Jeff Stallings, CPDT/KA

The semantics of “fixing” problem dog behaviors

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Animal behavior science has advanced a great deal in recent decades. We now understand more about canine cognitive development than ever, thanks to researchers such as Alexandra Horowitz, John Bradshaw and Brian Hare.

New discoveries about how puppies develop and dogs think have brought about proven methods for behavior modification. What we humans have not achieved is an instant “fix” for undesirable behaviors—in people or in dogs. (People who have spent years in therapy to rectify troublesome childhoods will attest to this.)

I receive emails and phone calls daily from dog owners seeking to remedy problem behaviors. These sometimes-desperate pleas for help, and the compassion behind them, speak to the devotion and love people feel for their companion animals.

The quandary for dog trainers and behaviorists comes when owners speak in terms of fixing problem behaviors, in the same way one might repair something mechanical, such the cracked screen of an iPhone.

"Fix" implies your dog is broken

A more constructive way of thinking is that the dog, being a dog, has a utterly different way of experiencing the world than you and is behaving in undesirable ways due to genetics, early socialization (or the lack thereof), prior training (ditto), or traumatic events, otherwise known as single event learning.

Most people have reasonable expectations, but words are powerful. A red flag goes up when I see the word fix in an email (unless of course it’s used as a euphemism for neuter.) While inventive management solutions can produce immediate results—for instance, removing window access for a dog who goes ballistic at passersby—behavior modification takes time, persistence and patience.

I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic about prospects for changing unwanted behaviors. Quite the opposite: a combination of tools, training and (sometimes) medications, can usually help to make life more bearable for our dogs and for us, but we need to get away from speaking in terms of fixing a problem behavior, as if we can push a button to make our dog with separation anxiety, for instance, suddenly not be terrified of being alone. Speaking and thinking in terms of gradual, effectual change takes the pressure off you and your dog.

Avoiding problems in the first place

Sometimes the behaviors that we think of as abnormal—the dog who freaks out when left alone—are anything but. Dogs are a social species, and being alone is not a natural state. We must teach our puppies that being alone is a good thing, and the sooner we begin teaching these life lessons, the better. When I work with newly adopted puppies, the process of teaching your puppy to be alone is at the top of my list of important goals.

With so many compassionate people adopting rescues, some dogs are bound to arrive in new homes with separation anxiety, leash reactivity, resource guarding or other undesirable behaviors. Many of these behaviors are instinctual, so the challenge becomes altering the dog’s intrinsic impulses to better fit into our manmade world, a process that takes time.

For instance, resource guarding of food is a normal offshoot of an animal wanting to protect that which is rightly theirs: If you kill a rabbit, you want to eat the rabbit, so keeping others from eating your rabbit advances your chances for survival.

Avoid aversive training techniques

You might be able to address a dog guarding his food with a jolt of electricity, but you run the risk of his becoming even more agitated or worse: If he happens to be looking at your child when he receives a shock, he could become fearful of and aggressive towards children.

Resource guarding is better addressed by clearly demonstrating to your dog that humans control resources, that plenty is available, and that he’s always going to be well-fed, so no need to growl, lunge or bite. It’s a good idea to introduce better management as well, such as isolating your dog at mealtime.

Certain devices can, in fact, hasten behavior changes, but these must be used correctly and in tandem with positive training methods. Because they promote immediate control over a dog’s attention and focus, I often employ head collars in training programs to address leash reactivity. But this “quick fix” is paired with positive reinforcement by rewarding the dog for not reacting once the trigger (other dogs, usually) is no longer present.

Real dogs in the real world

Celebrity dog trainers on television have contributed to the false idea that problem dog behavior can be corrected overnight. In a fifteen-minute segment, right before our eyes, with seemingly magical powers, the host rehabilitates a dog, transforming him from dangerously aggressive to sweet as pie.

What people fail to realize is that footage is cherry picked; a lot of disturbing footage ends up on the cutting room floor. This does real dog trainers operating in the real world—who do not have the luxury of a video editor—a great disservice because it implies that behavior modification is fast and easy.

I encourage you to approach the process of behavior modification with optimism and an open mind. But remember that you and your dog are in this for the long haul, and be realistic about the time and effort it will take both of you, as a team, to figure out what’s possible.  Focus on all the positive aspects of your relationship while realistically figuring out how to make it even better!

Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Dog Trainer and Author

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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Dog Trainer and Author

To be notified of my new dog training articles, enter your email address and then Click to Subscribe. I do not spam or share your address, and you will only get an email when I post a new article.