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It's Time To Check Our Own Conditioned Emotional Response

Those of us who spend time in the world of animal training or veterinary medicine often develop very strong opinions about how things should or should not be done. Passion borne of education is great, and it helps us better articulate and communicate our stance.

However, passion taken too far becomes emotion. Emotion is visceral, and emotion defies logic.

This is harmful to us, harmful to our profession, and harmful to our pets.

We create these emotions ourselves, that's why I'm calling them Conditioned Emotional Responses (CER), because we allowed ourselves to be trained to have an emotional response to a given situation. This is not the same as feeling sad if someone dies. This is manufactured emotion. The act of conditioning does not make it any less powerful, but it does tell us that we can control it and untrain ourselves.

Let me give you an example. I live in southern Arizona, and for about twenty years there have been tie-out laws in my county. This means that I never see dogs chained in front yards. If I do, its usually on the news concerning an arrest in a sketchy neighborhood with a crazed dog straining at a chain on a barren patch of dirt in the background; or a hoarding story; or a dog fighting ring. In my world, only terrible people tie up their dogs to trees.

Yet, this past weekend I tied Ruby to a tree while we were camping. She had two leashes attached together because I do not own a tie out chain. The leash closest to her is chain because she'll eat it otherwise. Seeing her tied up, I had a deep, emotional, visceral, reaction that strangely I never get when I tie a dog to a fence while working them. It was the length of leash, maybe, or the tree, or the fact that she wasn't waiting to be actively worked.

Whatever it was, I had a fleeting, gut revulsion. But, was it warranted? Is tying a dog while camping somehow inherently wrong? It seemed the best alternative to keeping her crated or setting her loose with a dubious recall and a penchant for randomly charging strangers snapping and barking.

Tying out, under the circumstances allowed Ruby the most freedom to explore, relax, sniff the grass, chase a few ill-fated grasshoppers, and otherwise do doggy things.

So, why does it matter if I felt emotional distaste but then moved past it? Why does it matter? Tying out is still, by and large, generally bad for the mental health of dogs, and a dog living on a ten foot chain in a barren backyard is still a terrible thing.

The difference is that emotional responses insulate us from thought. And to be better trainers, and better humans, we must never cease to think when we are faced with a scenario that we have built a CER around.

Emotion is powerful. Emotion drives behavior. We know this as dog trainers. We know how long it takes to counter condition an emotional state. We also know that emotions aren't always rational: The chihuahua really isn't an existential threat to our dog reactive great dane. We know that umbrellas aren't likely to go rogue and kill us all, regardless of what our horse may believe.

We also see time and time again how emotion overrules the senses and creates havoc and a barrier to learning. We cannot believe that this is true of our pets, yet think that we are somehow above the fray and immune. We know that for our animals to learn, they must move away from a negative emotional state to a more more neutral and curious, Seeking state.

When we are faced with an emotional response (usually revulsion) to something that is not inherently revolting, but rather to something that we, through our beliefs, have attached emotion to, we must bypass the emotion. We must put it in our back pocket and examine the situation as we would want our animal learners to do: with an open mind.

If emotion is attached we cannot learn.

Think of all the CERs in your life: certain tools, backyard breeders, overweight dogs, underweight dogs, tie-outs, outside dogs, dog breeders, or PETA. We are, of course, welcome to stances on any or all of these things. A stance devoid of emotion is logical, and willing to change in the face of new facts. If you are unwilling to change in the face of new facts, then you are being ruled by your Conditioned Emotional Response, and you are no better off than the horse spooking and running through six fences because it saw a hot air balloon.

The world of animal training, and how we see our companion and farm animals has seen a radical change in the past few decades. A great deal of froth and hysteria now rules the conversations regardless of how inane they may be on the face of it (dog food choices, any one?). Read the comments on any Facebook thread with even the most innocuous-seeming animal video and you will see emotion pouring forth upon the page. This is the human equivalent of a dog shrieking and leaping at the end of the leash. There is no thought there. And if you find yourself about to leap to the end of your leash, teeth bared, hackles up, ready to fight to the last breath over some issue, you need to stop. We all need to stop.

What you are feeling isn't thoughtful, or useful. What you are feeling is emotion; strong, powerful, manufactured emotion, and it is the true enemy.

Emotion is the enemy.

Embrace that thought, and always hold it close. It is our ability to observe and modify our emotional state that makes us able to think and learn and grow. That is what we all should demand of one another, and demand of ourselves. Our animals deserve nothing less than our fullest commitment to learning and growing as trainers and as humans, and we cannot - we know we cannot - do so, unless we walk away from our own CERs.

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