Prey drive can be tough to manage. Living in busy city centres with dogs who are wired to track, capture, and kill prey is a challenging proposition but it absolutely can be done. It can even be done well. In this blog, I'm going to talk about some games you can play with your dog to help channel his or her prey drive.
1. Hide and Seek
Sounds easy enough, and really, it is! Put your dog in a sit/stay in the bedroom, bathroom, or some other area so that he can't see what you're up to in the living room or wherever it is you decide is best to play this game. Hide the object and then begin the game by releasing the dog from the secure place and saying something along the lines of, "Where's your toy?!" or "Find 'X'"! If your dog struggles to understand at first, and he might, feel free to coach him along. Be sure to hide whatever motivates your dog best, whether it be a squeaky toy, a ball, or a delicious treat.
When your dog finds the hidden object, celebrate with something appropriate. For example, if a squeaky toy was the object of the hide-and-seek game, play tug of war for 15 seconds. If it was a ball, play toss and retrieve. And if it was food, well, eating the treat in question is a great reward in and of itself.
Remember! Start with easy finds and big excitement when your dog successfully finds the hidden object to get him really hooked. Then, as soon as your dog will tolerate, stop helping him make the finds to increase difficulty and to help him gain confidence in his finding ability.
You'll hear again and again - don't play tug with your dog! Whether from trainers, veterinarians, or behavior experts, what this statement misses is context. Tug in and of itself is not a bad game leading to aggressive or as we often hear used (albeit almost always incorrectly) "dominant" behavior, but it is important that it's played appropriately with a specific set of rules in mind. Let's get into it.
The first condition is a pair of cues. One for relinquishing the item, and one for taking it. I often use 'drop' for relinquishment as it comes to me with the most ease. Use whatever cue works for you but be sure to stick with it. Before getting into the game of tug, practice some exchanges with him that are low-intensity. When your dog is holding something in his mouth, give the cue, wait for the release, give a treat, and then ask your dog to take the object again. For the taking cue, I like to use 'take'! Yes, I know it's not very creative, but for me it works and is easy to remember.
Even if your dog doesn't take the object in his mouth, you can put it down right in front of him and then take it back, being sure to give the treat with each repetition and then replacing the object.
As you and your dog get good at this, the second condition comes into play. Your dog may not take the object or re-take the object until cued to do so. This prevents grabbiness or improper initiation of the game. First present the take/retake cue like "Take the ball!" and then present the object. Be sure to do both - doing so prevents the dog from accidentally engaging in this game when it's not appropriate to do so. Therefore, you want to have one and only one toy used for this game.
The third condition is that the game not be initated by the dog unless he is invited to play. This is an extremely common event and so it's important to capitalize on the opportunity the first time it appears. If your dog reinitiates tug before being invited, have a brief time out before re-engaging. Should the dog initiate twice before being invited, end the game for that day.
In order to keep the intensity of a tug game in check, take frequent breaks to do obedience work. This is the fourth condition of the tug game. What's more, it will allow you to obtain lightning-fast obedience from your dog while he is excited - a critical lesson for any dog to learn! He will be extremely motivated to get back to the tug game and as such, is likely to offer you some astonishingly fast obedience work.
The final condition for tug comes down to a zero tolerance policy for any accidents wherein teeth make inappropriate (read: painful) contact with human skin. Immediately give a good yelp and end the game. The consequence for an error of this nature must be unequivocal. Your dog is more than capable of controlling his mouth with consummate precision - it's up to you to allow for nothing else.
3. Chew Training and Dissection
(Morgan and Kathryn, this one is for you (and Eden and Jenga!))
The inestimable Jean Donaldson, author of numerous books on dog training and behavior modification, likens chew training with the following conceptual model - an hydraulic pump (and for those of us who are mechanically minded, the comparison is likely to ring very true):
"Think of a dog's total behavioral output as being fuel in a tank. The tank has X amount of fuel in it every day. The fuel will be drained every day into several reservoirs (fuel burners), which represent the dog's various behavioral outlets. One outlet is likely labeled "Chewing" (others might include "chase and grab, bark like crazy, etc"). If you plug the hole (by interrupting) leading to one of the reservoirs, there will be a backlog of fuel that will still have to drain. Thus, you might get more barking or chasing but the likelihood is that you'll get the drainage into the chewing reservoir at times when the plug (you) are not there to block the behavior. Only if yuo have already opened up another reservoir ("chewing chew toys") does your interruption have a change of plugging "furniture chewing" more permanently. Dogs must have outlets for their natural behavior. If you can't or don't want to provide for the basic behavioral needs of a dog, do not own one. Subjugating natural dog behavior through punishment and morbid obesity is no longer acceptable." - Jean Donaldson, "The Culture Clash"
And so, how do we drain the chew and dissect reservoir? We have a few options. Kongs are a great start, but we can go further as they don't really address the dissecting behavior so many dogs enjoy engaging with. Collections of socks, rags, old towels all work. If you have a really dedicated dissector, tie knots throughout the material object you're giving your dog to dissect. I often use the rolls from toilet paper and paper towel, fold up one end, drop some treats inside, and then fold up the other end and give them to my dog Gus to sort out. Be sure to supervise your dog at the beginning of this game to ensure they don't ingest anything they shouldn't. If you have a dog that likes to ingest, this is the wrong game!
For those of us with dogs who have strong predatory instincts, management can often feel hard-won and short-lived. I'm hoping this blog will inspire you with ways you can give your dog constructive outlets for these very natural behaviors without stress, frustration, or the need for punishing management protocols. Dogs are animals after all, and like any animal, they have behavioral needs that lie far outside what we consider normal social behavior. Respect those needs, meet your dog halfway, and enjoy a long, happy, productive, and most importantly, fun life together.
We hear this word, 'mindfulness', thrown around a lot these days. It seems to be everywhere; from ads on our social media, to Youtube videos about improving your life, in your daily yoga practice, and in the article you just read about eating well. But what does it mean?
Mindfulness can be described as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
It sounds pretty straightforward. Seems to be the way we should be comporting ourselves in our every day life. Makes sense, and if we want to be happy, well-rounded individuals, it would follow that the ability to be mindful might make up a big part of the equation.
But wait a minute, Camille, you might be thinking. This is a blog on dog training. So why are we talking about mental techniques to achieve a better life?
Have you ever noticed how your dog is incapable of worrying about the future? Or fretting about the past? Your dog is not concerned about the big hydro bill due at the end of the week, or what his buddy at the dog park thought about his hairstyle that day. Your dog is focused on one thing and one thing only. The present moment.
I believe this is a large part of why we are so fascinated by our canine pals. Their ability to accept their reality in the here-and-now and to live joyously. The way they are enraptured by the simplest of life's little moments and pleasures. They have a complete disregard for what happened in the past or what may happen in the future, revealing a mindfulness that we crave and acknowledge as a critical part of what it means to be fulfilled as living creatures. We watch and we marvel at their merriment on our every arrival home. We long for the sense of wonderment they experience at every mealtime. What's more, with each passing day, their feelings on these matters never diminish. They remain, as strong and as rooted as the undeniable life our dogs possess.
As dog trainers (and make no mistake - every dog owner is a dog trainer to some extent - what you do every day with your dog informs what comes next in terms of behavioral expectations) this ability to live and operate in the present moment when working with the dogs in our care is essential to effect positive and lasting behavioral change. A canine handler distracted by things outside of the immediate is a handler out of touch with their working partner (the dog). The distracted/worried/preoccupied handler cannot relate to what the dog sees and experiences with his or her senses at any given moment. It is therefore impossible for the human counterpart in this particular relationship to do any effective work. Mindfulness must be part of the equation.
How do we cultivate mindfulness when working with our dogs?
1. Pay attention to your environment.
Take in the smells, sights, and sounds all around you. Identify their sources, and notice that your dog is doing the same as well as an aspect of his basic nature. This is simply a part of what it is to be alive for him or her, and believe it or not, it is for you too!
2. Take notice of the physical sensations associated with what you are doing.
Feel the wind on your face, and the heat of the sun. Is the ground under your feet soft and yielding, or is it hard, uneven? Notice the cadence of your feet if you are in motion, and the rhythm of your breath. How do these things make you feel?
3. Take note of your emotions.
Are you feeling anxious about something unrelated to the present moment? Perhaps it's the activity itself causing this feeling. Are you angry? Or feeling calm and contented? Identify the emotion, but don't put any weight or stock in any imagined outcome. Simply acknowledge the
feeling and recognize that these emotions are derivative of what you've experienced. They are not what you are. In the same way you know that, for example, your dog's reactivity to sudden noises is not what he is. This simple act of acknowledgement will enable you to react to anything you encounter with your dog in this moment in a more productive way.
By practicing these three simple elements of mindfulness in your work with your dog, whether as an animal professional or a pet parent, you will find an immediate improvement in your ability to enjoy your time together because you are able to focus your attention and accept the present moment as it is, not how you think it should be. And for those of us with dogs whose behaviors are less than what we might consider ideal, this practice is even more important to avoid getting caught up in what's wrong, and to zero in on everything that's right.
If you're like me, you may have a dog who is a little afraid of new people. The causes of this fear are manifold: from a lack of socialization during that critical puppy imprinting period, to a traumatic experience in the past, and sometimes even genetics can come into play. What's important to know is that dogs who are a little anxious around new people need gentle, gradual introductions and a whole lot of understanding. Let's talk about best practices on introducing your shy, possibly fearful dog to new people.
1. Go slow
When introducing your shy or fearful dog to new people, take your time. There's no need for your guests or new friend to overwhelm the dog with attention, eye contact, and touch. Instead, have your guest pay the dog no mind. If you want to accelerate the process, the guest can toss treats onto the floor for your pup. However, do NOT have them hand feed your dog for any reason. This can sensitize your dog to new people even further, worsening the fearful/anxious response.
2. Offer an alternative
Bring your dog to your side and ask him or her for an alternative behavior to the stress and anxiety he or she is experiencing. This can be as simple as a shake-paw, a sit, or a down. Allow your dog to be comforted by your presence, and don't worry about making your dog's fear worse by comforting him or her. Fear doesn't work that way, and if you push your dog away, you can give them even more cause for their anxious feelings.
3. Keep the visits short, at first
Instead of flooding your dog with all the smells, sounds, and activities a new guest has to offer all at once, keep the meetings short at first, and positive. You'll find in time that your dog's response to this new person changes with gradual certainty if you handle the introductions will skill and mindfulness at each interaction.
4. Take a walk together
A really nice, enriching way for your dog to associate your new friend with good things is to do what your dog likes best altogether - go for a walk! Keep the dog with you at your side, and explore the areas you know your dog loves to sniff and enjoy. Do this a few times before bringing your new guest over and watch your dog welcome this person with overwhelming happiness in no time at all.
What insurmountable problem are you having with your dog? Is it poor leash work? Unstable physical boundaries? Maybe your dog is a resource guarder, or harasses your guests for attention every time they come through the door. It might be incessant vocalization, or growling and lunging at other dogs, inanimate objects, men, or some other trigger point. Take a moment and write it down, and then put it aside for a moment while I tell you a story.
I certainly never thought I'd become a dog trainer. I definitely did not imagine myself working with some of the toughest behaviors in the canine world. And yet, at 38, I have found myself doing the best work of my lifetime. How did I get here? Well, it all started with a dog named Indy.
Indy came into my life 11 years ago part and parcel of my now ex-partner. Indy was his dog, and the pair of them were inseparable. Despite this connection, when left on his own, Indy's destructive capacities were mind-boggling. A restaurant manager at the time, I came home on one particular evening to find my refrigerator door removed from its hinges. Indy had happily helped himself to the contents, and as though the carnage of the scene weren't enough, the gas and bowel movements that followed over the next few days were enough to send everyone for a city block running in the other direction. Another instance saw Indy destroy a queen sized mattress. He has removed cabinetry, chewed through doors, taken apart doorframes, and even harmed himself. No crate could hold him without terrible damage to his teeth, nails and feet (as a result of trying anything to get out), and the only management recourse we knew at the time was never to leave him on his own.
There really was no other choice. I loved this dog. I had to learn how to help him. And this started my long journey and years of study into canine behavior modification. At the time, I didn't realize it would lead me to a career in the field. I just wanted the madness to end. Anything to make the chaos of the situation less, well, chaotic. I hated it. The constant worry. The cabin fever of feeling like I could never leave the house. And more than anything else, I could not stand to see Indy's suffering. I had do something.
And if you ask me today about that time with Indy and how I feel about it, you'd know probably just from the look on my face that I have nothing but gratitude towards that very special dog.
The lessons of patience, the importance of really knowing the animal with which you live and work, understanding modalities of behavior modification and their fallouts, all of this I learned because of Indy. What I didn't know at the time and can see as clear as the light of day today is that those difficult, seemingly impossible experiences with that dog were one of the most significant blessings of my life. By changing my response to the situation from frustration, emotionality, and despair, into first acceptance, then discipline, and a steady application of what I was learning to this dog who worked with me through every bump along the way, I arrived at the place I belonged. Able and ready to do the work I was meant to do. Meeting the people I am here to help understand their dogs, the problems they face, and how to work through them.
All of this is to say, if you're having difficulties with your dog's behavior and you feel like all is lost, remember my story. And know that more often than not, what stands in the way becomes the way. Let these impediments to action with your dog advance your next action to achieve your goals together.
The truth is, you have nothing to lose, everything to gain, and our time with our dogs is short. By leaning into the problems you want to change through learning and compassion, you may find you not only change your dog's life for the better, but like me, yours changes as well.
If you ever looked at a dog trainer's prices and thought, "Whoah, that's a lot!", this blog is for you. If you're a dog trainer who isn't sure how to provide accurate and fair pricing to your clients, this blog is also for you. And if you're just curious about the subject, read on!
To begin with, I'd like to say that if you're not reacting with some surprise at the cost of a dog trainer, you should probably run.
Good, effective dog training and behavior modification involves an investment of time, teaching expertise, and the ability to communicate well with two very different species: humans, and dogs. Considerations of the dog's environment, health, history, and the human connection in every case we're presented with must be taken in account. An understanding of neurochemistry, a finger constantly on the pulse of new information in the fields of canine physiology and training methodology, a thorough understanding of handling equipment, and the willingness to adapt and change our approach in an instant when warranted - this is what the best of us will provide. This kind of dog training is extremely effective, provides the quickest route (without sacrificing quality) to the end goal, and it's cost reflects the scope of the work involved.
The worst of us will ofter "quick fixes". These are easy approaches, easily replicated and potentially effective in the very short term with often disastrous long term consequences. Dogs are ripped from their homes to be trained in hidden environments. We see household pets placed under tremendous physical and mental pressure and asked to cope with unfamiliar stimuli and shocked, pinned, or otherwise forced into compliance. The methods used by these "quick and cheap" trainers and their organizations lie entirely outside the realm of science, humane treatment, and any semblance of a well-informed training program, and they are never 'good'.
Somewhere in the middle are dog trainers whose work is very affordable, but too limited in scope to effect the behavioral change needed (such as when we are dealing with fearful dogs). Training in this way takes a great deal of trial, error, and time. The combination invariably reflects a lack of experience, and those of us in this arena are best utilized in the arenas of trick training and manding behaviors, where the stakes are not quite as high as when attempting to improve the life of a reactive or aggressive dog.
In fact, there's a diagram I really like called the "Triangle of Life" and in it's simplest form, it's very easy to understand. The triangle gives you three options, but you can only select two, and I daresay it's a good way to consider any one thing you are inclined to invest your time or money in.
To summarize, if something is fast and cheap, it will not be good. If something is good and fast, it will not be cheap. And if something is good and cheap, it will not be fast. This could not be any more applicable to the world of dog training and behavior modification. Decide on the kind of results you want, and choose your dog trainer accordingly.
All of this is to say, if you're interested in getting quality results as quickly as you can using the best possible methods, information, and equipment available, you can bet the work won't be cheap.
The best rarely is.
And when it comes to dog training, it's very difficult to undo the 'bad' we do to our dogs by going with the fast and the cheap, while ignoring the good. What's more, if we spend too much time with behaviors we don't want by going with the good and cheap options, those behaviors become harder and harder to change. This is because of something called habituation.
Habituation is about habits. And as any ex-smoker will tell you habits can be really hard to break, and that's with our tremendous brain power and force of will. Try to imagine the journey a dog habituated to maladaptive behaviors has to take to unlearn a habit.
Your dog's behavior is important, and the window in which to address those poor behaviors that just do not fit in his or her environment, while ever-present (until the day your dog dies - make no mistake, it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks) gets smaller all the time. As a result, the work of identifying, isolating, and changing behavior can become even more difficult.
Because choosing a dog trainer and/or behaviorist is a very serious decision affecting the well being of your entire household in a significant way, consider your choices carefully and do what makes the most sense from all three perspectives: cost, quality, and time. In this way, you can't go wrong.
In fact, we all do. Known as the amygdala, it consists of an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. This part of the brain plays a key role in the processsing of emotions, and when we're working with dogs who are overreactive, it is this part of the brain we as dog trainers are contending with.
The amygdala is hungry, selfish, horny, and when stimulated, more often than not, produces feelings of fear. Critical for survival in the wild, the role of the amygdala modulates our reactions to events that warn us of imminent danger. What we also know is that the amygdala also informs our reactions to events like the presence of sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and food. (And now you know a big part of why positive reinforcement trainers love to work with food - it's neuroscience!)
This is where we, as science based dog trainers working with reactive dogs, live and operate. To help a reactive dog become less reactive and better in control of his or her own emotions, we must quiet down the lizard brain and get our dogs working with their limbic system. If we can get our dog's lizard brain's to quiet down, we can start to effect the change in associative behavior we need. But how do we get the amygdala to just shut up?
1. Slow down. Instead of charging our dogs into every scary new interaction or situation, we need to slow things right down. Take our time getting out the door. Engage with our dog's higher reasoning long before anything frightening is on the radar. Control of this nature takes time, patience, and forethought, particularly with a dog that is used to charging out the door, but it can and should be achieved with every dog.
2. Get space. Not all dogs need to be interacting with everything they encounter. My Cocker Spaniel Gus, for example, has a real fear of unusual things left out on the street. One great example is the pair of us walking at around 9pm last fall, and just down the street someone had left a sink on the curb. About 30 feet from the thing Gus comes to a dead stop and stares at me. Confused, I tried to encourage him along. The only way he was going to proceed was to do a big wide arc around the sink - he had no interest at all in engaging with this inanimate, shadowy object in the distance. I had a choice here: I could have dragged him past it at my convenience, and paid no attention to a fearful reaction based on no real or present danger, but what would be the point? To add to his terror? To save me a few extra steps?
Acknowledging your dog's fear allows you to moderate the response, keep it from becoming a full blown panic attack, and going forward, gives you the opportunity to do some conditioning work to change the reaction. But it doesn't have to happen all at once. What's the rush, anyway?
3. Get some help. Sometimes we're so close to our dogs it can be hard to see the forest from the trees in terms of their behavior. Identifying what triggers emotional overreaction in our dogs is not an easy task, particularly when those triggers are numerous and the fear response incomprehensible to us in those particular situations. Figuring out how to manage an ever-changing environment to ensure your reactive dog has the space he or she needs can be challenging. Knowing how to systemically and humanely that underlying fear requires a number of interrelated approaches applied according to schedules and intervals of reinforcement that can be, particularly at first, difficult to apply consistently. Finding someone who specializes in helping fear reactive dogs to support and teach you how to do this work will allow you and your dog to have a much happier, calmer, and more enjoyable life together.
4. Get educated. If your dog trainer isn't imparting these handling principles to you, and teaching you how to apply what they do in an everyday way, find a new one who will. There is nothing mysterious in dog training. We are not magical, dog-speaking animal whisperers to whom the secrets of everything dog have been imparted. We are specialists, and the best of us do this work with a hope that what we know and have learned to apply to our clients becomes common knowledge. So that no dog has to suffer in fear without help any longer than absolutely necessary.
I thought quite a bit about this blog before writing it. Working with reactive dogs is my specialty as a dog trainer, and while the work isn't easy or quick it is, by far, the most rewarding work I've ever done. So what constitutes the framework surrounding what we do when brought in to work with a reactive dog? Well, it looks a lot like this:
1. It's often slow-going. And when I say slow, I mean incrementally slow. Reactivity is habitual, can be difficult to pin down (in terms of first causes), and is often informed by fear. Identifying what is provoking the reactivity, the environments in which it is most deeply habituated, getting a handle on the behavioral and medical history of the dog, what motivates the dog, and what management methods have been used before, are all critical components of this process. And not necessarily in that order!
2. It's a lot like working with a person who has panic attacks. When a human has a panic attack, reasoning and rationality goes out the window. There is no explaining to the panicked person that the danger they perceive is not an immediate threat, that they are safe with us, and that their reaction is disproportiate to the issue at hand. All we can do is hang in there, wait for the panic to pass, and then start to address the underlying cause. The method by which we manage reactive dogs in action is very similar.
3. No immediate response on our parts to the episode of panic will change or stop it. What we can do is prepare for the next spell which will, invariably, appear at some point in the future. It might follow close on the heels of the previous reactive spell, or not appear for some time. Much of this is inextricably linked to what we do in the interim.
4. It has a great deal to do with a pair of hormones: cortisol, and adrenaline. Having, at minimum, a baseline understanding of how these work in the body is critical to helping reactive dogs recover from its mental and physical fallout. Cortisol levels alone take up to 72 hours to return to normal and its over-production is often activated by stress. Adrenaline, on the other hand, is a much swifter 10-20 minutes, and is what informs the fight-or-flight response. The role of these hormones starts to make sense when you think about the behavior of your reactive dog.
5. Every dog's reactivity looks a little different. Some dogs bark uncontrollably, some lunge and growl. Some jump in the air, others still spin around in circles. Some dogs are excitable in their reactivity, some are positively terrified. Canine body language provides the clues we need to determine what's informing the response, and it is our job to read those cues while the dog is sub-threshold. That is to say, we have to catch these physical cues often within a second or two of their presentation and a) get our client dog to a safe (non-reactive) distance, or b) capture their full attention (at those times when there's just nowhere to go) until the reactive trigger has passed.
6. Reactivity does not have to be forever. Reactivity can be addressed, and when it's done with appropriate canine handling and scientific behavior modification principles, we can make a massive contribution in relieving our dogs from this terribly uncomfortable, certainly unpleasant, and socially maladaptive state of body and mind. Embarking on this journey may be the most important work you do with your dog. You may even find you have a real knack for it (like I did), and that not only does it change your dog's life, but like me, it changes yours as well.
Have you ever wondered what the cause of your dog's fear might be, and how you can help him overcome those fears? This blog is designed to help you identify fear in your dog, what to look our for that might be causing fear, and what to do when faced with something that makes your dog afraid.
This issue is often misunderstood among dog owners because the way dogs express fear (reactivity to include, but not limited to: growling, lunging, barking, staring, piloerection (raised hackles), pulling, or alternatively, cowering, running, and hiding) is often termed "bad behavior." These expressions do not make your dog a "bad dog", they're just the only way they know how to express how they're feeling in a fearful situation.
Left to cope on their own, these behaviors in your dog can become habits. As we well know, habits are really tough to break! The stresses of living in a human environment can be extremely stressful for our dogs, particularly when they just don't have the tools to cope. So, what can we do to help?
The first piece to this puzzle is learning to see the world through your dog's eyes. We want to become kind, benevolent leaders in their world who respond appropriately to their fear. Remember, emotions cannot be reinforced. Consoling your fearful dog is OKAY. When your dog is reacting out of fear, you can think of it a lot like a panic attack we humans might have. The dog is incapable of processing information normally, and therefore trying to train our dogs during these times of panic is simply impossible.
Our best course of action is to desensitize a dog to that which he or she fears. Desensitization is all about gradually and incrementally exposing our dogs to what they fear in a controlled way. We want to expose our dogs at a very low level of engagement (read: before they react) and slowly, over time, increase the level of intensity. By pairing what the dog fears with something they love, we can help him or her overcome these fears. Depending on how long the fear has been left unattended, the desensitization process can take weeks, months, or even years. The goal here is to change the underlying emotional response to that which the dog fears from panic and dread to positive anticipation.
When searching for the right trainer to help you desensitize your dog, you're looking for the following things:
1. A trainer that uses positive rewards.
2. A trainer that uses science-based training methods.
3. A trainer that is proficient in canine body language.
4. A trainer that specializes in helping fearful dogs.
If you can find these things in your trainer, you're on a great track. Move forward, tackle these issues with positivity and hope, and you and your dog will be well on your way to changing those fears for good!
The subject of this post is a critical one to me, and is likely to raise the ire of some who disagree with its content. Placing guilt, blame, or pointing a finger is not of interest here, though those of us whose methodologies it touches upon may feel that way. There are a number of very real dangers in the dog training world, and I'm not talking about tainted food, diseases, or the various contraptions or apparatus' that populate the field.
They are ideas.
These ideas are not based in the scientific research or study of canine behavior. They are not based on carefully collected observations, or hypotheses tested over many years and documented.
These are the ideas that we, as humans, somehow innately know how a dog should be treated in all situations and circumstances. That we have the answers to questions far outside our realm of experience or field of expertise. Any time we are faced with a training methodology that does not rely firmly and heavily on scientific principles of behavior and reinforcement, we should be asking the question, "Why?"
"Why does this work?"
"How do we know it works for a dog in this context/environment?"
"How do we quantify, or track, our dog's aptitude with this particular methodology, to ensure we are seeing a change in the behaviors we do not want, and an increase in the behaviors we do?"
Allow me to be clear. Any trainer possessing a dogmatic, fixed belief that their methodology is the only one that works, in the absence of scientific proof (read: data) to back it up, should be second guessed. The fallout from untried, untested, and unproofed training processes can result in lifelong challenges for any dog, no matter their breed, upbringing, and temperament. If you think rationally, and apply simple logic, it becomes clear that any approach to training dogs not supported by well tested evidence that said methodology is effective may not only result in new, unwanted behaviors, but may in fact make these behaviors worse.
Without a scientific foundation, any training path should be heavily questioned as to its effectiveness and how long it takes to reach any level of reliability whatsoever. I'm going to bet that in most instances, reliability cannot be realized without using a scientific approach and some dogs will show no progress at all until appropriate research and study is taken into the methodologies appropriate to canine learning.
"Well," you might be asking at this point. "How can I make sure my trainer or behaviorist is using principles well founded in scientific research?"
It's not that hard, actually. You can ask questions like:
"How will we measure my dog's training progress?"
"Do you have any training statistics regarding the dogs you've trained in the past who have shown significant improvement?"
You see, quantifying and qualifying our work may be the most important thing a dog trainer does for the dogs in their care. Not only does it allow us to perfect the methodologies we've learned through our studies, but it allows us to share our findings with other dog trainers in an unbiased, objective, and logical way. A dog trainer that does not evaluate their own work can expect little or no improvement in their own processes, let alone the improvement of the dogs they're charged with. The majority of dog trainers will not provide an unbiased gauge for their own work. Why? Probably a few reasons. The first being that it's much more hard work to track our observations, the efficacy of our work on the canines we train, and then modify our methodologies to ensure a better standard of training as we progress through our careers. Secondly, it may mean that the dog trainer in question might have to reconsider the manner in which they train, when they're already so good at promoting their own work that they have many people believing that it doesn't get any better. Ever.
Many well meaning dog owners have been convinced by these silver tongued trainers that their methods will transform their dog for life, no matter how unpleasant, or fun, the training may be. And when the training doesn't stick, they can't explain why. This is what evaluation allows for most importantly of all - the ability to identify and nail down what's going wrong, and then work to change it into something going right. The consequences of well reasoned, scientific dog training are immediate and powerful.
This is not an issue that should be pushed under the rug. Ensure your dog trainer can not only back up his or her claims of behavior formation and change with good research before taking their advice. Being open-minded is a wonderful thing, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism, analysis, and groundwork. After all, your dog's life may be at stake.
Many of us have, or know, a shy or over reactive dog. These dogs are aroused by certain events, or 'triggers' in their environments, and we often call them anxious dogs. These dogs experience states of high, prolonged anxiety that shows itself behaviorally in any number of ways. Some of the things we may witness are: lack of focus, spinning, panting, shaking, jumping up, snapping at the air, barking, growling, whining, an inability to eat or disinterest in food, and still more. These are all symptomatic of a dog's anxiety.
As a dog owner, understanding that anxiety is at the root of these behaviors is important in helping to teach your dog that the fear he or she is experiencing isn't necessary, and that they can depend on you, via a solid bond of trust, to handle all of the strange and unexpected things the world has to offer.
While we love them, shy or over reactive dogs can be difficult to live with. It may be only a single trigger your dog has to contend with, or there may be several. In order to change the reaction, first one must identify precisely what the trigger is and then change the dog's emotional response to the trigger. There is a right way to do this, and a wrong way.
Behavior modification is absolutely the way to go for your anxious or over reactive dog. It begins with careful observation of your dog's behavior and body language, and then analysis of this behavior to determine best practices for behavior modification going forward. First, the trigger or stimulus that precedes the reaction needs to be reduced (and in some cases, eliminated) to a degree that gives no response from the dog. This allows us to 'get in there' and recondition the emotional reaction to the trigger, and in time, recondition the dog to offer some appropriate behaviors. And it is important to note here: if your trainer/handler offers you a 'solution' to your shy/reactive dog's behaviors that involves fear, force, or pain, decline their services. These approaches will result in one, if not both of the following: a dog that has shut down completely due to fear of punishment and is, in essence, a powder keg waiting to explode, or a dog that is even more reactive as a baseline than when you began.
If you have a shy or over reactive dog, enlist the help of a handler who can help you develop the observational and anticipatory skills needed to guide your dog into healthy, appropriate emotional responses to life's daily challenges.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Pet Services and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA)