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

Dominance, Resistance to Learning and Switzerland

Why is it so difficult for some to let go of the dominance myth and associated punishment based methods?

I just re-read an interview with John Bradshaw. If you have not read his book ‘In Defence of the Dog’ you are missing out.

No I will not write another blog on dominance. I think we are well and truly beyond that.

It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.
It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.

I am pondering the question why are there still ‘professionals’ out there who either steady fast insist that you have to dominate your dog and use aversive training methods or call themselves positive but still use punitive or aversive methods (physically manipulating the dog/puppy, using ‘no’ and ‘ah ah’)?

Seminar 7 Flyer - July 17 2016 Flyer
Fun with Fido our latest seminar

And why does this group of trainers have more exposure on TV and other media? Does the dominance group have the better marketing? Are these trainers more into self promotion? Do these trainers spend their money on marketing instead of further education? I don’t know.

But there might be something deeper and darker to it. Life is frustrating for some and anger often not very well controlled. The thought of being able to dominate (and hurt) someone weaker might have appeal to some. And if ‘permission’ is given by ‘experts’ to use those methods why would a certain group of dog owners not do it?

There might also be some out there who are just not educated enough and do not understand the basics of the learning theory. Another reason could be a lack of empathy.

We know using fear and intimidation will cause compliance but at what cost to the relationship. It seems common sense and we do not do it anymore with our children (well most of us anyway). So why do some insist on doing it to our dogs?

Shouldn’t we all know by now that ‘force is not compatible with mutual respect.’ [1] It also destroys trust and inhibits learning. Effective learning is a cooperative process in a trusting relationship.

There has to be an element of maintaining ‘cognitive consistency’ Leon Festinger (1957) proposed the cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.’[2] [3]

Dissonance can be reduced in three ways. Individuals could change their attitude. This is often difficult because people have trouble changing behavioural responses. Secondly, they could acquire new information that supports their original believes or thirdly they could reduce the importance of cognitions.

In dog training this means despite all scientific evidence that the dominance theory used in training is outdate, some reduce cognitive dissonance by acquiring ‘new’ information that supports their belief and reducing the importance of cognition. In this case it goes along the lines. It is better to use the dominance theory and its associated punishment based methods to save the dog and/or get the results fast. This is an argument commonly used by rescue groups and balanced trainers supporting these groups. Basically arguing that the result justifies the means, which is another fallacy in itself as punishment does not establish a different, more appropriate behaviour it merely suppresses the unwanted one. In addition to that the side effects can be severe.

Another reason could be that by now ‘balanced’ trainers are so committed to their outdated knowledge that they will very likely resist any new learning. They have said for years now that a force free way is not working. That means they now lack motivation and ability to change and the cost of learning is immense.[4]

Cost of learning used in the psychological sense. If you learn something new that makes your old knowledge obsolete you have to change everything. It means you are not just adding new knowledge but the new way replaces and questions the old way. It becomes even more problematic if there was a significant emotional investment in the previous believes. [5]

For balanced dog trainers this means they have now reached a ‘point of no return’. They cannot change without loosing face and significant investment monetary and time wise to catch up. It also means they will only become more resistant and probably defend their old ways til the end.

This means we can only wait for a generation change and until then have to go with Bradshaw: “They [dogs] need defending from people who persist in the old methods and don’t take any notice of science.”[6]

We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.
We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.

Or there is one other way: Switzerland introduced a licence for dog owners in 2008. A ‘side effect’ of this was that the dog training industry had to be regulated. All dog trainers now have to have a basic education including an assessment (total of 140 hours minimum), at least three years experience in dog training and having passed a practical exam with their own dog, similar to the Canine Good Citizen Award in Australia. These trainers then need to adhere to a code of ethics and do further education to keep the accreditation valid.[7]

How would that be for a start?

 

[1] http://www.dogbehaviorblog.com/2014/02/a-paradigm-shift-from-punitive-to-positive.html

[2] http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[3] McLeod, S. A. (2014). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[4] http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/resistan.htm

[5]http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/referenc.htm#ATHERTON

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jul/17/dog-training-john-bradshaw-animal-behaviour

[7] https://www.skg.ch/files/live/sites/skg/files/shared/Aus-%20und%20Weiterbildung/Reglement%20Ausbildung%20SKN.pdf