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When Behavior Modification Isn’t the Answer
by Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
When we talk to clients about what we’ll do at our initial consultation, we explain that we’ll take some history about the situation, discuss management that needs to be put in place to ease tensions and help the training work better, and then talk about and actually start training your dog to exhibit more desirable behavior. I imagine that clients are often eager to get to the training part, thinking that that’s the “meat” of what we do.
But sometimes, the most important piece of the session is the management piece. That can happen for several reasons. One, the behavior modification may really be very hard for the owner to accomplish. Someone who *must* work a full time schedule out of the home may not be able to implement a full separation anxiety protocol; in that case, doggie day care, a management solution, might be the most effective way for dog and owner to get relief from the paralyzing anxiety of this condition. Two, some behavioral issues are not really amenable to behavior modification. We can change any behavior, but that doesn’t mean we can always change it enough to make the critical difference. For example, we can generally teach a very predatory dog to recall off of chasing prey… but not to choose not to hunt prey when there’s no one around to call the dog! In that case, keeping the dog from being around prey when unsupervised is critical.
Several months ago I saw a client who had two young adult dogs of the same breed. The two dogs were fighting. Doggie housemates who bicker aren’t uncommon. What *is* uncommon is when one is trying to kill the other, In this case, the female had been in numerous scary fights with the male. In the next-to-last fight, she’d bitten his back foot badly. In the last fight (before the owner called me for help) she’d slashed up his inner thigh. The severity and location of the wounds, and the nature of the fighting (she was silent and extremely fast when she attacked him) told me that she was just trying to sharpen her skills so that she could kill him. (Killing takes practice, especially when there isn’t much size difference between predator and prey.) We talked over options, including the possibility of medication, but I had to tell the owner honestly that this kind of behavior was not really amenable to behavior modification. We talked about how terrified the male dog must feel a lot of the time. She started separating them and trying to add enrichment to relieve some stress, but we both knew there was only one real answer. She found a new home for the female — who was very people friendly and was even appropriately friendly with strange dogs — in a mansion with a huge yard.
She called me back recently because the male was exhibiting some breed-typical dog reactivity and other mild aggression. (By the way, these were *not* pit bulls, but a relatively rare breed which I’m not mentioning to protect my client’s privacy.) When I got to her house, I saw a dog I’d never met before. The male was cheerful and playful with me, engaging in games of tug and fetch. When I introduced him to my helper dog, he had one moment of a bad reaction, but pulled himself together remarkably quickly. My assessment was that he’s really a pretty normal dog who has recovered extremely well from what must, essentially, be a pretty hideous case of post-traumatic stress disorder. We went over how to work with the mild food guarding, dog reactivity, and handling sensitivity and I was able to normalize the dog’s behavior and reassure the client about the prognosis.
None of the behavior we worked on at the recent appointment had even emerged before. At that time, this dog was afraid for his life and was very shut down. And the only answer for that problem, a much more severe one, was management. Some owners choose to keep both dogs when this happens, and to simply keep them separated (or struggle endlessly to re-introduce them). I was, frankly, relieved that this owner decided against that quickly, because it’s an exhausting and heartbreaking process for all concerned. (However, if owners I’m working with make that choice, I will support them to the best of my ability!) But the payoff here is obvious: Her boy is a new dog, doing normal doggie stuff, and needing what is (from my point of view) relatively straightforward behavior modification to heal some of the wounds left by his traumatic puppyhood.
Sometimes we’re going to tell you that the best choice is management. A 12 year old dog exhibiting extreme predation toward the cats is probably not a good candidate for extensive behavior modification. The behavior modification will take the rest of the dog’s natural life. Management makes more sense. Part of what you’re paying us for isn’t just our ability to modify behavior, but to know when it does and doesn’t make sense to modify behavior. We know which things are typically easy to change… which are nearly impossible. We also have lots of ideas about management that may smooth the process and enrich your ideas. It’s not just about knowing how to do it, but knowing what to do, and when, and when not to.