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The ‘Quick Fix’ – Not So Quick After All

Being more aware of a dog’s emotional state can help owners understand the motivation behind his/her behavior in any given context © Can Stock Photo/ESIGHT

In today’s society, it seems everything has to happen ‘now.’  Results are expected instantaneously and I think, sadly, this notion has to a certain extent worked it’s way into how we think, feel, and live our lives with our dogs too.  Time is precious, and we haven’t always got space for ‘issues’ our dogs may throw at us or, if we have, there must be some quick solution.

I am very fortunate in that the majority of dog owners I work with, truly understand that to achieve the results you want, you will have to put time, dedication and emotional resources in – end of.

Basic Training – It takes time.  I’m sure there are many trainers who will share my frustrations at the all too common belief that after your planned ‘x week’ course, Fido is not perfectly trained! I try to use analogies as often as possible because I think it helps in understanding. Dogs do not have an infinite learning capacity. Do we learn all we need to learn in a specific amount of time? Do we all learn at the same rate? Of course not! Learning is so dependent upon so many factors; individual differences of the learner, context, environment and specific aspects of the teacher and their abilities for a start. Learning is an ongoing process, as illustrated by the dogs who progress through various class stages or those dogs who have owners who constantly ‘top up’ their learning – it’s a joy to see.

Think Why – Before resorting to devices/’wonder’ products. Listen, listen, listen to what your dog is saying and think why is she pulling, not responding, barking etc. If there’s one thing I would like to change about dog ownership, it would be better dog-owner communication, there is far too much ‘act first’. Before racing to the nearest pet store for their latest hard sell, actually think about why your dog needs that product.  Maybe you can actually change something about the way that dog feels or thinks about the situation or context she’s in, rather than just rashly act – I bet you can! Understand your dog may feel frustrated, threatened, anxious, distracted, excited – just a few underlying emotions felt when restricted on the lead and pulling, not attending in class, barking and driving you nuts.

Device Cure All? – Simply masking the situation or worse.  Certain equipment can be very useful, especially for behavioral training, such as headcollars, harnesses (especially front lead) and muzzles, but they must be introduced correctly via desensitization and counterconditioning strategies or dogs will simply not tolerate them and they will become aversive. Anti-bark collars (emitting scents/noise and shock inducing), sprays (water, compressed air), sharp noises (training discs, pebble cans), e-collars (shock inducing), prong collars, choke chains etc. are all examples of methods marketing as quick fix, cure all’s, that are pretty readily available. Over the years, I’ve heard owners report ‘wonderful results’ from such devices. That is until they either stop working or Fido becomes a nervous wreck.  This is the issue.  Such devices are not positive methods of training. They are forms of punishment which cause either fear and anxiety, pain and discomfort. A dog’s behavior may indeed appear to be treated, barking may subside, but only due to the fear of being blasted by an air can. The nature of punishment being such, in order to remain effective, the ‘strength’ of the delivery will need to be progressively increased in order to avoid habituation, which is why owners report that their dogs ‘have become used’ to scent collars, being yanked on the lead etc.  A far better and humane approach, backed up by scientific research, is to add in a more appropriate behavior that may replace the old, and positively reinforce that – a qualified behavior consultant will show you how.

It Takes Time – New learning doesn’t happen immediately. Just like us, if your dog has to learn a new behavior, he is still going to want to repeat the old for a little time – a phenomenon known as ‘blocking,’ i.e. old learning interfering with the acquisition of the new. When you’re wanting to change something your dog does e.g. racing off and running to play with other dogs, he’s not going to stop doing this in one week! It’s fun, he’s sociable and he may have been doing this for a long while. Give him time, be consistent and be patient.

I’ve written this piece today, really for the benefit of all dogs and to give them a voice. It is great to have goals and expectations and that is to be encouraged, but those have to be manageable and realistic and it can be incredibly frustrating when owners do not work within those remits – remember dogs are individuals, have patience and listen.

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