Mark's Dog Blog

To truly help a dog, don't become attached to a tool or method


Whenever I go into a client's home, I never go in with a preconceived notion that I am going to use a particular method or tool.  My number one focus is to first understand the underlying cause for the behavioural issue, and what the triggers are. Important in this observation is what type of relationship the owner has with their dog and then I work from there.

I realise I do express myself strongly about positive-only and force free methods. However, these feelings are directed at those that are not willing to step outside their box and open their eyes to other methods, or that continually accuse trainers that have a more open and balanced approach as being abusive. Or if their 'method of choice' is not successful, they tend to blame the dog or owner, instead of accepting that other methods may be more appropriate for this particular case. In at least 99% of cases, you will not find a positive-only or force-free trainer or Vet Behaviourist that will pass on a case that they have been unable to deal with to a trainer with a more open approach. It's this arrogant attitude that a method is more important than the dog that I cannot accept, and will strongly speak my mind about.

In many cases, I find that even if a positive-only or force-free method will be successful, it can be extremely slow to achieve results, and is why most dog owners eventually give up on the method. Most dog owners don't want to spend months trying to be 100% consistent for minute gradual changes in behaviour, especially if the unwanted behaviours are stressful for the dog's owner or their dog. Most dog owners are looking for quick results, that are of course not abusive. Methods that can help a dog too quickly learn to avoid inappropriate behaviours, and therefore choose more appropriate ones.

I have never had a client make an accusation against me that I was abusive to their dog. Have I at times had to be firm with a dog? Damn right I have, but never to a level that was detrimental to the dog psychologically, or negatively affected the relationship between the dog and its owner. My focus is always on creating and maintaining balance. I would state that in more than 90% of my consultations my focus is on the relationship between owner and dog, as in most cases I work with, this relationship has become out of balance, and is therefore contributing to many of the dog's behavioural issues. When we get the relationship back into balance, magically, in many cases I work with, the unwanted behaviours simply disappear.

An example was a consultation, I had last Saturday. The client booked me because he and his wife had run out of options on how to help their 2 dogs (Dachshunds). They had been trying medication as recommended by a Vet Behaviourist for a long period of time (almost 2 years for one of the dogs). They also had another dog trainer out, however, none of these options had been effective for helping their dog's anxiety issues, especially for separation and on-lead reactivity. It had gotten to the stage that they were spending a heap of money putting their dogs into daycare, because they couldn't leave their dogs at home alone in their apartment. Not to mention the stressful walks. So they decided to book me to see if I could help them.

The dog's issues:

  • My clients could not leave their dogs in the apartment by themselves, even for a few minutes. They would bark incessantly and throw themselves at the door.
  • The apartment intercom would set the dogs off barking when clients were at home.
  • Reactivity on lead towards other dogs, bikes, scooters, etc.

I sat with my client and his wife and spent time getting to know them and their dogs. To cut a long story short, what became very apparent to me, none of the other 'professionals' they had seen before me had actually focused on the relationship my clients had with their dogs, and therefore really had no understanding of the root cause of the problems. The Vet Behaviourist was only focusing on the anxiety and not the root cause, so only prescribed medication. The other trainer had only focused on a method to try and stop the behaviour, and not work through the underlying cause of the behaviour. I stepped in to help, and in less than 2 hours of me being with my clients, we had totally different dogs in the home. We could leave the apartment without the dogs carrying on, much to my clients amazement. We could take the dogs for a walk in the park with no reactivity at all, again to my clients complete amazement. I didn't use any aversive to punish these behaviours, I just helped change the relationship the owners had with their dogs, to help create a more balanced state in the dogs them self.

I am not suggesting that all my consultations have such dramatic changes so quickly, however, it's not unusual. It's not magic, it's all about understanding the entire picture and therefore having a more holistic approach to helping the dogs.

The funny thing was, my client confessed to me at the end of my consultation that he was worried that I was going to advise them to get ecollars for their dogs, to correct their unacceptable behaviours. He had read my posts about ecollars and therefore knew I recommended them. He stated he would have accepted this method if I had have advised them too, as he and his wife were now desperate. Ecollars, even though I do believe they are excellent tools in the right hands, they are not the tool I go out of my way to recommend to all my clients. This tool was not used in this case. The only piece of equipment we changed to was slip leads instead of the harnesses the dogs were currently walked on.

I tend not to go into a home committed to a particular tool to 'stop' a behaviour. If I went to all my clients with that mindset, my focus would be too much on the actual tool or method, and therefore possibly not look for the underlying cause and working from there. I would be no different to the other professionals that attended my client before me, if I was too focused on a method or tool. I would be no different to the Vet that only administered drugs, or the other trainer that only focused on a particular method.

My point being, we should never lock our self into a box, believing that a particular method or tool is the only answer. As we may, if we are not careful, fall into the trap of only focusing on how a preferred method or tool can stop an unwanted behaviour (for example, medication to mask the anxiety, or ecollar to administer an aversive to stop the behaviour), and not focus on why the behaviours manifest in the first place. We need an open and holistic approach to behaviour modification which includes the dogs environment and overall relationship with its owners. If I had the attitude that either ecollars, or prong collars, or correction chains, or treat pouches, or drugs, were the 'end-all and be-all', then I could possibly limit myself to the one I am more attached to, and recommend a particular tool or method to all my clients, without truly working on the underlying cause for the behavioural problem. For example, I know there are trainers out there, that will for example recommend an ecollar to every client, as that is their preferred method or training tool, or others that will only recommend positive-only techniques.  When a method or tool becomes our main focus, we can tend to get caught up in trying to work out how our method or preferred tool can 'fix' the problem and possibly even blame the dog if it doesn't adapt to our method.

Modifying behaviour is not just about 'stopping' the unwanted behaviour, it's about fully understanding why the behaviour manifests in the first place. To fully understand the unwanted behaviour, we need to step back and look at the entire picture, not just a snapshot of the behaviour itself. This can mean looking for links that actually may appear to have nothing to do with the unwanted behaviours we want to modify, but that may have some type of distant relationship or connection. Usually, this means looking at the entire relationship the owner has with their dog and working from there.

A true behaviour specialist isn't concerned about or attached to a tool or method, but is more concerned with a holistic approach to help create and maintain balance.

So when I come to your home to help you and your dog, don't expect me to walk in with a particular tool and say, this is how we will stop the unwanted behaviour. Expect me to sit with you for possibly an hour, before I even work with your dog, to help me get a full understanding of your relationship with your dog, so that I can look for possible links that may be contributing to your dog's unacceptable behaviours, and then work from there.

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