Learning under duress

I distinctly remember that day. I was in 2nd grade. The new frock that had been sitting in the closet, that I had coveted for months had been pulled out and I was allowed to wear it to school to celebrate my birthday. I sat in class, shaking in my new frock, terrified out of my wits and asked my friend, “What do you think? Will she take it easy on me today because it’s my birthday?”. My teacher was known to be one of the toughest. She used metal rulers and hit us on our knuckles till they split open. “What if I threatened her that I would complain to the principal if she hits me on my birthday? Will she leave me alone?”, I asked my friend. My friend looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Nooooo! Don’t do that. She will get angry and hit you harder!”, she said. Despite my friend’s wisdom, when my teacher approached me, I snapped and screamed “If you hit me on my birthday I will complain. My father loves me and he will hit you back!”. Oh boy….did I regret that!

But here is the thing. Today I deal with many many dogs. Dogs just as scared as I was that day. Dogs who have tried to tell us, in every way possible, that they are terrified. And dogs who eventually snap. They don’t have anyone to complain to. So they defend themselves. Instead of recognizing the hopeless corner we push them into, we label them as aggressive or dominant and push them further and further. One fine day they give up, go into a shell. They become completely apathetic and then we claim to have “cured” the aggression. To my mind there really cannot be a solution unless one gets to the bottom of the problem and address that, instead of merely dealing with the symptoms. At the basis of canine aggression is fear. To fix aggression, one needs to understand fear and stress – there are no two ways about that!

To understand fear and stress, we need to understand where it comes from – the brain. Somewhere, a long time ago, in biology class, I learnt of two parts of the nervous systems – Voluntary and Involuntary. The Involuntary nervous system was something that had a mind of it’s own and there was little I could do to control what that system did. This involuntary part of the brain has two modes of functioning – an emergency  mode that’s turned on during times of stress and a regular mode. (For those who like technical terms, it’s the Sympathetic nervous system and Parasympathetic nervous system respectively) When one mode is on, the other mode is off. And considering all of this is part of the involuntary nervous system, there is not much point in telling a dog “NO! Bad Boy! Sympathetic system off!”. No amount of training, no amount of dog whispering, no amount of leadership is going to teach a dog to turn off his Stress Response or the emergency mode. The only way is for the Stressor itself to go away. But with us, hovering there, trying to be dominant leaders, we ourselves become the stressors, constantly keeping our dog in emergency mode. What does this do to our dogs?

The Parasympathetic system or the regular mode of the body focuses on long term projects of the body – digestion, storage of nutrients, growth, immunity, learning, memory etc…When a dog is stressed all of this is turned off. The emergency mode kicks in. This system’s focus is survival. So it puts all senses on high alert and gets the muscles pumped up and primed for a mad dash. That means that all nutrients in the body, that were being stored for learning and growth are now being poured out for the mad dash. The heart is beating hard and fast to get all of this to the muscles. The muscles are sucking up oxygen which was meant for the brain. The senses are focusing on the entries, exits, defense tools etc…and don’t really care about learning.

At this point, we have some trainers who come in and insist on training the dog. There is talk of “obedience training”. There is talk of leadership. There is talk about “manners classes”. I remember once when I was being punished badly for botching up history classes. Between sobs I was trying to learn the dates of the damned battle of Panipat and who fought who. Looking through my tears I could see the letters and numbers floating around and doing an obscene dance in front of me that made no sense at all. Nothing made sense. All I could think of was “please don’t beat me any more with that metal ruler”. I tried so hard to get those sentences to make sense, but the numbers and letters just sniggered and continued their insane dance. “What are the dates Sindhoor?”. I heard the question but the question did not make sense. I repeated the question in my head a few times. I looked at the dance. Nothing made sense. I sobbed and blurted out “Please don’t beat me!” and I bolted across the room. Continuing to recount this story is just going to be hard to read. When trainers recommend manners classes for such dogs I relive that day. I look at the dogs eyes and I see the same sentiment in the dogs eyes. The feeling of helplessness, fear and complete inability to comprehend anything. Trainers are not always tuned into their dogs. But good pet parents are. I sincerely hope that they look into the eyes of their dogs and see what the trainers are asking these poor dogs to do and rescue their dogs from this impossible misson.

Off late, I have been dealing with many dogs who are under severe chronic stress and are being subjected to additional stress in the attempt to train them. My mind is filled with all of this, to a point where, a few nights ago I had a night mare – I heard my little sister crying. She was being punished for not learning well. She was sobbing. I often look at my dog and my sister similarly. So in my dream, they both were the same. It was a little girl of about 5 or so, sometimes representing my sister, sometimes representing my dog and sometimes representing the 5yr old me, terrified, being yelled at, sobbing and trying to learn. I ran out, called out to this little girl. When she came to me, I hugged her, wiped off her tears. Told her that she was OK and there was nothing to be afraid of. I asked her to take a break and that she could learn later. I told her I would come play with her in a bit. I went looking for the person who had hurt her and ensured that there would be no more punishments. If we think about it, dealing with our dogs should not be very different. The concepts are the same – ensure it does not happen again, a reassurance, a break from learning and some help to feel better again. So for a dog, this is what we would do:

  1. Remove the stressors. Stop the scolding. Stop the yelling. Stop being dominant. Just be a loving pet parent
  2. Provide reassurance to the little one that there will be no more of that. For a dog being left alone, calm reassuring voice and stop changing scenes on a dog. If a dog is guarding resources due to fear of lack of resources – just flood the dog with resources so that the dog is confident that there is no reason for fear
  3. Give the little one time to recover and cope. For chronic stress, like in the case of dogs, nutrition and sleep are critical in this. Consistency in the home a dog is absolutely critical. So don’t move the dog around from foster home to foster home. Stay. Let the dog recover. 
  4. Build confidence in the little one that she can indeed cope and learn. In the case of a stressed dog, work with a good behaviourist on confidence building measures. When faced with potential stressors, reassured the dog that the dog has the choice to walk away and avoid the stressors, thus helping gain more confidence.
During the worst of her days, Nishi sought comfort in her toys. 
She took them to bed with her. 
Back then, I could not take pictures of all of her. It was too horrifying. 
So I took pictures of the best part of her – her coping spirit!

Love, patience and nurture are critical in helping a stressed dog. Leadership, obedience and manners are futile, counter productive and almost cruel on a stressed dog. I can relate to this and for those of us who were brought up in a culture of punishment, we don’t need to understand the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems to know how all of this works. We just know what works and what does not. And if the voice inside us is not something we want to rely on, then understand the functioning of the brain. Either way, the answer is the same – remove stressors, reassurance, recovery & confidence building. 


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