Change Is Difficult – We Are Humans After All

As trainers we sometimes talk about ‘owner compliance’ or maybe more accurately the lack of it. Part of our job as dog trainers is to find ways to motivate owners to make changes to the lives of their dogs. Often this means they also need to change the way they do things. To change the dog’s behaviour we need to change the owners’ behaviour first. Change is hard and we humans need good reasons to initiate change.

Doing what puppies do!

I recently saw a client with a dog who showed signs of separation distress and after the initial assessment we went through the ins and outs of a behaviour modification process to help the dog remain calm when left alone. Separation distress is a challenging condition and the associated behaviour change program requires a lot of effort from the owners. In some cases the dog cannot be left alone at all until some behaviour modification has been implemented successfully and some cases need medication.

In this case I suggested trying the recommended behaviour modification for two weeks and if we did not see marked improvement consulting a veterinarian behaviourist to discuss medication. Despite being in contact with the owners, ‘thanks’ to social media I saw the dog come up on another trainer’s page. Some trainers might know that sinking feeling when that happens, especially if the other trainer uses a different approach.

The reason why I am mentioning this is that this experience made me think about why as dog trainers we sometimes have trouble initiating change with our human clients.

It might have to do with our main focus being the dog and the behaviour modification that has to be done with the dog rather than the behaviour modification for the owner.

Despite being called dog trainers we spend a lot of time talking to people and trying to change their way of doing things and maybe, in addition to our knowledge of dog behaviour, we might need to focus more on our communication skills with humans.

I discussed the case I mentioned with my counsellor[1] and she recommended looking into ‘motivational interviewing’. She also pointed out that most people will go for ‘a quick fix’ if one is offered and asked how I was going with the exercises my physio therapist gave me? That brought the point home. Despite my best intentions my exercise were not really going very well and I was looking into alternative options that promised a quicker result. It is human to do so. It also helped me to understand why my clients had sought a different approach that seemed easier and required less change from their side.

Instead of asking for ‘compliance’ we might have to find ways for our clients to take ownership.

When clients call us for help with their dogs they have a problem and often some kind of crisis brought it to a head on. This might be the neighbours complaining about the barking, the dog has bitten another dog or a person or it took them two hours to get the dog back at the off leash area. They are aware that they need to change something but somehow they just cannot get it started and seem ambivalent. It seems all our reasoning, logic, pointing out the consequences or behaving as ‘the expert’ does not work.

Owner compliance is just not there. This might be the crux, when we talk about owner compliance we assume that the owner has to comply with our recommendations but it just does not get the results we hope for. We might be well meaning but telling our clients what to do can build resistance.

Compassion with clients both human and canine.

I started looking into ‘motivational interviewing’[2] and while I do not say we need to become motivational interviewing experts using some of its techniques might help our clients to get motivated for change.

In the case I described earlier, I probably ‘lost’ my clients when I started explaining the process of desensitizing and counter conditioning. My clients were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task and might have concluded that the status quo after all might be easier to maintain then the change.

Before embarking on the dog’s behaviour change I could have discussed the benefits and costs of ‘just living with it’ and the benefits and costs of embarking on this process. This helps to understand the situation better and can emphasize the benefits of change.

These clients cannot go out without being worried because the dog vocalizes and neighbours complain on a regular basis. This is highly stressful for the dog and the owners. If the dog was able to spend some time on his own the owner could have a social life again. It also shows that the cost of ‘living with it’ is high and not feasible in the long term.

I could have asked a scaling question, meaning that the client rates on a scale of one to ten how important it is for them to change right now. This gives me an indication on how big the ‘burden of suffering’ is and depending on this design a behaviour modification program that matches their level of motivation for change. I also should have listened more to the ifs and buts.

There was nothing wrong with giving advice but maybe I should have phrased it as a suggestion or encouragement rather than ‘expert advice’ expecting compliance.

In the meantime I have started changing my approach and have talked to the clients again, this time discussing the benefits and costs of ‘living with it’ and how much it means to them to have a social life again. We also have engaged a veterinary behaviourist and I am hopefully second time round we will be able to make better progress.

I am not expecting miracles but changing my behaviour has helped changing my clients’ behaviour and therefore has helped making changes for the dog.

On a personal level I have stopped talking about ‘owner compliance’ but will expand my knowledge of ‘motivational interviewing’ and change my approach to hopefully being more successful in helping my clients. But change is tough even if I see the benefits!

 

[1] I find having regular sessions with a counsellor is very helpful for debriefing and invaluable for my own wellbeing. Dog training can be a challenging job and burnout or compassion fatigue can part of it for some of us.

 

[2] The spirit of MI can be translated into five central principles summarized by the acronym DEARS:

  • Develop discrepancy
  • Express empathy
  • Amplify ambivalence
  • Roll with resistance
  • Support self-efficacy

Principles and Techniques of Motivational Interviewing

What is the purpose of a real dog?

Why are we getting dogs when we try to prevent them from doing what dogs normally do more often than not and if we find a lot of things real dogs do inappropriate or even offensive?

Sometimes it seems we consider a lot of the things a dog does as gross, dirty, annoying, or done on purpose to make the humans feel bad. 

Rolling in something smelly?

Yes puppies mouth, soil the house, don’t want to be alone, eat everything in sight, run away, roll in smelly stuff, chase moving things, growl, smell other dogs bums and bite or mouth. They are dogs and that is what they do, even a pugle or an oodle. Despite being called designer dogs they are still dogs. And don’t be fooled by the cute name, chances that these puppies were bred in a puppy mill environment are high. This means these dogs come (in addition to normal dog behavior) with their own set of even more problematic issues.

Labeling normal dog behaviors like barking, digging, jumping up, chasing, growling and many more ‘abnormal’ is one of the problems we see more often in our classes and consultation. It is not the dog who has a problem but the owner who has unrealistic expectations or got fooled by the cute puppy pictures on social media and the glorification of puppy hood. 

Doing what puppies do!

Our expectations are extremely high, we expect them to fit in with our busy schedule, be active when we want them to be, calm on our terms, eat when we are ready, play when we feel like it and go to the coffee shop because we think it is fun –  the dogs mostly think it is rather boring.

We also seem to forget what the needs of a ‘normal’ dog are. We deprive them of puppy play because we neither have the time nor the inclination to make an effort. Play has its purpose and is important for a well balanced dog. It matters and if someone tells you it does not you might want to consider their agenda. Puppy play is not  provided because there are too many puppies in the puppy pre-school class, the space is too small, or there is a lack of knowledge of body language and skills to manage puppy play.  Dogs and certainly puppies do want to associate and spend some time with their own species and I do think it is necessary for their well-being.

I agree that the dog park is fraught with danger and not suitable for every dog, but most dogs love to have some canine friends. If the dog is not suitable for the dog park, then this can be provided with a group of canine friends they meet on a regular basis, a good day care or dog walker matching appropriate dogs. To have a dog spending most of their life in the backyard and on the leash does not cater to their needs. They need to run, sniff, play, work and have some fun.

We also expect them to behave like ‘fury humans’, dress them up (I am not talking about a coat when it is cold or bucketing down) but dressing up for no other reason than to entertain us.

We get them as companions but leave them home alone for the best part of the day and when we come home expect them to be calm. Dogs are social animals and need company, they are not made to be home alone all day every day. They also need to stretch their legs and run, especially teenage dogs. However, they spend most of their days inside, the yard or on the leash.

We control every move they make, they are told what to eat, when to sleep, where to walk with no choice in any thing that is important to them. 

Having fun

Is the only purpose of a dog to ‘serve’ us? To muddle the waters even more we read books or see films like “A Dog’s Purpose# which portraits dogs as these selfless, altruistic, ‘do-good’ beings whose only purpose is to help us humans. While I will not go into the controversy surrounding the film and I only read the book, the way this unfolded could be an indication of a rather selfish and human centric approach to how dogs are treated. Or as this review says, the purpose of a dog is to entertain or else we will use force.

There are many reasons why we add a dog to our family: they are very cute, we crave company, it is good for our health, the neighbors just got one, we want a running companion, the children have been wanting one forever, to name a few. But rarely do we consider what we can give this dog to lead a fulfilled live.

Dogs are not selfless or altruistic they do whatever works. While we can be pretty sure that they do love us, they are not saving others, winning competitions, being great companions, behave at the coffee shop just because they love us but because there is something in it for them. This can be BBQ chicken, cheese, hot dogs, a ball, cuddles or whatever else makes them tick.

But even so what they can do for us should not be the only questions. I think we should redefine our relationship with our dogs and see it from their perspective, too. To have a happy, well adjusted dog we need to provide suitable outlets for being a dog. This means create time and places for them to meet and interact with other dogs (assuming they like dogs), give them choices on where to go, what to eat and where to rest. Let them dig at least in some parts of the yard, occasionally sniff other dogs’ rear end, have the ‘zoomies’ and give them lots of things to chew.

It also means to have realistic expectations, a dog who just spent hours home alone does not want to be calm and cuddle when you get home, most likely he wants to play, run and go out. As in any relationship it goes both ways and a dog is not an accessory! Make sure you have the time for a dog before you get that cute puppy. Dogs are great companion but we need to give something back and treat them as real dogs.

Maybe the purpose of a dog is being a dog?

Being a dog

Expectations, Disappointment and Opportunities

When we get a new puppy, as a first time or an experienced dog owner or as a competitor in a dog sport, we have certain expectations. We hope for the perfect companion or the perfect agility dog.

Mum and puppies

Depending on our level of experience we try to make sure we get it right.

We might research first the breeds, then the breeders, look for the best puppy pre-school and best teenage dog classes, join a club or train with our ‘doggie’ friends. However, regardless of how well we are prepared, sometimes it just does not go to plan and turn out the way we expected or hoped it would.

A first time dog owner may have bought the puppy at a pet shop and the puppy started showing signs of being overly fearful already at puppy pre school but no one picked it up. Maybe because the class had too many puppies attending, the instructor was inexperienced, not qualified or just did not see it. The pup now starts to be increasingly fearful, cannot be left alone and is very slow to pick up training.

An experienced owner did all the research, got the puppy from a responsible breeder, attended a good puppy pre school but when reaching teenage hood the dog starts to be more and more spooked by seemingly normal things.

Or a well meaning owner adopted a dog from the local shelter, during the trial period the dog seemed ok if a little bit shy but now after a few weeks he shows reactivity towards other dogs or strangers.

A successful agility competitor got a high drive dog from an experienced breeder but the dog is too highly aroused and despite the best efforts does not succeed in competition and cannot cope with these highly distractive environments.

Out and about

While a lot of these problems can be overcome with early and appropriate interventions some dogs will never be the dog we hoped for. Despite a lot of work the dog remains reactive on leash when surprised or at close proximity, has a hard time to cope with being left alone or an agility trial environment is just too much for them to perform.

If a dog does not live up to the expectations depending on the owner and the owner’s situation the dog might end up in the shelter and their prospects are rather bleak. In Australia alone 180’000 cats and dogs are euthanized annually, a lot of them for behavioural reasons at a very young age.

On a side note, a lot of dogs end up in shelters for completely normal juvenile behaviours, just because there was not enough socialization and training or the owner was not ready for the work involved in brining up a well adjusted dog. Or the trainers were not able to normalize the dog’s behaviour and put it into perspective.

On the other hand there are owners who embark on a life changing journey with their challenging pup or rescue dog.

Accepting limitations

After an initial period of denial when owners still try taking their reactive dog to the coffee shop or dog park or hope their puppy might ‘grow out of it’ they start realizing that this is probably not the right way to go. There might be a feeling of guilt because after trying to figure out what had gone wrong they were confronted by the fact that their dog came from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder and they feel guilty for not realizing earlier what kind of problems this could cause. Or they were so overwhelmed that they were looking for a quick fix using outdated training methods based on pain, coercion, force and fear which made the problem worse.

They might even feel depressed or lonely as no one seems to understand what they are going through; especially owners who have really bonded with their dog and giving up on them is not an option. They also might feel alienated from the ‘normal’ dog owning population who seem to think a dog who is reactive on the leash, cannot go to the dog park or coffee shop is the ‘fault’ of the owner at the other end of the leash.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel as the owners adjust and seek qualified help for their dog, come to terms with some of the restrictions such as not going to the dog park and will find new ways of enjoying life with their challenging dog. They might go to a class that caters for their special needs dog and meet other dog owners who are going through the same experience. They might also find suitable options such as nose work or trick training for their dog to participate.

Some owners find an interest in challenging dogs or dogs at shelters and start volunteering to help these less fortunate dogs to become more adoptable.

And some might embark on a learning journey and ‘end up’ as dog trainers. Many professional dog trainers, including me, started out with a dog who did not live up to the expectations. Thanks to my challenging dog I found my vocation and a new career.

When I realized that Zorbas was never going to be the Agility dog I hoped for and after an initial time of denial and grief I started my education to understand what was going on. He came from a backyard breeder, he did a bad puppy class and at that point I did not know what proper socialization is or how to desensitize and counter condition. In time we both adjusted, we now have a deep bond and at almost 14 years of age he is enjoying retirement. I do not say it was easy but if I only ever had ‘nice’ dogs like Shellbe who is doing well in Agility and Rally O and easy to live with I could not relate to what owners of dogs who do not live up to their expectations are going through. Shellbe is fun and exciting but Zorbas taught me much more for the better or the worse.

Love them for what they are

The only regret I am having is that I did not know then what I do now. I think I could have made a difference.

First published for the Pet Professional Guild.

Is calm really just another behaviour?

What is the most difficult thing to teach our dogs? Coming back or a great recall? While I do agree that this is a difficult behaviour, I do think teaching calm is much more difficult.

Calm mum – calm puppies

Being calm is not the same as a cued ‘sit stay’ or ‘down stay’. Without becoming too airy fairy: Calm is also not just the absence of arousal, heightened state of alert or stress.

For dogs calm means that they are content, happy, and relaxed. They are able to lie on their bed and watch the world go by without barking at every noise or every thing that moves. Calm is a state of mind.

It is normal for puppies to only have two speeds: One is go, go, go and then they crash and go to sleep. For very young puppies calm is not really on the agenda, but we can (and should) start teaching relaxation at a young age. Like everything else it has be age specific and for puppies a few minutes of a relaxing massage or a two second ‘sit stay’ might be all we can expect.

I meet a lot of dogs who are bored out of their minds at home in the backyard or dogs who spend most of their day alone. They either develop separation distress related behaviours such as vocalization, escape or destructive behaviours or over attachment and attention seeking behaviours as soon as the owner is home. For dogs who have no job and not enough company calm is an impossible state of mind

We get dogs as companions and then leave them home alone all day and when we come home we want them to be calm. For most dogs this is too big of an ask!

There are a lot of different ways to provide incentive and an environment that promotes calm.  There are also a lot of different protocols to teach calm. In my opinion it is best to use a holistic approach.

Firstly and probably most important, we have to provide adequate outlets for their energy and cater to their social need for companionship. They need physical exercise, brain stimulation and company. If these needs are not met we cannot expect them to be calm.

At the coffee shop!

A lot of dogs love to go out for a walk twice a day. This is not just for physical exercise but also to keep them socially well adjusted. Socialization, like everything else, requires practice. If they are not exposed to new things in a positive way and on an ongoing basis their social skills will deteriorate very quickly. However, too much physical exercise, especially high arousal activities like the dog park or incessant ball chasing, just increase excitement and high arousal levels.

While most dog owners are aware of their dogs physical exercise needs,   they sometimes do not provide adequate mental stimulation. Many dogs, especially working breeds are ‘run into the ground’ every day, spend a lot of time at the dog park but they are never calm or relaxed. They are in a heightened state of alert and arousal at all times because they do not get enough down time and mental exercise.

For their mental exercise provide a few short but fun training sessions every day. Try teaching them a new trick like closing the door and use at least some of their food for enrichment.

Dogs are social animals, they are not made for being left alone for extended periods of time. I do understand that most of us have to work and leave their dogs home alone. Most dogs cope with that if they are not left for excessive periods of time. However, and I repeat myself, if you work full time, have a busy social life and three children under the age of six years, a puppy or dog might not fit your lifestyle unless you are prepared to make some major changes. Crating your dog while you are at work is not an option. Crate time, especially during the day, should be limited to a maximum of a couple of hours. If you are absent most of the day, look into a good day care, dog walkers or swop time with neighbors.

At daycare pic Maxine www.caninekindergarten.com.au

Once we have catered to their mental and physical needs we can start teaching behaviours that lead to calm.

Teach a go to mat and relax: This can start out as a ‘drop stay’ exercise, in the beginning facilitate with a chew. The dog learns to happily chew on the bed and relax.

Teach impulse control: Typical exercises for this are look at me, hand target, wait, or lie down. The one I like most is ‘Doggie Zen’ (sorry I really cannot remember where I got it from) but for me it works like this: You ask your dog to sit, show the dog the treat, hold your hand with the treat at arm length away from your eyes at eye level and wait until the dog takes the eyes off the treat and looks at you. You have to be quiet. If your dog jumps up calmly put your hand with the treat behind your back and start again. Once you get eye contact, click or say yes and reward. In the beginning you reward for every glance! That is not a cued behaviour but a relaxation exercise.

Capture calm: Interestingly most owners miss their dog’s calm behaviour. A typical scenario is the dog calm on her bed and getting ignored. However, as soon as she gets up there is a reaction from the owners. By mistake the getting up is rewarded while calm is ignored. This tells the dog being calm is not worth doing. We need to change our approach and capture calm. While this is not training per se, it should be a major part of our relaxation protocol. When you see your dog in a relaxed state of mind calmly with a low, gentle voice tell him he is a good dog. Do not use treats, do not move towards him. Otherwise he might go right back into working mode. Dogs do no come pre programmed to know what we want, so we have to let them know.

A gentle massage or listening to music such as Through a Dog’s Ear are other ways of promoting calm and relaxation.

Lazy afternoon at home

In my opinion calm is more than just a behaviour and while we can and should teach preliminary behaviours such as ‘go to mat’, ‘doggie Zen’, ‘wait’, ‘pay attention’ or ‘lie down’ calm is a state of mind. Our dogs can only reach this state of mind if their physical, mental and social needs are met and if they live in an environment that promotes calmness

It is a bit like focus, which is a state of mind that cannot be reached with training of attention cues such as look at me or touch only but depends on the relationship and connection we have with our dogs. But this is a topic for another blog!

 

First published by the Pet Professional Guild.