When we try to deal with our pet’s problem behavior, it’s important to understand the reason for the behavior. Invariably, there isn’t just one cause, one thing we can point a finger to, but multiple reasons for why the behavior occurs. Likewise, the treatment plan needs to take a multi-faceted approach. Sometimes the remedies may not seem directly relevant to the behavior, but very often they are the easiest to implement, and may result in a behavior that seems much less of a problem. These remedies also set the stage for successful training.
Another important consideration has to do with the functional nature of the behavior. Where we view the behavior as a problem, it may be that our pet perceives it as an important and effective way to stay safe, for example. Are we, in effect, asking our pet to give something up that helps them feel more secure without helping them find other ways to feel safe? By considering the functional nature of behavior and taking a multi-dimensional approach to a problem behavior, we can address this so that the remedy works for our pets and the people in their lives.
When part of the solution involves training, we often teach an alternative behavior, one that is incompatible with the problem behavior. It’s not necessary to teach the pet what not to do, i.e. punish the behavior, and it is more effective to teach them what to do instead, i.e. reinforce an alternative behavior. It’s also necessary to arrange things so that the dog won’t continue doing the behavior we want to change. We call this management. As long as there is opportunity for the pet to continue rehearsing the behavior you are trying to change, little progress can be made.
“Science tells us that one of the most effective ways to manage fear in animals is to allow the organism some control over their environment.” I think this is a quote from Dr. Susan Friedman. So many of the behavior problems that I see have some basis in fear, and so it is vital that our treatment plan include ways that the animal can have more control over outcomes. While we can’t give the animals in our care complete control over many things, it is surprisingly easy to provide more, and we would expect to see a decrease in the problem behaviors we wish to change as a result.