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

Are you Ready for your New Puppy? And if Yes for how Many Years?

Puppies are just too cute, it is almost beyond words. However these cute puppies grow up very quickly and become ‘real’ dogs. The puppy stage only lasts for a few months and the honey moon phase is often over after a couple of weeks of sleepless nights and urine stains on the carpet. So make sure what you really want is a dog and not just the puppy.

Too cute for words!
Too cute for words!

Pointing out the obvious, a puppy is a 12 to 15 year commitment and a lot of things can change during this time. Some are out of our control, such as family and relationship break downs, death, or sickness to name a few; others are very predictable: moving out, getting married, having a baby, the children are growing up, going overseas, having an extended holiday, changing jobs, moving, again just to name a few.

 

Considering the high number of dogs in rescue shelters, not every new puppy owner has thought about changes in their lives and how they will care for their dog during these challenging times.

I recently posted on my Facebook page that: “If you work full time, have three children under the age of six and work full time, do not get a puppy.”  My argument was that the puppy would not get the training and socialisation she will require to grow up into a well adjusted dog. I also said that the puppy should not be left home alone for long periods of time in the first few weeks.

There was a backlash: How did I dare saying that some people should not have a dog just because they work fulltime? How could I deny a child the opportunity to grow up with a puppy? I was called arrogant, out of touch and a few more things.

Is owning a dog a right or a privilege? I just read the book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets by Jessica Pierce, it really makes you think twice.

We love our dogs but is this enough? I do not think so. I also do not think owning a dog is a right. It is a privilege that comes with a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices. Forget about sleeping in for a few months or years, forget about going out every night and forget about extended holidays.

Before you make a decision ask yourself do you really have the time and commitment it takes to bring up a well adjusted and confident canine citizen? Will you still be in a position to look after your dog in 12 or 14 years time?

Are you ready for sleep less nights, puddles on the floor, the puppy pre-school, daily socialization outings for the next 12 to 18 months?

Are you prepared for the challenges of the teen aged dog and the heartbreak of living with an older dog?

Living with an older dog can be heart breaking.
Living with an older dog can be heart breaking.

I meet a lot of mothers whose families decided to get a puppy for the children, sometimes against the wishes of mum. But often, after the initial excitement, it is the mothers who look after the puppy and they struggle to deal with the additional responsibility and to provide appropriate care. Not because they do not try but because they just do not have the time, next to a full time job, the children and much more.

My tip here for all mums: Unless you want a puppy do not get one: Not for the children, nor the husband (who works full time, too) or for your other dog! It is not going to work.

Here a list of some of the NO – NOS and excuse me for being blunt

Do not get a dog if you

  • will not allow the dog in the house
  • are not able to put the time in for socialization and training
  • work very long hours or travel a lot
  • have very small children
  • or a household member is allergic to dogs
  • are not in stable financial position
  • are a clean freak with a designer loft

Before getting a puppy you should also consider alternatives such as rescue dogs. Considering your life style you might be better of with a senior dog or rescue Greyhound.

Lets assume you are ready.

  • Make sure you research breeds that match your life style and find a reputable breeder. I leave this topic for another day. If you buy a dog online or from a pet shop you are most likely supporting a puppy farm and while your puppy may have a loving home, her parents never will. They will live in appalling and cruel conditions and you are supporting this inhumane industry.
  • Even experienced dog owners can find puppy hood a bit overwhelming. One key point with socialisation is that you cannot postpone which means it makes sense to plan the arrival date carefully.
  • Get consensus in your family on the basics: sleeping arrangements, exercise, house training, where is the puppy allowed before the puppy arrives and stick to them.
  • Puppy proof the house which means remove dangerous things such as electrical cords, cleaners, small objects and set up a confinement area including crates and baby gates.
  • Be ready with the essentials such as beds, collar, id, leads, treats, food (in the beginning same as the breeder), toys, food dispensing toys, interactive toys and more toys.
  • Get in contact with service providers such as puppy pre school, day care, walkers, groomers in your area.

On a different note, in Switzerland prospective dog owners are required to take a course BEFORE getting a puppy or a dog. This course consists of four hours theory to prepare for the arrival of the new family member. While this is minimal it prevents impulse buying and at least sets prospective owners up for success. The sale of dogs in pet shops has been banned for decades.

While you probably will never be fully prepared for a puppy or a dog you can be fully committed to make your puppy the best dog she can be. This will help navigate the set back and the challenges ahead.

Bringing up a well adjusted dog is very fulfilling, great fun and worth every minute!

First published by Pet Professional Guild