Dogtor Steve Early development: Part 4

WHILE observing the care-giving techniques of 17 different mothers with their offspring, Erik Wilsson, a Swedish researcher, noted that the severity used in altering the care- dependency relationship, had a direct bearing on the pup’s future relationships towards people.

Some mothers were less aggressive and groomed more, thereby resulting in stronger social bonds and being more accepting of humans. The pups with excessively aggressive mothers proved to be more resistant to the presence of people later on.

In the first case, the pups had a better adaptive intelligence, but in the latter they were controlled to a larger degree by instinct or `flight’. Wilsson also observed that the less gregarious pups were more reserved in tests such as fetching a ball. However, in both cases, inhibited bites or ‘mouth threats’ reached a maximum at seven weeks of age.

Learning about pack dynamics through maternal correction is critical for puppies. In experiments where puppies were raised under non-corrective conditions, they were extremely resistant to any later behaviour modification. Wilsson concluded that too little correction created a lack of responsivity while an emphasis on force created inhibitions. There has to be a balance.

Let’s take a closer look at the post litter departure phase. In my early days of dog training I was taught to use ‘flood and punishment’ methods, an approach which is still widely used today.

My dogs would respond because they were scared not to. If they obeyed, everything was fine and if not, they would be leash-jerked or forced to submit. In retrospect I have come to realise this caused stress and produced a survival state of mind. Even though a canine mother may use excessive `mouth threats’, she is not harsh and the corrections stop at seven weeks.

Now I come along using antiquated coercive methods, not only during the puppy phase, but also into adulthood. How ridiculous. When using force, most dogs will obey, but not only will it be temporary and selective, more problematic behaviours will surface as a result. Force can also bring about aggression which may be directed at another dog, or worse, people.

Sadly, the number one cause today of dog deaths, is euthanasia. When behaviour becomes too problematic, attempts are made to `train the problem away’ and when unsuccessful, the concerns are deemed to be unchangeable, resulting in rehoming or the pet’s demise.

Since the canine mind does not have the ability to understand inappropriate behaviour in the context of right and wrong, it is grossly unfair to use punitive techniques. Becoming impatient, or angry, only exacerbates the situation. Also, how for example, does coercion resolve astraphobia (fear-of-thunder) or fighting? Whatever the unwanted behaviour, pets will live that which was learnt while under the control of their owners.

The work done by Erik Wilsson proved beyond doubt that firmness without force was and is still far superior to the `yank and crank’ approaches as advocated in the early 1900’s by trainers such as Konrad Most.

I have had many bad cases brought to me and incredibly, in a matter of days, dogs that were written off, changed into normal, well behaved pets. Depending on the severity of the problem, some may take longer due to the uniqueness of situations, especially where family members are traumatised. If owners modify their body language sufficiently, problem pets can become a pleasure to interact with. One thing I can say unequivocally, though, is that force is never an option. This ends the scenes on dog behaviour.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website – – advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

Steve van Staden - Canine specialist

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