Today’s post is really more of a PSA:
Don’t lure uncomfortable pets closer to people.
We get a lot of requests from people who are struggling with their pets showing aggressive behaviors towards new people, kids, other pets, or sometimes themselves if it’s a new adoption. And while I love when people take the initiative to start getting their pets comfortable with scary things by using food, we have to be really careful about how we do it.
The danger of using food incorrectly
A phrase that I wish I heard a lot less than I unfortunately do, is, “I don’t get it. He is clearly uncomfortable but approaches people.” While there are a lot of reasons why that behavior can crop up, one of them is that we can teach our pets to approach people they’re not comfortable with by luring them closer with food.
For example, let’s say a creepy van pulls up to the sidewalk as I’m walking and offers me $1000. The driver’s arm is outstretched with a stack of cash. Let’s be real; I’ll probably approach the van and try to take the $1000. That’s a super valuable amount to me and worth the risk. However, I’m definitely not comfortable. If the driver makes a sudden movement I will absolutely go into fight or flight mode. If I safely get the $1000 and nothing bad happens, I’ll be more likely to approach other strange vans handing out free cash. But, again, that doesn’t mean I feel safe doing so.
Now, let’s replace the creepy van with a person your pet is uncomfortable with and the $1000 stack of bills with a super delicious treat. It’s the same scenario. Your pet may approach the person and take the treat from their hand, but probably doesn’t feel comfortable doing so.They may stretch their neck as far as it’ll reach to grab the treat. They may flinch or startle (or worse) if the person makes the slightest move. It’s absolutely possible to teach an animal (or me, apparently) to put themselves in an uncomfortable position for a high-value reward. And, by doing so, we can teach animals to approach people who they’re not comfortable with, which I often see leading to bites.
Decreasing distance is a side effect. Comfort is the goal
When I’m working with a new client and their pet is exhibiting stranger danger or leash reactivity, I often have to remind them that distance– getting closer to the person or other animal– should be a side effect but not a goal. As illustrated above, it’s very possible to teach an individual to move closer, but without comfort, we’ve forfeited safety and can be inadvertently teaching a dangerous behavior. Distance in and of itself should not be the goal. It should not be the sole factor by which we measure success.
Comfort, which can be observed in the animal’s body language, should be our goal. When an animal is more comfortable, they’ll typically, naturally move closer to the person. The getting closer part isn’t something we really need to teach. Decreasing distance between the pet and the new person is a side effect of them feeling comfortable, not the other way around.
What to do instead
I’m going to be intentionally vague here because realistically if your pet is exhibiting aggressive behaviors you should seek professional help. Safety is serious. We can (and usually should!) use food to build a desirable association with the new person, but start by using food at a distance. This can take several forms and, preferably, we should be setting up the environment to keep the pet from feeling like they have to exhibit the aggressive behaviors. Again, a professional behavior consultant can help you with all of the nuances of that.
- If you’re currently using food to lure your pet closer to individuals they’re afraid of, discontinue doing so.
- Pair scary things with treats from a distance with the help of a professional behavior consultant. We offer remote sessions locally to internationally; email us at [email protected] to schedule your first session.
- Need help now? Check out our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course to get immediate help.