A few summers ago, my dog Datson got stung by a hornet. Now, if you have been lucky enough to avoid hornets in your life, let me set the scene: it hurts. Not like a “dislocated elbow” or “my first love just kissed someone else while slow dancing at the prom” kind of hurt, but it does hurt. It’s a sudden, random, extreme, and angry pain.
For some dogs, being stung by a hornet is something they seem to rebound from, despite the pain. These dogs’ genes and life experiences have given them some emotional armour. They aren’t affected long-term: they might avoid the area where the sting happened, but otherwise be fine. But for other dogs…like Datson? For Datson, it really mattered. Datson yelped in pain and raced back to the house. He was a bit frantic, jumping on the door and vocalizing. Luckily, being inside was a comfort, and after half an hour he had settled back into his normal self.
With one rather alarming exception: he was no longer willing to go outside. At all.
From that day on, Datson would flee, scramble, hide, and whine every time the door opened. If we tried to lead him out on leash, he’d back up and try to slip his collar. He started to anticipate when we’d ask him to go out, like walk time or bathroom breaks, and would preemptively hide in the bedroom or bathroom. He would hold on for what seemed like an unhealthy amount of time—hours and hours—to avoid having to go out to the vast green (and to his mind, hornet-infested) bathroom out the door. Although Datson let me know he was scared through his behaviour, hiding and running away, I could also easily tell that he was scared by looking at his body language. Sometimes body language signs are subtle, but they can be helpful when reading a dog’s comfort with a situation so are worth watching for. If you’d like to learn more about interpreting your dog’s body language, check out the resources at iSpeakDog.
Can We Help Fearful Dogs like Datson?
Luckily for Datson, the science of applied behaviour analysis has given us tools to help fearful animals overcome their fears. We can’t ‘fix’ fear, unfortunately: it seems that fear, once installed in a dog’s brain, can never really be scrubbed away. However, with good technique, time, and care, we can layer enough good experiences over the memory of the fearful experience that a scared animal can often function almost like they did before, or almost like a non-fearful member of their family might. Using good training techniques and time, I was able to get Datson back outside and enjoying walks again.
Unfortunately, and as is typical of dogs with fearfulness, Datson is always in a ready state to reacquire the fear. A few weeks ago he saw a big beautiful bouncing bumblebee on a walk and turned tail to head back home, ready to hunker inside all over again. I have, like many other owners of fearful dogs, come to accept that I’ll always be in a ready state, too: I’ll always be careful, always be training, and always try to keep him safe and happy. It’s just a habit now, and he’s generally a happy-go-lucky guy as a result.
The Lesson from the Hornet’s Sting
A hornet’s sting is, in the terminology used by animal trainers, an aversive stimulus (or an aversive for short). Something is considered an aversive if experiencing it makes an animal less likely to do x, y, or z in the future. An aversive is the opposite of a treat: giving a dog a treat after he sits will make him more likely to sit in the future. Giving a dog an aversive—a painful or scary experience—after a sit will make him less likely to sit in the future. Dogs learn to do what works to get stuff they want, and avoid stuff they find scary or painful.
The hornet’s sting will almost certainly make a dog (and a human, for that matter!) much, much less likely to wander close to their nest. In fact, that’s why hornets have evolved to sting: it keeps their wee tyrannical baby hornets safe, napping evilly in their nests and dreaming of stinging a whole new generation of innocent humans and dogs. (OK, I know, I get it. They’re just making a living in the world. But sheesh.)
As Datson’s story suggests, aversives such as hornets’ stings carry some well-known side-effects. Datson didn’t just wink wisely, tip his hat, and say “alas, I shan’t amble near that locale in the future!” and continue on as before. In Datson’s case (and here’s the bad news: this is typical) the aversive hornet’s sting caused a heaping side-dish of fearfulness. And in some ways, we’re lucky that Datson just fled and hid. Aversives are well-known to be correlated with aggression, too.
So what is the lesson here? Dog trainers don’t train hornets, and they don’t (I really hope) keep hornets on hand to use as a weapon against dogs. But many dog training methods do use aversives. There are special collars which are designed to strangle or hurt, such as choke or prong collars. And there are shock collars, which deliver a painful electrical shock to the dog’s neck or other body parts, very much like a hornet’s sting. Sometimes, startling sounds are used, such as air horns or cans filled with pennies. Because these are designed, and actually work, to make dogs do x, y, or z less often in the future, they are all aversives. And many, many trainers use less fierce techniques that are still aversive to some dogs, such as tapping, swatting, hitting, spraying, or yelling.
Datson’s experience with the hornet should be a parable here, of course: there’s a risk to using these tools and techniques. And that risk is making the dog scared. (You can read more about the use of aversives in dog training in this article by Jean Donaldson.) And scaring dogs is wrong for two reasons: first up, it’s just awful to be scared, and to live in fear. And second up, scared animals make use of their teeth to defend themselves, so can be a danger to the humans in their lives.
Luckily, this story ends with some fantastic news (take that, hornets!). Modern training techniques don’t use aversives. We set dogs up for success and use the giving and taking of things dogs enjoy to train. We teach them that things that used to scare them now predict good things, like delicious treats, and are actually safe. As a dog trainer and dog training educator (and of course, as Datson’s mom), I have chosen this as my camp: no purposeful use of aversives on my watch. I simply can’t accept that I could cause the same type of fearfulness in my dogs or my client’s dogs, that a hornet’s sting caused Datson.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Datson’s story wherein I discuss how I used force-free training techniques to reduce his fearfulness and allow him to enjoy the great outdoors again.
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