in its own language.

Post Script: I recently had a discussion with someone on my Facebook page and they were very much anti-force but I said to them ‘But you do use force on your dogs, yes? To which she replied ‘No I don’t use force on them. I never use my hands in a harmful way.’ Her incorrect assumption here was that all force must be negative and it must also be harmful. I replied back to her ‘So you have never patted or stroked your dog?….because that is force, so you have never put any of your dogs on leash?…. because that is force.

I think you do not understand what force actually is and you are incorrectly assuming that all force is violent in nature.’

This person is yet to get back to me to continue the discussion but hopefully this article will answer a few of their questions about Force.