by Diane Garrod
In response to a survey of more than 1,000 pet parents in the United States by Kinship Partners (2021), 62% said their top priority is their pets’ happiness, and 80% said their pets deserve more of their time. Seventy-one percent said they could not have survived the pandemic without their pets. (A link to the full results of the survey and infographics can be found in the references.) Even so, pet parents often have unrealistic expectations of their dogs, and when addressing a behavior problem, these expectations can be stumbling blocks to dogs’ behavioral recovery. Stumbling blocks are often based on client perceptions, experiences and peer pressure.
One of my cases provides a good illustration. The dog was a 7-year-old female rat terrier/chihuahua mix rescue named Abby. It quickly became evident that Abby was not a good fit for my elderly client. The client wanted a dog for companionship and as an alarm dog, as she lived alone in a retirement community. What she got was a dog who was very aggressive toward other dogs on walks. This little female dog’s aggressive behavior the moment she saw another dog was intense: ears back, barking loudly and rapidly, growling, as well as pulling and lunging on lead. This led to an incident where Abby got loose and bit a small poodle mix because my client was not able to hold on to the leash. The poodle mix didn’t need stitches as a result of the bite, so the client didn’t think it was a concern. Abby’s behavior was the same whether she was indoors or outdoors. Intense aggression toward other dogs takes intense work to change the behavior. In addition to being elderly, the client had some physical disabilities. The reality was that she could not do the work needed, and the dog was returned to the rescue. In this case, the client’s expectations were unrealistic, and the dog’s behavior would have gotten worse. The result was to “quit,” as the dog and the elderly, mobility-compromised pet parent were not a good fit.
Clients will typically express their expectations in an intake form (a review of the dog and its behavior from the client’s point of view). Three questions target client expectations:
- What are your top three priorities?
- What is wonderful about your dog?
- Why did you get this dog?
These are three of 59 questions listed in Appendix 1 of my book, Stress Release: For Dogs, The Canine Emotional Detox (2021), and they define expectations from the pet parent’s point of view. After reviewing this form, a face-to-face functional assessment (conducted from the viewpoint of the professional) is completed. This helps establish clarity and identify realistic potentials.
Trainers should be open and welcome to understanding where clients are in their journey, especially given that pet parents are open to their dogs’ happiness and want to give them more of their time. It can be frustrating and daunting living day to day with a dog who has behavior challenges, and clients can have unrealistic expectations that can be stumbling blocks and could make a difference in a dog’s progress or lack thereof. This article explores some common stumbling blocks to canine behavioral recovery based on client expectations and how to overcome them.
As illustrated by the case with Abby, quitting is an option versus persevering, listening and working the plan. In reality, there are four possible options for the pet parent:
- Do nothing and the behavior will get worse or stay the same
- Work the plan outlined by a professional dog trainer, behaviorist or behavior consultant/analyst
- Rehome the dog or send it back to the organization or person from whom it was acquired
- Euthanize the dog
Each option has its own outcomes. Even with knowing what to do, many emotions can cause clients to quit, such as feeling like they are failing or, as in the case with Abby, being unable to do the work it would take. People can feel frustrated, uncertain, confused and even angry. A good trainer will not only show results, but walk the client through their feelings to get them back on the right track to success. However, in some cases, and in the best interest of the family and the dog, quitting might be necessary.
Is In Denial
Denial can be a stumbling block because it causes the client to make excuses for why the dog is not moving forward in the training. A client in denial sees the dog as not living up to their expectations or that the dog “isn’t like their last dog,” and they struggle to see the reality. Clients in denial will overthink the behavior change process and ask lots of questions, and they might be committed for two weeks before quitting. Whether a client moves beyond denial depends on how the trainer presents the material, the step-by-step process, and motivates and inspires the client to continue.
What can trainers do to help clients get past denial?
- Cite past success stories.
- Teach in small owner-only segments. For example, give the owner a tutorial on dog body language or another relevant topic, or work on a training technique without the dog first, using a teacher dog or even a fake dog.
- Keep sessions short, with the goal for clients to master a technique or two before moving on to next steps.
In cases where the client is in denial, it is important to help the client understand the individual dog in front of them and to explain why a technique is being used.
“People Like Us Don’t Have Dog Issues”
In this stumbling block, clients are embarrassed by how their dogs are acting, and they might also be in denial. (This attitude may also crop up among trainers who have dogs with behavior issues. “Trainers don’t have dog issues.”) The reality is, they do, and working through the underlying issues is the first step toward seeing results and moving these clients forward. Unfortunately, in these cases, often the dog is euthanized for behavior issues or, if the owner does seek out professional help, finding the correct personality fit and giving feedback are difficult. It is okay to seek help for dog behavior problems, and there are many good professionals out there.
What to look for in a dog trainer:
- Ask about training philosophies and training methods. Search for a trainer who embraces positive, force-free teaching.
- Search for a trainer who is qualified. Ask for their credentials and certifications. Ask what organizations they belong to. Qualifications to look for include CTC, KPA CTP, VSA-CDT, VSPDT and PMCT, PCT-A, PCBC-A, CTT-A, CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA or CBCC-KA.
- Look for a trainer who treats you with respect and encouragement, as that is how they will also treat your dog. Positive reinforcement is important for both the pet parent and the dog.
- Ask what the trainer’s specialty is and where their expertise is. Just because a trainer teaches agility doesn’t mean they are versed in or have expertise in behavior modification.
- Read the testimonials on the trainer’s website and/or Facebook page. Ask to speak with one to three current or past clients for reference.
- Ask, “Is the trainer a good fit for me and my dog?”
Not Knowing How to Move Forward, Guessing/Assuming and Not Seeking Help
This stumbling block describes clients who claim they’ve tried everything. There is a vast amount of information available online, which can cause pet parents to become confused and overwhelmed. This alone can prevent pet parents from seeking out the help needed to move beyond the behavior issue they are having with their dog. Too much information, not the right information or jumping from one thing to another leads to a confused dog and eventually pet parent frustration. This client needs more structure, regular evaluation of progress and explanations of why a technique is being used. The key is motivating the client to keep it simple and move forward systematically.
Behavior Worsens, and Then a Pro Is Called
It seems to be human nature to decide help is needed after a problem behavior worsens. Ideally, when a problem behavior is seen, a professional is called in immediately, but often the behavior is ignored until it gets worse or results in a bite. When a behavior has worsened, it means the dog is going over threshold more often and possibly leveling out, as with over-barking, over-arousal, jumping up, guarding resources, biting, escaping, multi-dog household fighting or using pain to train. When a professional is called in after the behavior has gotten worse, many more steps will be necessary to teach the dog what else to do and to change the habits of the pet parent to address the problem.
Behavior caught early means less time is needed to succeed. An example is a dog who guards resources. While resource guarding is a normal behavior, if a dog is continually confronted for an item, toy, food or a favorite person, the behavior will worsen and can result in a bite. Catching resource guarding behavior early helps dogs go from guarding to sharing within 60 days through a systematic process. Changing the environment and teaching a “leave it” might be all that is needed. However, if the behavior is allowed to continue, it will get worse and be harder and require more time to change it. If the dog has been confronted time and again over months to the point where they are standing over objects, snarling, lunging, running away with an item or has bitten someone, then there will be many more steps to work through. The first step would be decompression through a stress-release process. Then, starting at the beginning, the steps involve teaching the dog attentiveness; rebuilding the eroded relationship between dog and family; teaching the dog positive cues for “get back,” “leave it” and a process of trading for a toy; restructuring feeding time and place; and possibly more. It is best to seek help sooner than later.
Just Want a “Quick Fix”
In this stumbling block, the client’s instinct is to simply fix the problem, to get rid of the worry. The attitude is that they just want it done, over. The trainer needs to help this client to stop, listen and understand why and how a technique works. This is the client you will need to “show” techniques to over and over again, and provide graph-like depictions of where they were, where they want to be and how they will get there. Graphing intensity, frequency and duration of behavior is a good start.
Think They Have to Make Their Dog Fear Them, Experience Pain and Intimidation
A client once said to me, “You mean I don’t have to hurt my dog?” Of course, the answer is, “No, you don’t need to hurt your dog.” This stumbling block is the result of propaganda, of not listening to professionals who study the science behind training dogs and instead harboring erroneous perceptions of dominance and alpha concepts. It might appear that the painful devices and intimidation are working, but the reality is the dog shuts down until a worse behavior develops or an alternative behavior occurs that could be equal to or worse than the one they are trying to work on. Often people do not realize there are other “positive” solutions that are better. Here are five examples:
- Set up the environment to prevent or manage situations (such as barking or counter surfing).
- Use a mark/reward system of training, such as clicker training, instead of devices that cause pain and fear. A marker, like a clicker, verbal signal or hand signal, designates clearly what the dog did right and is followed by reinforcement such as food. The behavior you want will get stronger, while the bad behavior diminishes.
- Teach through play. For instance, for a dog who is triggered by other dogs on walks but likes to play catch, bring a ball on a walk to counter condition the triggers. “See a dog” equals “play catch!”
- Get behavior you want through shaping versus yelling or hitting (neither of which are ever necessary). Shaping creates a thinking dog who makes good decisions versus one who cowers and becomes sneaky. With shaping, you don’t teach the final behavior, but rather break it down into smaller steps that build toward it. You can also get behavior by capturing it through mark/reward when you see it (i.e., when a dog does a behavior you want, like stand or lie down, mark it/reinforce it, and then name it later) or by luring the dog into position.
- Teach targeting to move an animal in a nonconfrontational way. Present a target such as a stick, a spoon, two fingers, a palm or a sticky note for the dog to touch with their nose. This eliminates the need to manipulate, coerce or force an animal into position.
Going From One Trainer to the Next
This simply sabotages results. I have had clients come to me after six other trainers were used. My goal is that they stay with me, we work through the problem and we get results-oriented progress, force-free. Teaching involves learning, answering questions and building results—knowing the client and how they learn, what they are looking for in a trainer, what their goals are and if those goals are realistic for the dog in front of them. Being open, answering questions and providing solid solutions are what this client wants.
What Is a Pet Parent to Do?
There is a lot of information on dog training, a lot of people in the business of dog training (albeit, it is an unlicensed business at the writing of this article) and a lot of misinformation as to what works, how it works and why to go with one or another method or trainer.
A pet parent who seeks help quickly and has a clear idea of what they want has better success. Such was the outcome in the case of a client with a female pit bull mix. The client explained that she was transitioning to full-time work from home, so she was able to have a pet and give it sufficient time.
She was realistic in saying, “This is my first time with a pit bull–type dog. I want to feel confident that I understand her tendencies in different situations and how best to manage her so that we can avoid problems and both be happy. I just need to learn the breed and how to be a pit bull owner.” This client had a results-oriented outlook. She had clarity and wanted her dog to be happy, and she also wanted to prevent problems.
Working with clients involves teamwork to help them understand their dogs’ emotional state and stress levels, and how to handle their dogs’ needs and environmental challenges. Others may need to be added to the team, such as veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists, specialists and nutritionists, as appropriate. If all work together seamlessly, the stumbling blocks to a dog’s behavioral recovery can be avoided.
Garrod, D. (2021). Stress Release: For Dogs, The Canine Emotional Detox. BookBaby. Available at: https://store.bookbaby.com/book/stress-release2
Kinship Partners. (2021, Feb. 17). Report by Kinship Reveals Modern Pet Parents’ Concerns and Expectations. Press release and accompanying infographics available at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/m3i1zpggr9ptrte/AABV3s2KRTUf7vOE68t0MkZMa?dl=0
Diane Garrod is a professional canine trainer–accredited (PCT-A), behavior analyst and dog behavior consultant. She owns Canine Transformations Learning in Langley, Washington. She is also a founding member of the Pet Professional Guild and is a Fear Free certified professional and certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner (CA1), and an ATA Certified Treibball Instructor and judge, among many other certifications. She holds a degree in communication and journalism from the University of Wisconsin, and is an author and speaker.