“I need to get this fixed and as soon as possible!” This is a statement we hear often from a prospective client when their dog has some sort of behavioral issue. They want their dog to behave differently but just don’t know where to start. We understand, we were once there with Cody, our own dog, when we adopted him from our local shelter.
The unwanted behaviors run the gambit from simply pulling on leash or jumping on guests to serious and very dangerous aggressive displays and everything in between. There can be many reasons why the dog is behaving the way that he is. The reason might stem from a lack of basic manners training, boredom, anxiety or a lack of proper early socialization. It is not however because the dog is trying to become dominate over you, so you can rest easy there. No, our dogs are not conspiring to take over the world.
My job as a dog trainer and behavior consultant is help the human end of the leash understand why the behavior is happening and how to start taking appropriate steps to help the dog be successful in a given situation. So often when we see our dogs as behaving badly we lean towards punishing the dog. We just want to make it “stop!” Unfortunately, using punishment has many pitfalls and often leads to other behaviors we don’t want. If instead, we see the dog as having a hard time dealing with a particular situation, then we lean towards helping the dog work through these situations and succeed – that’s what we really want – success for both ends of the leash.
Lately I’ve had several clients whose dogs are displaying fearful behaviors. This ranges from running and hiding (retreating) to aggressive displays (a distance increasing behavior) in an effort to make the scary thing go away. We may look at the situation and think, “Well Fluffy, there’s nothing here to be afraid of,” but in the dog’s mind it is perceived as a real threat. A fearful dog has three options Fight, Flight, or Freeze and it’s our job to help them through these scary situations.
This is where the Fixing comes in (or not). What I ask you to remember is that our dogs are living, breathing, sentient beings. They are not an appliance that we can simply fix with a new part or a tune up. We now know that dogs do have emotions and feelings thanks in part to the work done by neuroscientist Gregory Burns at Emory University using MRI technology to see the dog’s brain in action.
So if we can’t just fix it, what can we do? Start by simply working with the dog in front of you. Don’t hold a grudge because he’s not like your last dog. Don’t take it personally when the dog reacts out of fear. Once we take our own ego out of the picture we can begin to help the dog begin to become the dog he can really be. That doesn’t mean that every dog can become Lassie, but it does mean we can make positive progress. In many cases it’s just a matter of doing a few minutes a day of solid positive reinforcement training and one can begin to see real results. In the case of a fearful dog and other more serious behavioral issues we have to take training gradually and work at the dog’s speed. I’ve often asked clients to speak with their veterinarian about consulting with a board certified veterinary behaviorist to see if pharmaceuticals might be in order. The veterinary behaviorists at the University of Georgia will consult with your veterinarian free of charge.
So next time you see your dog not quite getting it right, ask yourself, “How can I change things up so my dog can succeed? What can I do to make my dog more comfortable in this situation?” Working with your dog toward a successful solution is the real fix we all need.
Brad Waggoner is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a KPA Certified Training Partner (CTP), a dog∗tec Certified Dog Walker, a Certified Fear-Free Professional, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior and Partner of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. He enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. www.coldnosecollege.com