Most of our dog pet owners are not aware that there are different philosophies/approaches to “training” a dog and more so how to approach solving behavior problems.
There are two main veins of approach even though I titled with three; two of them go together.
Medical Model see “problem behavior” as if it’s a disease.
The “trainer”, “counselor” or “veterinary behaviorist” may take a history of your dog and come up with a diagnosis for the behavior and label it something like “dominance aggression”. This approach focuses too heavily on the “symptoms” presented and do little to address the underlying cause of the undesired behavior(s). Addressing only the symptom can lead to more undesirable side effects. Labeling behavior can also open the door to ill training practices. Once a diagnosis is given, then a treatment can be outlined. Treatment can include medications and protocols based on mis-understood and mis-applied knowledge about dog behavior. Medical terms such as “diagnosis” and “treatment” should be avoided as they would imply that the “trainer” is practicing medicine without a license.
This sort of approach of using a medical diagnosis to control or change a problem behavior often leads owners down one path. Either their veterinarian shows/tells them what to do when “x” undesired behavior happens or the dog owner seeks out a “trainer” to stop/fix unwanted behavior(s).
After the fact knee-jerk reactions to a behavior we don’t desire occurs anytime someone recommends you to “pin the dog to the ground until they submit,” “show them who’s boss,” “put them in their place,” “escalate your efforts until you get the result,” pop the choke chain or prong collar or to use shock are all. By focusing on the ‘symptom’ you are putting a Band-Aid on the true issue AND you are not teaching your dog what to do instead. This approach of using intimidation, force, fear, pain, coercion to get compliance is a very slippery slope. Other behaviors can emerge such as increased fear, increased avoidance, increased aggression, increased health conditions, and increased distrust between dog and owner(s).
Murray Sidman: Coercion And Its Fallout “the use of punishment leads inevitably to the conclusion that punishment is a most unwise, undesirable, and fundamentally destructive method of controlling conduct.”
Behavioral Model approach is a modern method of solving behavior problems focusing on creating positive actions.
I prefer a functional assessment approach. A comprehensive history is taken to form a hypothesis for the expression on target behavior. Everything is considered: the dog’s learning history, medical history, biological innate behaviors for that breed, environmental stimuli, social interactions ,intra-pet dynamics, and any other factors associated with the occurrence (and non-occurrence) of the target behavior. We collect data, we observe concerning behaviors and we generate a checklist that help to generate a hypothesis.
Two big questions asked are:
- What are the setting events that make the occurrence of the behavior more likely? (Antecedents / Triggers)
- What function does the behavior seem to serve for the animal? (Consequences)
Once we define the function for the behavior then we can generate a behavior change program. The ultimate goal is to teach a replacement behavior or behaviors and to change the conditioned emotional response to a stimulus or a cluster of stimuli. This is a more pro-active approach to changing unwanted behaviors. Once we understand what triggers the unwanted behaviors we can manage the dog and/or environment. We can decrease problem behavior and increase more desired alternative behaviors and teach new skills.
Punishment can temporarily ‘stop’ a behavior but usually it really is just suppressed.
Punishment can also diminish or remove your dog’s ability to communicate with you when they are in an unpleasant situation. But there is no instruction on how you would rather they behave. It’s a void leading to behavioral fallout. When you take the time to understand dog behavior and by being more pro-active with their environment and teaching them the appropriate way to behave, it’s a far more instructive and humane approach.
You simply can’t go with the “As long as it works for now” approach. Effectiveness of approach to solving problem behaviors isn’t enough. As Dr. Susan Friedman points in in her article, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? EFFECTIVENESS IS NOT ENOUGH – Dr Susan Friedman, PhD,” that both ethical and feasible ways to change behavior should be in the best interest of the animal, their owners and the professionals working with them. By selecting the least intrusive approach using positive reinforcement based learning increases the humaneness of the interventions.
Think before you act.
Daphne Robert-Hamilton, CPDT-KA
Daphne Robert-Hamilton is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. She was a Certified Equestrian Coach by the Canadian Equestrian Federation before moving into the dog training world. She competed extensively with her two Doberman Pinschers from 1997-2002 and achieved being a finalist in the Top 20 Obedience in 2000 and 2002 with the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. In 2002 Daphne graduated from the SFSPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, which is now defunked. She went on to intern at the SFSPCA Academy and graduated with honors in dog aggression. Daphne became the go-to trainer in the SF Bay Area for aggression cases. Daphne has done webinars, been interviewed in several dog magazines and has written a two part article on “sibling rivalry” for The Chronicle of The Dog. Daphne was the Head Trainer for Washington state for Pets for Vets for about two years. She has fostered many dogs helping them find loving forever homes. Daphne is a member of The Pet Professional Guild.
Daphne has been married for 24yrs and currently lives with her two Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Washington State.
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