While waiting for my daughter to leave an event at a local high school, I observed a franchise trainer working with a very anxious behaving dog. The dog was clearly overwhelmed as dozens of kids ran out to meet parents. He began pulling away from the growing throng. The trainer took the dog’s lead from the owner and went into action. A prong collar was put on the dog. Harsh corrections were given until the dog stopped trying to escape. Any good behaviorist or trainer knows that this is unacceptable training. It is based in suppression of behaviors and does nothing to address the emotional well-being of the dog. The dog can end up learning to be helpless. Also, dogs learning to suppress behaviors I need to see as a trainer become dangerous. We have nothing to read, nothing to go by, we end up with a dog that will “suddenly” go off because there is no warning given.
With this dog I observed, there was no management of the dog’s environment to help reduce is stress. There was no way the dog was ready for the situation in which the franchise trainer put him in. Meaningful work begins with careful management of the environment and the situation into which the critter is placed. Though the owner looked pleased the dog was no longer trying to escape, there was no truly meaningful work happening.
Behavior is a response to something. The behavior can be something we want or do not want. Managing the environment around my dog increases or decreases the chance of the behavior happening or not. I am going to use leash lunging as an example of why management is important. Leash lunging, for whatever reason, is a common complaint of owners. Before I begin teaching better leash manners, I must begin by putting the dog in a position where he can succeed. This means managing the environment while I get back to basics.
I will work with the owner to identify what triggers the behaviors. Avoiding situations that will trigger a response is an important first step. If there is a dog down the street I know my client’s dog will bark and lunge after as the yard is passed, in the beginning we avoid walking that direction. While doing this, I teach how to recognize early signals the dog is entering a situation he is not ready to be in. I need to keep the dog below the threshold where he feels the need to carry on. Managing a dog’s threshold levels allows me to begin cultivating a better emotional state and the ability to humanely change the behavioral response. It removes the assumed need for harsher methods of “training” – which in reality suppress.
Management also means controlling what I allow people to do to or around my dog. I cannot help a dog learn to be calm around children when children are allowed to behave in ways that are stressing. I cannot teach a dog to be comfortable in his crate when parents allow children to torment the crated dog. I advocate for the best needs of my dog which may mean refusing to allow someone to greet if my dog is not in a state where greeting is desired or safe.
Sometimes owners decide it is easier to manage things than it is to work them through. Depending on what is going on, there may be times when it is easier and safer to manage behaviors instead of trying to work them through. Dogs do not need dog parks to be happy. Is it saner and safer for a human to try and force a dog to be happy and relaxed at a dog park or find alternative means to meet his needs? What about resource guarding? It may be easier depending on the situation to manage it instead of trying to work it through. With my own dogs, I avoid big box pet supply stores. There are often too many poorly managed dogs there. I do not need my dogs charged by dogs on retracting leads. Instead, we go to places where this is less likely to happen.
Management is an important part of working with any species of animal. A good trainer will understand this and include management in a training program.
– Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training.