Unlearning Associative Pain

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jul 27, 2015, 09.08 PM IST

I spent the weekend in Atlanta consulting with a sweet dog called Rocky with a dark history. He is a rescue dog who was found wandering the streets. Based on his wounds it is suspected that he was used as a bait dog in dog fighting. As expected, this has left Rocky deeply scarred physically and emotionally. He is extremely dog reactive. I spent the whole weekend understanding his past, his present and planning a future for him. It was hard work and emotionally draining. But it will all be worth it if it gives Rocky a shot at a better and brighter future.

Most dogs, fortunately, do not carry such heavy baggage. But dog reactivity is a sad reality of many dogs that have a relatively stable home. How does one explain that? The answer lies in associative learning.
Dogs learn by association. When a dog focuses on something and pain is inflicted, the dog associates pain with what he/she is focusing on. So if a dog is focusing on person A and person B causes pain to the dog, most often, the dog associates the pain with person A. An example of this is what happened with my own Nishi. When she was nine months old a car ran over her. At that time she was playing with Mojo, another boxer. Mojo was her best friend up until then. After that horrific incident she developed a severe dislike for Mojo. She did not fear the car or person who ran her over or people and cars in general. Instead, she feared Mojo, her friend. That’s because all her attention was focused on him when she was subject to the pain.

These are extreme examples. But associative learning has implications on everyday walks. Consider a dog, Tommy, on his evening walk. Tommy looks at another dog and as any normal dog would, gets curious about him/her. He starts focusing on him/her. He might even try to go towards the other dog. If he is on a collar, choke collar or martingale, the tension on the leash causes pain in his neck. He associates this pain with the dog he was focussing on. As this happens multiple times, he starts developing fear of all dogs. Tommy may then decide to express his fear by refusing to walk or by lunging as soon as he sees another dog. And just like that, before Tommy’s human knows why, Tommy has become dog-reactive. 

A good way to avoid this is to switch to a harness. A harness does not put pressure on the neck, thus eliminating pain all together. It is also useful to invest some effort in leash training the dog, so that he/she does not pull as much. If a dog has already become dog reactive, then these two steps become imperative. A dog that continues to experience pain cannot get over his/her fear of dogs and hence will not be able to overcome dog reactivity. The first step to any therapy with troubled dogs is to take away any pain.

Rocky’s therapy is off to a good start. He is in great hands with some very compassionate people. I request everyone reading this article to send some very loving and healing thoughts his way so that he finds the strength to let go of the demons of his past and embrace the beautiful life ahead of him.

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