“So how long will this take? – When will it be ‘fixed’?”
These are two of the most common questions I hear from owners regarding problem behaviours with their dogs. Understandably owners are frustrated when living with a dog that might be jumping all over guests when they arrive or are displaying reactive/aggressive behaviours towards other dogs, people or a variety of other triggers either inside or outside of the home. When working with dogs to rectify any type of behaviour problem, just like us, changes in behaviour takes time, patience and hard work. We aren’t simply trying to STOP a problem behaviour, we are instead we are wanting to teach new alternate behaviours in it’s place. We’re also wanting to replace it with a new way of feeling and/or being around these triggers for the current problem behaviour(s). Very often it can also involve making some changes to our dog’s diet,eating patterns, exercise, relationship with us, routines and much more. This all takes a lot of time too for our dogs to adapt to.
It’s also important to clearly define, what does ‘fixed’ look like? Do you want your dog to simply be able to walk past another dog out on the street? Or do you want your dog to be able to tolerate going to a day care or dog park? Do you not want them jumping on you when you get home? Or do you not want them jumping on a large group of children running around near them within a few short weeks?
Are our expectations reasonable? Will your dog actually enjoy these experiences?
We need to factor in our dog’s past experiences, learning histories and much more. Have they been practicing this problem behaviour for a long time? Has it worked for them for a long time? Have they never done any training before? Are they actually frightened or just excited?
With popular TV shows such as Cesar Milan showing clever editing of methods utilising intimidation to rapidly shut down dog’s behaviour, rapid changes within an hour’s episode can give a false idea of what is realistic and more importantly what is fair and ethical in any type of behaviour change plan. Unfortunately often all we are doing is using aversive strategies to suppress the outward expression of underlying emotions. It isn’t teaching new learned behaviours in the presence of triggers, nor creating newly conditioned positive emotional responses, but merely using punitive methods to reduce our dog’s methods of communication. These methods can effectively work on the ‘problem behaviour’, however it can unfortunately create some fall out in many dogs. This can include making our dogs more nervous in general, and it can also result in other more significant reactive behaviours due to enhanced stress and anxiety in the presence of the associated stimuli in the environment that they associate the punishers with.
What does nervous/fearful body language look like?
When we think about ourselves traveling to a new country where we don’t speak the language, we may pick up a few words over the course of our holiday but we don’t learn a fluent language within a few short days or weeks. It takes a lot of repetition of learning what words mean and what the outcome is for us hearing particular words. We gradually start to feel safe around new things we haven’t seen before. We gradually begin to acclimate to new routines, experiences and expectations of behaviours. We do it slowly and don’t throw ourselves right in at the deep end until we feel confident about what’s expected of us and how to communicate. We tend to take friends or family that help us feel safe in a new situation. Others that we have a secure and trusting bond with as they help us feel safe. This all helps us to feel confident, resilient and it builds our self-esteem in stressful new environments. These trusted, available and safe people flood us with a hormone (Oxytocin – the hug hormone) which acts to reduce flight and fight responses from occurring and helps us feel confident to try new things. To provide this to our dogs too, we have to be safe, caring and available guardians to them.
Management of our environments are so crucial at all times too when implementing any behaviour change plan. Reactivity is easily the most common issue I work with clients for over the past few years. It’s a growing concern in modern dogs and one that is worryingly growing exponentially. This is not a simple issue to address. It’s not a matter of learning a new ‘language’ such as sit gets attention or going to your mat gets treats. Being reactive to other dogs is most often rooted in a dog having a fear of other dogs being present whether it’s through lack of exposure or a previous negative experience. It could be that they’ve learned to play rough with every dog they see and pulling and barking gets them closer. They are using their available forms of communication to say ‘let me get there’, or perhaps ‘I don’t know how to cope with this!’ and most commonly, ‘get that dog away from me’. They’ve learned through repetition that this behaviour performs their intended function so it gets reinforced and gets stronger.
Just like any fears humans experience, I know if someone said to me ‘here is a spider right next to you, get over it and don’t scream or I will slap you in the face’, is not going to make me like spiders any time soon. It MAY however stop me screaming at it in fear of being hit. The crucial aspect here is that the fear still remains and I certainly don’t feel safe. What I might do though is snap at any point as the panic becomes too much to hold back. Just like in treatment in the human psychology discipline, treating a fear or phobia takes lots of positive exposure at safe distances that are below our threshold for panic behaviour and conducted in carefully controlled set up scenario’s. This facilitates being able to change a negative emotional response to their presence from ‘this is scary or overwhelming’ to ‘it’s okay nothing bad happened’ or ‘I can look at my owner and relax instead’. Even for frustration behaviour, this exposure needs to be below threshold for triggering frustrated lunging and barking for our dogs in order to have a relaxed brain that can successfully learn new behaviours in it’s place. Instead our dog’s are learning that they receive food, praise or another highly valued reinforcer to practice a more desired behaviour such as to sit or look at my owner as this trigger goes past. If our dog wants to in fact meet the dog, access to a social interaction with the dog may be used as the reinforcer for more desirable alternate behaviours if that’s what they want and if it’s safe to do so. In times that we aren’t doing these controlled exposures, any exposure to feared triggers or dog’s our dog want to meet should be eliminated or at least kept at huge distances as to not trigger fearful or frustrated responses. Otherwise it simply reaffirms to our dog that this behaviour is okay or that it works to get their desired outcome.
A great infographic about how we help teach our dogs to feel safe.
So how do I answer the question ‘when will this be fixed?’ or ‘how long will this all take?’.
Well it all depends on you, your dog, and your expectations.
What do we want as the end goal of the behaviour and is that realistic? What does ‘fixed’ look like?
Will you focus on what you want your dog to do instead and be working on training those behaviours regularly at home to build a strong reinforcement history when they aren’t around the trigger?
Will you manage your dog’s environment to ensure no set-backs to their training when you aren’t in a position to be training?
Will you ensure you’re always prepared to be training every time you take your dog out? Every outing is learning for your dog, whether you’re wanting it to be training or not.
Will you ensure you work at a slow and gradual pace to ensure you keep your dog below threshold at all times?
Just like any behaviour, practice makes perfect. The more you work on it and the less you allow situations that set yourselves back, and the more realistic you have your goals, you could both be successful quite quickly! But what does that success look like? And how much time and effort are you willing to commit to getting there? It’s not only crucial to set our dogs up for success, but set yourselves up for success too. No long-standing behaviour problem will be fixed in a short time-frame, not long lasting changes to underlying issues anyhow. Getting support from an experienced professional behavioural trainer is also critical to understanding why your dog is behaving the way they are and what strategy is needed to successfully help modify it.
What does a positively conditioned alternate behaviour look like?
A great website with some video content and descriptions of the methods we align with in our training methods is http://careforreactivedogs.com/ Highly recommend checking it out.
If you’re having a problem with your dog’s behaviour and you’re struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel, contact us to find out how we can help you reach that goal!