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 and everything to gain. 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 will change 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!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.