This is an expanded version of a piece printed in Northern Virginia Today
Early on in my career I was helping moderate a dog information message board. A woman came to the page wanting a fast and easy way to fix developing aggressions in one of her dogs towards another household dog. The owner complained about the cost of trainers which was why she was seeking internet advice.
Several of us explained why the dog needed to be worked with in person. Unless we saw the dog, ethically all we could do was outline a management protocol to reduce the risk of incidents while working to locate someone to help her one on one. That is when another person claiming to be a trainer chimed in and outlined a plan of behavioral action. This is where trouble started.
The information given was old school and not science-based. The owner was told to put the dog on a long leash and every time she aggressed towards anything, let her run to the end and then yank hard while yelling “NO!”. The owner was told to harshly show the dog these behaviors had to stop. Obviously the dog was stubborn and needed to be shown who called the shots in the house.
We all knew the dog would most likely develop worse behaviors even if there was the illusion of improvement. The dog may stop the outward signs of what the owner called aggression but the dog would still have issues. What if the dog began associating the other dog with bad things coming and decided to really drive the dog away to keep herself safe? The owner was given articles from behaviorists regarding why certain methods of training worse aggressions. We located several trainers in her area. We prayed she would contact one of them for one on one work. We even explained why one on one work in the home was vital.
A few months later the dog owner posted back with an update. She followed the free advice. The worst case happened. She corrected the dog for snarling at the other dog. The growling and aggressing towards the other dog in the home stopped. She assumed her dog was cured and knew not to go after the other dog. She let the dogs off leash together in the yard. In a heartbeat there was a fight and the “cured” dog killed the other dog. The owner was furious with us for giving her bad advice. We reminded her that many of us explained what needed to be done for management and we found trainers in her area to assist her. We explained why what she was told by the other person was dangerous. She chose to ignore us.
Another reason trainers cannot effectively work without seeing the dog is owners may miss things trainers will observe. Here are a couple cases I worked with.
During a phone history, a client reported issues when she wanted to walk or play with her younger dog. He was snarky and snappy during these times. During my initial evaluation I noticed something odd about the dog’s movement. I explained my concerns to the owner and asked her to have him checked before our next session. The owner said she saw nothing concerning but followed up with her vet. The vet discovered the dog had a luxating patella. He was acting up because he was in pain. Walks and play worsened the discomfort.
I was called regarding increasingly aggressive behavior between a younger dog and an older dog. The owner insisted it was not bad and I could fix it over a phone call. I convinced the owner to let me evaluate the situation in person. This is what I observed. The owner felt the younger dog was getting too rambunctious for the older dog. The owner began using a shock fence to confine the younger dog to part of the yard. If the younger dog followed the older dog across the yard, he got a shock. The younger dog associated the older dog with pain. He was trying to keep the older dog away. The owner had no idea the shock fence could lead to aggressions so did not tell me about it when I took an initial phone history.
Good trainers know the importance of first-hand evaluation. Even videos limits what we can do. They show us some of the story but not enough. Additionally, we cannot observe what you are doing for work if we are not working directly with you. Yes, when we leave your house, or you leave our classes, we have no control over what you do. However, during the times we are together we can get and give valuable feedback.
Just like a veterinarian cannot diagnose your pet without an exam and tests, anyone doing animal work ideally needs to see your critter first hand. When you see a problem arising, be responsible and get someone who can help you directly.