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

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.