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.
A thoughtful approach to a puppy’s socialization needs should begin with the breeder. When this is the path taken by soon-tobe new puppy guardians, choosing a breeder that knows the appropriate kind and amount of daily handling and exposure to physical stimuli is so important – important to the long-term behavioral, emotional and physical well being of a developing puppy.
But no matter where or when you get your puppy, a well-socialized puppy is more likely to grow into a confident and reliable dog, one that you can safely take anywhere. Once the puppy is in your care, developing his or her confidence through positive exposure to a variety of things should be your primary focus in your first weeks together. An unpleasant experience can leave your dog with long lasting fears. Similarly, a puppy that isn’t provided positive exposures will likely develop into an adult dog that is fearful and lacks confidence.
Soon after puppies are born, during their first period of socialization, they interact with their mother and littermates. It’s during this time that they learn to recognize their own kind and how to communicate with them. At 6-12 weeks of age, the second period of socialization, they begin to learn to adapt to humans and our environment, and continue to learn social skills with dogs outside their litter. This is the time to provide them supervised opportunities to play with other puppies. This is also the time to teach them to play with people and toys, and to learn to interact with people and earn treats from them.
There are a couple periods when puppies are more likely to experience fear to new things – around 8-10 weeks of age, and again around 6-14 months. It’s important to be aware of this and to do your best to prevent traumatizing events from happening during these times. Furthermore, even though your puppy is beyond the 12-week mark, it does not mean that there isn’t a need to continue socialization. In fact, puppies that are wellsocialized up to 12 weeks can still become fearful if positive social experiences do not continue to occur.
When providing opportunities for positive exposure it is important that you let your puppy take things at her pace – let her decide how close she wants to get or whether to engage with the experience. Avoid forcing her or trapping her in a situation in which she does not feel safe. Many owners don’t realize that a puppy on leash, or held in your arms, is a trapped puppy. With the best of intentions, owners allow people to come close and pet their puppy, without realizing the terror or fear the puppy may be experiencing. From the puppy’s perspective, it isn’t positive exposure. So if you want your puppy to have good feelings about other people as an adult dog, make sure you let her approach people, and only if that is what she wants. As long as she has the choice, and doesn’t feel coerced into a situation that worries her, it will likely be a positive experience. Also, allow her to move away when she wants. Distance will help her feel safer in situations where she is wary and unsure. Maybe the next time she will feel more confident and even move closer?
If by chance your puppy does have a negative experience with, for example, a bearded man in a hat, make sure she has more really good experiences with bearded men wearing hats. Don’t let that one bad experience make a lasting impression on your puppy. If you are using treats, offer her a treat when she sees such a man. Eventually if she is willing to come close and sniff the man’s hand, she may feel comfortable taking a treat from him too.
Positive encounters with people, places, other animals, smells, sounds, textures, etc., are extremely important to the health and well being of a puppy. Avoiding exposure to harmful diseases is also critical, so take care to keep your puppy safe while you offer positive experiences. Direct contact isn’t necessarily the goal, but good experiences are.
I introduced myself in the ABOUT page of my website, listing and explaining what all those letters after my name mean. My educational credentials are important and significant qualifications in this field that is unregulated. Anyone can say they are pet trainers or behaviorists without having the knowledge or experiential requirements. An unfortunate consequence of this is that many of the coercive techniques being used can do more harm than good. Some may even worsen the problems they aim to fix. Here’s an article to help find someone qualified to help you and your pet:
The topic of agency comes up a lot when I help clients with leash walking. A good way to understand what it is and why it’s important is to try to imagine what your dog might be experiencing. Imagine you are on a leash with a human companion and this person is in charge, deciding where you will go, how fast you will go, when you can or cannot stop and check something out, and when the walk is over. Say there is something along the way that you would normally choose to avoid, maybe you worry for your safety or are just not in the mood to engage with whatever it is. Your human companion is oblivious to your concerns and wishes, and perhaps thinks that you should just “get over it” and move on. You are forced to move closer to that thing. You cannot move away and find a distance or place where you will feel safe or more comfortable. You are trapped. Without that ability to choose and control the outcome, can you imagine the frustration, the anger, the fear, the measures you might feel you need to take in order to keep yourself safe? Or what if it’s something you really want to check out, but you can’t access it because your human companion on the other end of the leash prevents you. It’s that lack of agency on leash that can make leash walking a challenge for our dogs.
Just like our dogs, we human dog walkers, can also experience a diminished sense of agency. When we walk with dogs that pull, or would rather chase wildlife, or bark and lunge at the sight of another dog, that feeling of being pulled and tugged at can wear us down along with our patience. On our bad days, many of us with reactive dogs end up behaving badly ourselves. We become reactive!
That reduced sense of agency when we put on a leash can be the source of much conflict between dogs and the people who walk them. The most important first step to a remedy is understanding this. When we approach leash walking with that appreciation and take steps to give back some of the agency that is taken away, we reduce the conflict.
If we were tethered to another human, we would likely be talking, sharing our concerns and desires and negotiating a walk that is enjoyable for each of us. In the absence of a shared language, we are left to find other ways of dialoguing with our dogs. We can watch our dogs’ body language, notice whether or not they are responding to our cues, whether or not they will take treats, etc. These inform us of their level of comfort or interest in something. We can express our wishes by reinforcing behaviors we like, both ones we ask for, and ones they offer on their own. The more we dialogue with our dogs in this way, the more we shift the momentum from being trapped together and competing on leash, to a shared walk we can both enjoy.