Please, leash your … children

Over the last four days, three children have charged Milo. They squealed, threw their arms in the air, and ran, full tilt, right at him. In the olden days, this is when natural selection would happen.

back and tan German Shepherd Dog standing on a rocky outcrop against a blue sky

This is Milo, the dog those children charged.

These situations turned out OK because Milo and I have practiced staying calm around children. I kept the kids off Milo and Milo under control, but those kids gave him a fright. He barked at one of them (so did I actually) and the parent gave me the evil eye as they collected their progeny.

I am proud to say I adulted very well. I ignored  the parent and put Milo through a little obedience routine. I wanted him to remember that although kids can be irritating they are not a big deal, and that he and I have more interesting things to do than attend to them. I also wanted the parent to see that Milo is a serious and well-trained dog.

It is common to be more strongly influenced by bad events than by events that make you happy, so common in fact, that psychologists have named the phenomenon. They call it negativity bias. I bet Milo and I have met hundreds of kids and hundreds of dogs on this trip and that most of them were perfectly fine. However, my memories of the good interactions are not nearly as strong as my memories of the bad interactions.

And you know what? Dogs dogs suffer from negativity bias too. The kids who disrespect and frighten Milo are going to make a disproportionate impression on him. Just like negative interactions are more likely to stick in your mind, they are also more likely to stick in a dog’s mind. A bad experience with a child can make it more difficult for a dog guardian to nurture a dog who is friendly and behaves well around children.

The bottom line is that if you happen to have access to a child, Milo and I would be very grateful if you taught them how to respect dogs. This makes it easier for people like me to teach our dogs to respect children.

To learn more, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals webpage where you’ll find information about how to respect dogs and help children and dogs live well together.

From The Science Dog: Do dogs have negativity bias?

Sometimes, psychological similarities between dogs and people can be bad for dogs. Linda Case at The Science Dog provides insightful analysis of research on how dogs mirror emotions displayed by humans and other dogs. She writes,

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

Case points out that human negativity bias is common in training relationships: handlers are more likely to notice and correct unwanted canine behaviours, than they are to notice and praise desirable canine behaviours.

However, the study Case analyzes looks at this issue from a dog’s point of view. Researchers recorded dogs’ responses to positive and negative vocalizations produced by people and by other dogs. They found that when dogs heard negative sounds from either species they

froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

Case points out that dogs may experience negativity bias. This means that our poor pooches get a double whammy–not only are we likely to respond disproportionately to our dogs’ bad behaviour (our negativity bias), but our dogs are likely to respond disproportionately to our negative reactions (their negativity bias).

Case has a clear take-home message:

Knowing that dogs are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

This motivates me to renew my efforts to notice, be grateful for, and reward my dog’s good behaviour. Milo the AwesomeDog is laying nicely on his bed right now. I’m off to give him a cookie.