Change Is Difficult – We Are Humans After All.

Goodog owner Barbara Hodel addresses how change is difficult in humans too.

As trainers we sometimes talk about compliance by our clients or maybe more accurately the lack of it. Part of our job as dog trainers is to find ways to motivate clients 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 humans’ behaviour first. Change is difficult in humans too and we humans need good reasons to initiate change.

change is difficult in humans too - not just puppies
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 their humans. 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 client, 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 humans.

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. Trainers are also humans and I must remember that change is difficult in humans too.

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.

Compliance by humans does not always occur. This might be the crux, when we talk about compliance we assume that the client 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.

change is difficult in humans too - not just teen dogs
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 vocalises and neighbours complain on a regular basis. This is highly stressful for the dog and their human. If the dog was able to spend some time on their own, their human 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 compliance but will expand my knowledge of motivational interviewing and change my approach to hopefully being more successful in helping my clients. But I remember that change is difficult in humans too even if I see the benefits!

Considering change is difficult in humans too, Barbara’s book on teenage dogs addresses how we can best communicate with our dogs: How to love and survive your teenage dog.

[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 summarised by the acronym DEARS:

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

About Barbara

In 2015 Barbara completed her Diploma in Canine Behaviour Science and Technology at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute in Canada.

Barbara has been involved in dog training for the last 20 years and has completed her Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services with the Delta Society in 2007 and is a professional member of the Delta Institute.

She competes in the dog sport of Agility and Rally O and Shellbe (a German short-haired pointer) competes on Master level in Agility and Rally O. Chillax, one of Shellbe’s puppies, competes in Rally O and got his Rally Novice title in October 2019. He is just starting out in Agility. 

Barbara is the President of the Pet Professional Guild Australia. The Guild promotes force free and humane training for all pets.

Barbara holds a Master’s Degree in Modern European History and Economics from the University of Berne (Switzerland) and a MBA (Master of Business Administration) from Southern Cross University Australia. In addition, Barbara has in-depth experience in adult education and training, having taught high school and university students in Berne, college students in Sydney, as well as middle and top management employees of a large public corporation in Switzerland.

  • Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services with the Delta Society (2007)
  • Diploma in Canine Behaviour Science and Technology at CASI Canada (2015)
  • Advanced Animal Training at Illis ABC Sweden (2021)
  • Master’s Degree in Modern European History and Economic (University of Berne, Switzerland)
  • MBA (Master of Business Administration from Southern Cross University Australia)
  • President of the Pet Professional Guild Australia.
  • Professional member of the Delta Institute

You can contact Barbara on Barbara@goodog.com.au.

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.