On “Fixing” Behavior Problems: Reachable Goals and Wishful Thinking

On “Fixing” Behavior Problems: Reachable Goals and Wishful Thinking

As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time talking on the phone with potential clients who are interested in scheduling a behavior consult.  We talk briefly about the dog’s issues, the owner’s main concerns, and how the consultation visit works.

Most of these people are good owners who love their dogs, and genuinely want to know how to help them.  Not surprisingly, many of them are also somewhat desperate for a solution – a dog with serious behavior issues can be incredibly stressful to live with!  I can relate to this, and will always do my very best to help.

Sometimes, though, our initial getting-to-know-you chat reveals some strikingly unrealistic expectations.

And it’s this particular aspect of clinical behavior practice that I want to talk about today – because I believe it’s important, and often poorly understood.

A typical conversation might go something like this:

“Yes, hello!  I’m having a problem with my dog that I hope you can help with.  He barks and growls at everyone who comes over to the house – last week, he even bit my neighbor when she tried to pet him!  He does the same thing when we take him for walks.  No one can pet him, or even come close to us.  We’ve tried everything, but he just won’t listen when I tell him to stop.”

I understand, I say.  Fear aggression towards strangers is a common problem, and one that I’m happy to try and help with.  We talk a bit about getting an appointment scheduled so that we can meet in person and get her started with a plan to work on the problem.

“That would be great!  But before we schedule anything, I really need to know – how long do you think it will take to fix this?  I’m hosting my daughter’s Girl Scout troop sleepover next month, so we’ll have lots of people in the house.  The girls always want to love on him!  So he can’t act like this when they’re here – I need to be able to trust him around the kids.”

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The irresistible allure of the “quick fix” is something we’ve all experienced at one time or another.  We want to solve our problems – but if possible, we’d like to accomplish this without putting in any significant time and effort, or making any major lifestyle changes.

This is why we purchase weight loss supplements of questionable value rather than embarking on a sensible diet and exercise plan; or stay up all night cramming for an exam, instead of planning ahead and studying a bit each day during the semester.  We’d rather read five quick tips on improving our golf swing than invest in lessons and practice time… and we’d like our dog to stop biting people in four weeks or less so that we can get on with our regular plans.

Now, let me be the first to say that I am no different from anyone else in this respect.  This doesn’t make us bad people – it makes us human!

But the truth is, there are very few quick fixes in the world of dog training.

And when it comes to serious behavior problems, I’m afraid there are none at all.

For the earnest, well-meaning lady on the phone, the honest answer to her question is not something she wants to hear.  I cannot make her fear-aggressive dog safe and trustworthy around her daughter’s Girl Scout troop by next month.  In fact, this may not be a realistic goal for her dog – ever.

What we CAN do, together, is work with her dog to help him learn to be more comfortable around strangers.  This will take time and effort, a consistent training plan, and lots of patience on her part.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that she’s willing to do this.

Then what?  Given six months, a year, two years of solid work – can we “fix” her dog’s aggression?

Well.  As with so many things in life, the answer is complicated.

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An example:

I want to tell you a story about my boy Gatsby.

When he was an adolescent, around 8-10 months old, he developed some significant reactivity issues toward dogs.  I’m not entirely sure why – we don’t always know, unfortunately!  Perhaps it was a bad experience with another pup who played too roughly, or the way his particular genetic make-up came together as he reached social maturity.  Behavior is always something of a crapshoot, at least in part… life can throw curveballs, regardless of careful breeding and good socialization.

In any case, by the time he was around a year old, Gatsby was becoming a real challenge to handle in public places.  At the sight of another dog, even one minding its own business across the room, he would hit the end of the leash – barking and lunging, teeth flashing, looking for all the world like a miniature blue merle Cujo.

This meant, of course, that I couldn’t bring him into any of my agility classes for practice.  He was brilliant on his own, a smart and thoughtful worker… but with other dogs in the picture, he was completely unable to focus.  Privately, I wondered if he’d ever be able to do any kind of competition safely.

I loved him regardless, but I admit I was a bit disappointed that our future might not include the particular kind of exhilarating teamwork that comes from running courses together in the ring.

My oldest dog Remy was actively competing in agility at the time, so we often spent our weekends at hotels and trial sites away from home.  In the mornings, I would go in and set up our crates, chairs, and other gear.  I would bring Remy in from the car, trotting composedly through the hustle and bustle of dogs and handlers like a perfect gentleman, and get him settled.

And then, I would go back for Gatsby.

Getting him from the car to his crate in the agility building without creating a scene took careful planning, constant vigilance, and a bit of luck.  In most cases, I could accomplish it with a short leash and a bulging handful of treats – these would be held directly in front of his nose so that he could nibble on them the whole way.

Even so, we had to avoid passing any other dogs in close quarters… so this often involved a lot of strategic waiting on the periphery of the crating area, ready to make a move as soon as the coast was clear for a moment.  If things were crowded and I was pressed for time, I bit the bullet and carried him in, with one hand covering his eyes to block his view.

He’s on the large side for a Sheltie, so this was always a bit unwieldly – we got some strange looks from time to time!  But in the end, one way or another, I zipped him safely into his crate and breathed a sigh of relief.

The same procedure was required to get him out for potty breaks, and back into the car at the end of the day.  This was exhausting and stressful for both of us, and certainly didn’t bode well for his future as a competition dog.

In retrospect, I’m sure I could have been more proactive in addressing the problem – but we all have blind spots where our own dogs are concerned.  So at first I made excuses (that big goofy Lab had obviously startled him, coming around the corner so quickly!), micromanaged his environment, and hoped that he’d gain some confidence and settle down as he got older.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t happen.

(It usually doesn’t.)

And so, as Gatsby’s dog issues grew more pronounced and harder to ignore, I finally accepted the inevitable and committed to addressing the problem.

At work, we practiced watching other dogs through the big glass windows of our training building, with lots of praise and treats.  We sat together at agility trials and looked at the other dog-handler teams waiting their turn in the ring, or milling around the crating area.

A full description of exactly what our training plan entailed would take up lots of space and is a bit outside the scope of today’s post – but for more information on how to work with reactive or dog-aggressive dogs, see my previous post about Louie the rescue dog.  The plan that I worked on with Gatsby was very similar.

Suffice it to say, it took lots of time and lots of work.  Looking back, it’s hard to remember exactly when we started and when I felt that we’d really made significant progress… but I would say it was around six months before my friends and training pals began to comment that they could see a difference in Gatsby, and perhaps another year beyond that for things to really come together.

Today, I’m incredibly proud of my reactive boy and very pleased with where we are.

But what does that look like, exactly?  Have his reactivity issues been “fixed,” once and for all?

Gatsby will be four years old in November.  He has his novice and open level AKC agility titles (YAY!), a beautiful start-line stay, and rock-solid 2-on/2-off contacts.  We’re currently taking a break from competition to work on some weave pole issues, but hope to be back in the ring later this year if all goes well.

More importantly, when we go to trials, I can now walk him in from the car and take him outside for potty breaks like a normal dog – they don’t give ribbons or titles for this, but for us it’s huge!  When he sees another dog in the distance, he looks confidently up at me for his treat.  I reward him, and we keep walking.

He takes the controlled chaos around the ring in stride these days, even handling the occasional uninvited butt sniff or other invasion of his personal space with nothing more than a surprised glance and a tentative tail wag – which earns him lots of praise and a cookie, as we calmly move away.

This is as close to “fixed” as anything ever gets in the behavior world, and I couldn’t be happier with our progress.

Gatsby is now happy and comfortable working near other dogs, seeing them on the street, or weaving through them at a crowded trial site.  His history of dog reactivity doesn’t hold him back from doing anything we want to try, and has very little impact on our daily lives.  People who meet him now can’t believe that he ever had the problems I describe, which never fails to make me glow with pride in my boy.

He’s come a very long way.

BUT.

Would I consider the problem fixed?

Let me put it this way.  I have complete confidence, now, in our ability to navigate these situations together.  I keep cookies in my pocket and give Gats my full attention – I am his protector and his guide, the leader of our team.  It’s my job to keep us out of trouble.

Would I casually hand him off to a friend to walk out to the car, at a busy trial site?  NO – though I would have no hesitation about doing this with my other two boys, Remy and Clint.

Would I allow him to greet an apparently friendly dog on-leash, when we’re out for a walk?  NO.

Would I take my eyes off of him to chat with friends or surf the web on my phone, while we wait our turn at a seminar?  NO.

These are all things that I can do with my other dogs, in certain situations.  They are things that many of my friends and clients do regularly with their own dogs – which is perfectly fine!  But they are not things that I can do with Gatsby.

Not now, and probably not ever.

And that’s okay with me.

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Ultimately, success is in the eye of the beholder.  I always ask my clients what they want, as part of our initial consultation – what are their goals?  What do they hope to accomplish, as a result of our work together?

For an owner with a severely dog-aggressive dog, I may be able to help teach her dog to be safe and under control in public, on-leash and wearing a basket muzzle.  I can also help her learn to make good decisions about where she takes her dog, and what kinds of interactions she allows.

These are realistic goals.

Will she ever be able to take him to the dog park, and turn him loose with a group of unknown dogs for play time?  Not likely.

For a separation anxiety dog, or a dog with severe thunderstorm phobia, we can often do a great job of controlling their anxiety with medication, careful management, and a good training plan – to the point of improving their quality of life tremendously, and allowing their owners to go about their normal lives without too much worry.

Does this mean that it will ever be a good idea to leave a dog like this alone without any puzzle toys or distractions, or outside by himself during a rainstorm?  Probably not.

For the lady on the phone with the fear-aggressive dog, we need to talk about what’s realistically possible.  We may very well be able to get her dog to the point of being comfortable with some visitors, under carefully controlled circumstances and close supervision.  We can also put together a plan for keeping him safely separated from the action when things are busy – such as during the upcoming Girl Scout sleepover!

But it’s doubtful that he’ll ever be able to mingle safely with a large, chaotic group of people he’s never met… especially with children involved.

And again, that’s okay.

In the end, “fixing” behavior problems is about learning to accept your dog’s quirks and limitations, and working with what you have to make things better.  It’s not about replacing a faulty circuit, giving a personality transplant, or creating a perfect dog who never has a setback.

So if your dog has a behavior issue that concerns you – by all means, ask for help!  Read a training book, take a class, or consult with a professional who can work with you privately.  In almost every case, there are lots of things you can do to help your dog work through his problem.

Just don’t expect perfection, especially not in four weeks or less 😉

23 thoughts on “On “Fixing” Behavior Problems: Reachable Goals and Wishful Thinking

  1. My dog has similar challenges, and I had to learn to break it down when we were failing, cheer her on when we succeeded, and let her be who she is. I am about 13 months in, and we are at a place where her reactivity has lessened, and frankly she sometimes catches me off guard a little now. I am looking forward to a time in the near future where we have built enough reliability that we can compete.
    Thanks for the encouragement, it has meant a lot to Shasta and I!

    1. Thanks very much for your comment! What a lovely way of putting things… indeed, that’s exactly what we have to learn to do. Best of luck to you and Shasta. <3

    1. You’re very welcome! I agree that most dog owners will run into a behavior issue at one time or another – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and doesn’t mean that your dog is “bad.” It may mean, however, that life with them will look a bit different from what you may have imagined.

  2. This is absolutely brilliant and a salutary lesson to those of us with similar challenges. My 8 month old GSD will pull my arm off to get to another dog – desperate to say hello. She also finds it hard to walk past people calmly. Thank goodness she is friendly and not aggressive. But I know I have to manage her frustration carefully to avoid it turning into something worse. I don’t always get it right and sometimes lose my cool and then spend the rest of the day blaming myself for not responding as I ought to have done. But I do also know that however desperately I want to help her gain calmness and control, I have to do it in tiny steps and at her pace. Patience of Job is sometimes called for and frustrations can be immense. She’s not old enough for agility yet but I would love to do this with her in a few months time. This is a blog I could usefully read every morning before I get up and start the day, so thanks. Alex
    [In a future blog I’d love to know your thoughts on HOW in practical ways to be a good protector, guide, leader so the dog feels confident in his carer and therefore more responsive.]

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t think any of us get it right all the time – all we can do is our best. It sounds like you have a good plan in place for your girl, and you know that she needs time and patience to improve. She’s lucky to have you! <3

      I love the idea of doing a future post on how to be a good "team leader" for a dog like this. I will add it to my list of possible topics for later this year... thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Thanks for this great article, I have a 4 yr male Aussie who like your guy developed fear aggression towards all dogs and most people around 7/8 months. We have made a good amount of progress and I know that he will always require special handling. I’ve always felt a degree of guilt though at the things he would likely never experience ( dog parks, off leash play etc). I’m always looking for new adventures for him to experience in a safe environment. How do you even begin to introduce something like agility in this situation? Thx

    1. I’m glad you found the post helpful! Yes, that’s it exactly – we can make lots of great progress with these guys, but some “special handling” will probably always be required.

      Fortunately, I do think it’s much easier now to get involved in dog sports and fun activities with a reactive dog than it used to be in the past. I’m not sure if you’ve ever considered doing nosework with your boy, but it’s a great activity for dogs who have difficulty being around other dogs. You might also look into parkour, or work on a video titling program like Fenzi TEAM or Trick Dog titles.

      If you want to try something like agility, you could start by signing up for a group class to see how he handles the environment. If needed, you can spend the first several classes just hanging out on the periphery of things with lots of praise and treats, allowing him to get comfortable – most instructors should be happy to let you do this, if you discuss it with them beforehand. If he’s able to focus and work off-leash safely in a group class, you could start with a fairly low-key competition venue like CPE, and work your way up to AKC or USDAA later on if he’s doing well.

  4. Hi Dr Jen, I repost Dog Blogs on twitter for my account @JackPTopham and for my wife’s account @JenniferCattet . I enjoy your writing and the topics you choose. My only request would be your full name or twitter account to source it for your readers. Thank you

    1. Certainly, feel free to repost. I’m Jennifer Summerfield, DVM CPDT-KA 🙂 I don’t have a Twitter account, but you’re always welcome to share a link to any post that you like.

  5. This is a great article. I relate to the feelings you expressed–I sometimes find myself more proud of my dog outside the ring (of her composure and hard-won ability to focus on me) than inside the ring doing agility! I love this sentence: “In the end, ‘fixing’ behavior problems is about learning to accept your dog’s quirks and limitations, and working with what you have to make things better.”

    Thanks for your blog, Dr. Jen!

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