Carrot or Stick? Is Compromise Ever Acceptable?

Mar 25, 2015 | Animal Behavior

What if a client is so entrenched in his (or her) old-fashioned so-called “dominance” views that banging on about force-free positive methods in the first consultation is likely to alienate him altogether? What if as an individual he just can’t help being a controller and his own sense of security depends upon very tight rules and routines?

People of a controlling nature may naturally be attracted to the forceful, dominance-based methods.

GSD lying down


The man I went to visit recently readily accepts his foibles and describes himself as having OCD. His wife, fortunately, is completely the opposite and easygoing. One can imagine the friction this can cause over the dogs.

As you see from my website ‘story’ of my visit below, they are well-mannered and sociable dogs. What I didn’t say was that both suffer from certain OCD-type things themselves. The German shepherd obsessively rubs her chin on the ground and drinks water so compulsively that it can’t be left down. The mastiff repeatedly licks the floor or himself. There could, of course be underlying medical issues which either cause or make these things worse and vet checks have been done, but I strongly suspect that there is a degree of ‘dogs reflecting their humans’ emotions’ going on here.

I am working slowly and carefully within the man’s comfort zone, trying to replace his rituals with different, better ones. I am hoping that when he sees the success his wife has in ‘controlling’ the dogs with neither harsh commands nor physical strength, he too will be able to relax a bit. To start with it is a matter of juggling the risk of mixed messages where the dogs are concerned with not changing everything at once – so as to keep the man engaged in the process. If he drops out, then we achieve nothing.

Here is my story (with names changed):

After a run of German shepherds who are very reactive to anyone coming into their home, it was great to go to a shepherd who welcomed me immediately. Monty and mastiff mix Barney are well socialized, well-trained and gentle with their children.

But it’s a tricky case of finding a compromise between two approaches – what the gentleman himself calls ‘carrot and stick’. He calls himself the stick and the lady the carrot – not really an accurate description in that although he uses a certain amount of force and mild punishment in getting the dogs to do what he wants, I’m sure he would never hit them. The carrot implies something dangled in front of the dog to entice him to comply, where the lady feels most comfortable using encouragement and reward.

Mastiff cross


People’s way of interacting with their dogs can’t help but reflect their own personalities. The gentleman, by nature organized and routine-driven, feels he needs control over things around him. The lady is more relaxed, but she is unable to exert the control over the dogs that he can by using his ways. So she needs the tools – different tools!

The couple well illustrates the divide between the methods of the past where the owner must be “alpha” and ‘in control’, and modern science-based methods that enable dogs to develop ‘self-control’ by giving them encouragement, reinforcement and choices. One teaches the dog to avoid doing something ‘wrong’, and the other focuses on showing the dog how to do ‘right’.

Teaching self-control with reward and encouragement means that physical strength simply isn’t required in order to walk your dogs and manage encounters with other dogs. The young lady no longer dares to walk them on a leash now, despite using head halters, after a final incident when she was pulled over as Monty and Barney charged excitedly towards a frightened puppy whose owner was not happy.

The gentleman as a personality needs routine. Where things are coming unstuck is that the lady is unable to match this. We are working on replacing some old routines with some different ones – based a little more on the psychology of dogs than on the old dominance myth. We want the dogs to use their brains and not rely on ‘commands.’ I tried asking Monty, gently, to sit and then lie down. Nothing. I had to ‘command’ him.

In my own life I have done a complete U-turn from the methods of control and force that I, and nearly everyone else involved in training dogs, used many years ago. I can therefore well understand how it can take someone ‘old-school’ quite a lot of convincing that reward-based, force-free methods work a lot better in the long run (and no thanks here to a certain well-known TV trainer). It takes a bit longer and requires a lot more patience as force can seem to produce ‘quick-fixes’, but the results are more permanent and ensure our relationships with our dogs are a whole lot more balanced.

So, now the lady will use different equipment for her walks – no more head halters but a front-fastening harnesses – and she will take the dogs out one at a time for now. The deal is that if the gentleman doesn’t feel he can go through the necessary steps of letting the dogs walk freely on a longer looser lead, then he can stick with the old equipment. To the dogs, the harnesses should be associated only with a different kind of walking – and not ‘contaminated’ with any tension. The lady will no longer need to be strong. The dogs will learn that walking on lead beside or near to her, focusing on her when necessary, can be fun and not a matter of ‘being under control’.

I hope that her results will speak for themselves and inspire the gentleman.

For more of my stories, please go to my website,