When we think of addicts, drug use or abuse may come to mind, but addiction is better understood by realizing that it is something that the subject cannot stop, even if they wanted to.
I see many dogs that fall into this category when it comes to aggression, chasing behaviours, pacing and other highly rewarding behaviours.
When I say highly rewarding, I am also often referring to dogs that find the behaviour “internally rewarding”.
Most of us know that behaviours that have a high cardio and respiratory rates can induce the release of adrenalin, endorphin, dopamine etc. and therefore behaviours that are paired with this type of reinforcement can become addictions easily.
Playing with other dogs
Most people love to see their dogs happy and enjoying themselves, so when their dog plays with other dogs, it is rewarding to the dog owner also.
Providing access to other dogs to play with on a regular basis can and often does have the dog see other dogs and become highly stimulated to access them.
Your dog starts to pull on leash, bound towards the dog and if held back can scream, yelp, bark, and display many out of control, frustration related behaviours.
If you are seeing this, your dog has a big problem, that he or she, or you, cannot control.
Depending on breed and temperament, this can easily turn into aggression, driven by the frustration of not having access to other dogs.
Many clients have told me that, “if I start seeing this happening, I will stop the play at once“, but I can’t tell you enough how that is too late. Stopping a behaviour once addicted is too late.
Is all dog play bad?
No, of course not, but it must be part of a bigger socialization and interaction picture. Effective socialization is unique to each dog, and should include some play with dogs, some walking on a loose leash with other dogs and owners. Walking past dogs, calmy meeting dogs and moving on etc.
Dogs with good social skills: –
Do not have to meet every dog
Do not drag their owners to other dogs
Do not ignore owner’s direction around other dogs
Will recall away from other dogs
For some high energy dogs, playing with other dogs may only form 1% – 5% of the total interaction.
The dog park is the highest generator of work for trainers and behaviours worldwide. There is a saying that goes “dog trainers don’t do dog parks”.
It is not that our own dogs cannot manage this, it is the extremely high risk of mingling with so many various temperament dogs, with owners with little control or often care.
Working with dogs that are addicted
It was once thought of and still is by some that applying high levels of punishment to a dog trying to get access to something they are addicted to was the right choice, and whilst it may be for some, I tend to focus on teaching an alternative behaviour and at some point weighing this against the addiction gradually.
Dogs do not choose to become addicted, I guess like people don’t, so blaming them, becoming frustrated with them etc. or just trying to overpower them around this addiction probably isn’t terribly fair.
Remember that in terms of operant conditioning, the addiction, lets say other dogs in this article, is an immensely powerful Positive Reinforcement event. Therefore, blocking access, restraining or with holding in any way would be negative punishment.
Developing impulse control through structured exercises that have been reinforced will at some point tip the scale in your favour.
Practice makes — permanent.
If you are trying to lower the value your dog has for playing with dogs, initially you should stop all rehearsal of play. At some point, when your dog has better resources to control their emotions and impulses, it may be possible to include some play with other dogs again, like many addicts though, it may not.
By managing access to other dogs, we will also be managing accessing more reinforcement.
What do I do now?
Generally, dogs that have developed these highly level connections with other dogs will need a well thought out program that goes through several stages, from teaching and rehearsing the ideal behaviours to practicing controlled exposure to other dogs and so on.
Very often, due to the drive dogs develop in these situations, you will need a very competent trainer and behaviourist on board with you to ensure each step is carried out correctly.
These are rarely DIY projects and need professional help.
Remember prevention is always better than cure, so avoid developing behaviours in your dog that you cannot control.