There are some fundamentals to behavior modification that every dog owner must be aware of before employing the help of a behavior specialist. I'm going to outline some of the most basic here so that you know what kinds of questions you should be asking, as well as the kind of information you should be receiving, from your dog behavior expert.
Having a solid understanding of how the brain works is critical to good behavior modification. We begin with the amygdala, or lizard brain. This is the emotional center of the brain. It is responsible for fight or flight reactions, temperature control, safety, the need for food, sex, and other basic survival needs.
We move next to the limbic system. Wrapped around the lizard brain, the limbic system is all about emotions. The canine limbic system is very similar - nearly identical - to the human limbic system. Here we have mood, memory, and hormone control.
Finally, we have the neocortex. This is only found in mammals. It can be divided into four subsystems: a) the frontal cortex, associated with movements, relationships, associations, and learning, b) the parietal cortex, fundamental to associative function, c) the occipital cortex, which controls vision and association, and d) the temporal cortex, responsible for equilibrium, hearing and association.
2. Establishing baseline
A great example of the importance of establishing a behavioral baseline is the game of Clue. In this game, we attempt to determine the murderer via a series of clues that appear when we explore the rooms of the house the game takes place within. If we simply started the first round of the game trying to determine who the murderer was via their appearance, we would find our participation almost immediately forfeit (outside a stroke of great luck).
Understanding behavior is similar. We cannot walk into a room, take one look at the subject of our inquiry, and start making assumptions about the how or why of this or that behavior. We must establish a baseline of behavior first from which we can compare behaviors in context. Context can include environment, verbal, visual, or motion cues, and other similar stimuli. Establishing baseline behaviors takes time, and in the case of canines, an inherent understanding of human behavior. This may seem counterintuitive. Allow me to explain why understanding human behavior is fundamental to this work next.
3. Understanding human behavior.
Behavior specialists, who do not often have the luxury of spending the many hours needed to establish baseline behavior with the dogs we are asked to work with, must rely on their human counterparts for information. If we cannot determine then, whether or not these human counterparts are giving us the whole or only part of the truth, we end up with a baseline that is flawed. As a result, the application of our work is inadequate to meet the behavioral needs of the animal, and the needed modification breaks down or works only in part.
Corollary to the above, know that it is not that the humans in this behavior equation are knowingly deceptive or wanting to waylay the specialists they've hired to address the "problem" behavior with their dogs. In many cases, they are simply unaware of what motivates them to tell a partial or rationalized version of what is underlying the issue at hand (we have the neocortex to thank for this). Getting to the bottom of this is the subject of many textbooks on human psychology and behavior, and is not the purview of this article. Simply knowing that this is fundamentally the case allows canine behavior specialists to equip themselves with the tools necessary to address behaviors in context that may not be spelled out as part of the baseline provided to us by their owners. A good behavior specialist will take this information and blend it with a behavioral baseline they themselves establish, within the framework of where the 'trouble is' provided by the human caregiver.
4. Cluster Analysis and Behavioral Profiling
Behavior specialists will use clusters to explore our gathered datasets about the canine in question and discover patterns within the data, allowing us to simplify them in such a way that we reduce the complexity. Clustering is imminently useful for categorizing behaviors and getting an overall idea about the variances in behavior and how that behavior is organized (see 2. Baseline). Clustering techniques require expertise to utilize, and an understanding of the subject in question is essential to evaluating the results of clustering.
Fundamentally, cluster analysis is a dimensional reduction technique. It allows us to take the datasets we've collected, which have many dimensions, and locate the dimensions that matter the most (for example, environment or a particular stimulus.) This is invaluable for finding patterns in behavior and developing a behavioral profile that then provides an insight into the kind of behavioral protocols most appropriate in context.
If you've taken the time to come this far in this very difficult, heavily science-based blog, well done. I'm going to take an educated guess and say that you may, in fact, be here reading this because you yourself are interested in working with dogs - maybe your own, or as a career choice. One great way to get started is through the Dunbar Academy's online course workshops. These are designed for the layperson who may want to develop their understanding of dog behavior, and those who are considering dog training and behavior modification as a career path. Dr. Ian Dunbar's work is where I started, and I highly recommend taking his Where Do We Go From Here class, and/or his Crucial Concepts
Behavior modification is a heavily scientific, progressive, detailed process that should never be undertaken lightly. Ensure that your behavior specialist has a solid handle on the principles necessary to perform this work well to ensure the least possible fallout should the process go awry. It is my hope that this blog will help you understand some of the fundamental knowledge your behaviorist must have before employing them in the behavioral modification of your most valued canine friend.
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, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.