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Behavioural problems and the role of the owners

Whenever there is problem with our pets, the owners play the most important role in solving it.

If it is medical problem then in most cases a visit to the vet will resolve it with various medications. It is for this reason in most cases I ask pet owners to first seek advice from their vets regarding any problem. It is important they are consulted even if it turns out it is not a medical problem.

If it is a behavioural problem that the vet cannot solve then it is essential that the owners understand the problem as well as the suggested methods to cure this. There are very many cases where owners have carried out remedial work with their pets without understanding what and why they were doing it so they made a mistake and the cure failed.

When this happens the owners will often blame the behaviourist that, their methods did not work. Many times a behaviourst will fail to follow up cases so is unaware that the cure failed and the owners had given up.

A common example is corrective domination training for an aggressive or dominant dog. It is easy for a behaviourst who has learned only from books to simply set out the standard remedies and do no more. Often the problem is they do not have any actually experience of working with such dogs.

If the behaviourist has actually had this sort of experience, they will know the indications to look for that show the correction method is working. The best indicator here is when the dog starts to become aggressive towards the owners. This is in fact a good sign as it means the owners are succeeding and their dog is annoyed at having to loose its position in the hierarchy. When owners see this, it is important to continue with the retraining. If the behaviourist is not aware of this and does not tell the owners about this important indicator the owners when confronted by, their increasingly aggressive dog could believe the programme is not working and make matters worse by stopping the treatment and possibly saying nothing to the behaviourist.

The problem with stopping the treatment is the dog learns it has defeated its owners so it takes on the role of a dominant dog with even more enthusiasm.

In the United Kingdom, there were so many inexperienced behaviourists unaware of these types of success or failure indicators. Without these, the owners do not know how to measure success or failure and why there was so much dissatisfaction. This is just one of the reasons why behaviourism gained such a poor reputation.

It is so important that the behaviourst fully understands the way the owners perceive the problem so they can better explain why things went wrong in the first place. When they understand this, it is then possible to explain why the advised corrective methods of retraining will work as well as explaining how to assess the progress.

Only in this way is there any chance of success.

One common problem is owners do not fully understand or that they have ideas of their own so they often alter the method in a way they think is more correct but this only make matters worse.

One example is on every occasion, I explain the importance of not making a barking dog become collar conscious if they are going to use a gas collar to curb the barking. Many times, I stress not to let the dog learn the collar creates the gas. Once the dog knows this it will no longer fear it and the correction method that should have only taken, days can take months or even years to finally correct. I have owners who actually threaten their dog by showing it the collar should it think of barking again.

It is also important for behaviourists to know how far their own knowledge will sustain them with each case. If we do not have the needed experience then we must ask. There is no shame in admitting that we do not have all the information we need.

Though I understand the problem, I have not had experience of aggressive bitches having only ever owned one bitch. This is not a major admission, as I know where I can find people with this experience. This is why I telephoned Norma Nocks for her experience as a breeder as she has far more experience with this problem than I.

We have to know our limitations and not feel ashamed that we need to borrow other people’s experiences in order to solve a problem. It is for this reason I wish to encourage people to share their information and experiences in order we can solve problems more quickly. It is wrong to experiment where failure could mean re-homing one of the bitches as in this last case as this is not an option the owner wishes to consider.

If we can obtain all the information, then we can better explain to the owners who then carry out the behaviourist’s plan of correction and then they are more likely to succeed.

In quite a number of cases where I have asked owners to change their views they sometimes fail to follow all the advice or methods completely and adding ideas of their own so producing some hybrid plan that fails to deliver. This will reflect on me as not having giving the correct advice even though the owners changed my advice. We have to remember the owner’s ideas of training probably created the problem in the first place so changing my advice by adding something of their own will only conflict and so my cure is doomed to failure.

The one major point to all of this is that dogs do not think the way we do. They do not show human qualities in the same way. Loving attention from a dog may look similar to humans but there are always reasons for such actions. Yes, dogs can sulk, show happiness and request a cuddle but they are reacting to survival instinct where they need answers to questions at certain times.

Take for instance times you fail to show your dog some attention so it thinks you have demoted it in the pack and it wishes to know if everything is ok. It appears to come over to you to comfort you but it is only to check its hierarchical status. Once it knows this answer, it will go off and play again even if you would have like to cuddle your dog for longer.

How many have seen this behaviour with their dog. Is it trying to help? The dog recognises there is a problem with the leader giving off strange body signals and comes over only to confirm its position is safe within the pack. Once the owner confirms this, the dog will go away again oblivious to the owner’s sad feelings. I know it would be nice to think they have such human compassion and know many will not wish to believe they do not.

The problem here is 60% of dogs are not a problem and owners feel that dogs do learn like us and have human qualities of behaviour so if there is a problem we think to use simple human methods to resolve it but when it does not work we have to ask why.

It is like believing the world is flat rather to believing it is spherical. Whichever law people wished to accept the sun would still appear to travel round the earth. Knowing the truth may not make any difference to our lives if we stay in one place but knowing the truth certainly improves our interest in long distance travel.

It is the same with dogs and their language. Many owners believe dogs have human qualities and learn in a simple human method. It may look this way but because dogs in order to survive they become accustomed to interpreting our body language rather than owners learn to interpret them.

Because owners believe dogs think in this way and it appears that we are successful in talking to our dogs vocally then this apparent appearance of working only perpetuates this belief and as a result creates so many doggy problems.

When things go wrong no matter how much owners try, they cannot resolve many of the problems. It is only then that owners realise they have to accept that dogs do not think like humans. Unless they change their original learned ideas of the way dogs communicate, they will never find a cure.

I have many people that have had dogs before but when they find they have a dog with a different problem, they are surprised they cannot solve it. Only after explaining to the owners like last week’s owner about a separation problem did it all fall into place for her. Even though the cure was contrary to her established thinking, she followed it and in days solved the problem.

When I go back to see dogs I have previously treated they are always glad to see me like a long lost relation. Owners even remark their dogs never greet other people in the same way. Is there some special affinity for me with animals? No, it is something we all can do if we know the rules.

Imagine moving to a foreign country where you know nothing of the language. You can survive but there is no way to communicate. It is then you find someone who seems to understand you and would you not stick to him or her like glue. Dogs find in me someone who gives off the right signals and this creates a rapport but no, I am not Dr Dolittle.

There is still so much to learn and only the other a colleague showed me how to make Winston go into play bow, not by mimicking the stance, but by saying “Wrufff in a certain way and it worked. It is so rewarding to see dogs responding to us for trying to communicate with them. We can all do this if we want to try.

If all owners will accept that dog language is different to the way most people think they do and are prepared to learn to communicate properly with them then we will successful coexist with our dogs with far fewer problems in the future.


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