Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just Who Is In Control Here?

The scenario: New puppy comes to live in your home. You are vigilant about taking the puppy outside to his “potty spot”, praising him when he “goes” appropriately.  “Good puppy!” Then comes the day when you are preoccupied with some thing or another and the puppy trots off to the nice fluffy rug you have placed just in front of the kitchen sink and leaves you with a large pile of poop that has now dried.

“Bad dog” you say while glaring as you pick up the offending poop. The puppy begins to play bow and bark as you bend over and scrub at the spot on the rug, darting in to nip at the scrub brush you are furiously employing.

Okay-now it's your turn. Give me your interpretation of the above scenario.

  • The puppy was "talking back"
  • The puppy was trying to divert your attention from his misdeed by acting foolish
  • The puppy was mad at you for scolding him
  • None of the above

The answer is “none of the above” (see the end of the article for an explanation of this puppy’s behavior).

The REAL question is what is your perception of the event? And why does it matter?!?

Perception is Everything

“Parents who believe they have less control over their children’s behavior, and at the same time, believe that the children themselves have more control often demonstrate highly controlling behavior towards their children, especially under conditions of stress” ¹ The Parent Attribution Test (PAT) was developed to measure the level of perceived control these caregivers felt. 

And why is this important?

 In plain language, caregivers who scored as having a perception of low control believe that the child or infant is purposely defying them and even worse, secretly feels that the child is really the one in control. This increases the probability that the caregiver will overreact to any perceived act of “defiance” in order to take back some of that control or to alleviate their feeling of frustration. They, in effect, tend to “over control" which can be a red flag for potential child abuse.

Okay, Chris, but we’re not talking about a child here. We are taking about a DOG.

True. And if your dog is strictly used as a working dog, you are excused from this conversation and may go back to herding sheep.

The fact is, today, most of us choose to bring a dog into our homes as a companion and family member. Many also, sadly, believe that punishment and "showing the dog who's boss" are unavoidable requirements in order to have a well-behaved family pet ² (Hetts&Etsop 2011) 
Researchers wondered if the same low perception of control uncovered by the PAT test  given to caregivers of humans would also show a correlation between a proclivity to use harsh training methods when given to caregivers to animals.


437 participants were given a questionnaire featuring inquiries ranging from “I believe that animal training is very stressful to the animal being trained” to “It is appropriate to hit a dog with a newspaper when it does not listen to you”.  

And who were they, exactly?

Most of the participants were Caucasian, most were female (309 women/128 men), and most (85%)  had lived with a dog. All were undergrads with a median age of 19 years old.

In addition to the above mentioned questionnaire, the  participants were also given the Parental Perceived Control (PAT) test.  

The Good News

The vast majority of the participants did not endorse forms of training that they considered harmful (general physical punishment/withholding of food/whipping/use of electric shock) to animals. This is very good news indeed and demonstrates the changing attitudes toward pet dogs/animals in our care.

Also good news is that the majority strongly disagreed with statements like:

“If a dog does not comply to a command given it, you need to hit it to let the dog know who is boss”

“It is appropriate to whip a performance animal if it does not perform well”

“It is appropriate to use physical punishment/force if the animal does not comply with a training command”

The Even Better News
The study clearly showed that a lack of perceived control correlates with the willingness to use harsh methods when training an animal. Why is that good news?

Because the first step in solving a problem is identifying it.   

If you perceive yourself at a disadvantage relative to your dog you are more likely to pick up and use a shock collar. As a dog trainer who does not use shock collars and would prefer the sale of them be banned completely, that is good to know! With the right education, less people may be inclined to use those methods.

Some other interesting traits emerged from this study:

Those who scored as having low perceived control and more likely to use shock as a training tool were more often~

Higher education level

Those likely to turn to general punishment were~

Higher education level
Lower perceived control
Never taken their dog to any type of obedience training school.

It is very important to note that this test only showed the propensity to use these methods-whether or not the individual would actually drive to the store and purchase a shock collar and place it on the dog is anyone’s guess. There are plenty of things I have the propensity to do, given my interests (running off to Africa and studying primates, for example) but so far my passport sits quietly in a safe deposit box, free of stamps.

So, take from this study what you will. But use your knowledge to educate and effect change-not denigrate and alienate. Powerlessness works both ways-if you as a trainer feel powerless (and I GET that feeling!), please look at the ways you may be lashing out against other trainers! If so, is this a response to a feeling of powerlessness? If you ask for honesty from others, should you not be willing to give the same?

Happy Training!


Explanation of puppy behavior: The puppy in this scenario has no idea that the scolding correlates with his actions (defecating) because too much time has passed between the offense and the scolding. The scrub brushing has stimulated his curiosity and his response is a very puppy-like "I don't know if I should play with this, run from it, or bite it, but it's exciting!" The scolding is just "blah blah blah" words that have no meaning to a puppy. Scolded enough times, the puppy will likely attach emotional significance to the words and then react by displaying appeasement behavior not because "he understands he did something wrong" but because he is reacting to anger signals from his human.

¹ Parental Perceived Control over Caregiving and Its Relationship to Parent-Infant Interaction
Jacqueline R. Guzell and Lynne Vernon-Feagans
Child Development
Vol. 75, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 2004), pp. 134-146) 

² Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., CAAB & Dan Estep, Ph.D. CAAB e-newsletter “Pet Behavior One Piece at a Time,”, Littleton, , CO

Chin, M.G., Sims, V.K., Lum, H.C., & Richards, M. (2008) Relating low perceived control and attitudes toward animal training: An exploratory study. Anthozoos, 21(3), 257-269

Jacqueline R. Guzell and Lynne Vernon-Feagans
Child Development; Parental Perceived Control over Caregiving and Its Relationship to Parent-Infant Interaction Vol. 75, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 2004), pp. 134-146 



  1. Chris, I love you AND I love this blog.


  2. RIGHT back at you, Casey Girl!
    Hugs also to Cuba and her Royal Chowness :)

  3. Thanks Chris! I was not aware of this study. Sounds like we need to come up with ways to target upper-class white men and show them there are better ways to train. :)

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