No one approaches a trainer with a “good” dog that they’d like to make into a “super-dog.” As a professional trainer, I tend to see people who are in the throes of a severe behavior problem: usually some form of anxiety, hyperactivity, or aggression. A trainer is often the “last resort” that dog owners seek after their dog has delivered a severe enough wake-up call (a bite, major property damage, or injury to self). Dogs learn from their environment, people, and other animals. It’s very infrequent that even these severe wake-up calls were completely unforeseen. You can read more about how dogs teach themselves unwanted behavior in the article, “Finding a Training Approach that’s Right for You.” Usually even severe behavior problems have a gradual escalation in severity that was likely not apparent to the dog’s owners.
Accompanying the behavior problem(s) from the dog is usually a host of excuses from the owners for why the behaviors are occurring: the dog was startled, there was food nearby, or it was their natural instinct kicking in. We (me included) are very good at denial and at rationalizing our dog’s behavior or wishing it away saying, “maybe it’s just a phase that she’ll grow out of.”
A combination of owner denial, behavior rationalization, and busy schedules contributes to the development of severe behavior problems in dogs. With some dogs it can take very little time and reinforcement for a minor behavior infraction to become a major, scary problem.
When it comes to behavior, there are really only three types of dogs out there:
The almost perfect, well-balanced, well-mannered dogs that are so well controlled and trained by their humans that major behavior problems never become fully-realized because minor behavior problems are effectively addressed.
Dogs that possess a non-threatening but mildly irritating behavior problem such as leash pulling, excessive barking or reactivity to other dogs, or not listening that has the potential to escalate to a threatening behavior problem like out-of-control hyperactivity, separation anxiety, possessiveness, and aggression.
Dogs in the throes of a serious, fully-realized behavior problem.
The majority of dogs out there fall into that second category: they possess some mild unwanted behavior that has the potential to develop into something serious. If you’re being honest with yourself, you already know if your dog fits into that category. The real question becomes what causes dogs to escalate their behavior from mildly annoying to frightening and will my dog do it?
Internal Causes of Behavior Escalation
Physical discomfort, old-age (including loss of sight and hearing, and arthritis), injury, or illness. Always have a veterinarian assess your dog for a physical problem before seeking training to address anxious or aggressive behavior, especially if the behavior really has appeared overnight.
Environmental Causes of Behavior Escalation
Time and repeated reinforcement of the unwanted behavior, often unwittingly or unknowingly reinforced by the owners. Examples of common behaviors that are unwittingly reinforced over time include, pushy and demanding behaviors, leash-pulling, separation anxiety, and jumping up.
A generally stressful, uncertain, unstructured living environment. Dogs find comfort in routine and task and energy consistency. Lack of routine and consistency creates stress and over time that can cause a dog to act out.
A major life event that create stress and uncertainty. Examples include moving to a new home, having a baby, adding a new dog, or the dog being attacked or involved in a fight.
All dogs have a different tolerance for stress. For some dogs, it’s a very low threshold. These dogs will escalate a lot faster. Dogs that are more laid back but feeling the effects of stress will take longer to develop the more serious behavior problems. This is where the genetics sometimes come back into play. If you have a high drive, high energy dog, or one with unstable genetics to begin with (think puppy mill again), you will likely see the escalation more quickly.
The average black lab or mixed breed that’s a little more laid back will probably take longer to escalate and may never get to the point where the behavior becomes intolerable. Rather, they and the owners will live their entire lives together in a state of mild frustration at the dog’s behavior and inability to communicate effectively.
You don’t have a severe problem now, should you take preventative steps?
While the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies in some cases with dogs, in other situations it’s wise to take pre-emptive measures to avoid behavior problems down the line. Due to their environment and genetics, some dogs are at a higher risk for developing unwanted behaviors and for faster behavior escalation. If any of the descriptions below sound familiar to you, you should seek professional help for even mild behavior problems, and also as a precaution to prevent issues from developing later on, even if they aren’t yet surfacing.
It’s the first dog (especially a puppy) that the owners have ever had-especially if it happens to be a high caliber breed such as a German Shepherd, Rottweiler, or American Staffordshire Terrier. Young couples planning to eventually start a family may take the intermediate step of getting a puppy while waiting for the right time to have children. It can create big problems if inexperienced owners treat a dog or puppy like a “furry child.” Behavior problems like pushiness, possessiveness, and neediness can develop very quickly and escalate to intolerable or dangerous levels once the real baby arrives. For the young couple planning to have human babies, it is important to reinforce healthy boundaries and instill good discipline in a family dog early and often to ensure you have a balanced and receptive canine companion when the human child arrives. A professional trainer can make sure you’re on the right path and set up for future success.
The dog is from a pet store or online broker. These are usually purported to be “pure bred” or “designer” dogs from large, commercial puppy breeding operations (puppy mills). Besides being born and raised in an environment absolutely non-conducive to healthy physical and mental development,including a significant lack of human and environmental socialization, many animals may also have bad genetics contributing to their behavior issues. Problems typically experienced with these dogs is inability to house train or crate train, a high degree of anxiety or nervousness, and even intolerance of new situations, and separation anxiety. In addition, many suffer physical illnesses while at the breeding facility or shortly after leaving; these conditions may have lifelong physical consequences and as a result of the illness or treatment of the illness, a dog’s behavior may be significantly impacted.
The dog was purchased from a breeder after 12 weeks of age. Most breeders sell a litter by eight weeks of age. If the breeder was responsible, they did as much handling and socializing as they could with the pups during that time. If a dog is left after that eight week period passes, it may already have a behavioral deficiency (that the breeder may or may not disclose to you). Or, the breeder may be holding onto the dog to be used for breeding. If they change their mind and decide to sell the dog later on, it may not have received the proper training and socialization necessary to become a well-adjusted adult pet dog for a household. Of course there are many good adult dogs sold by breeders, but don’t automatically assume that because it’s from a private breeder, its fool proof. Behavior problems are typically the same as with dogs purchased from puppy mills, mentioned above.
The dog was adopted or purchase prior to 8 weeks of age or was a singleton (the only surviving pup of a litter). Early puppy development moves quickly, with pups passing through several important learning and development stages within the first 4 months of life. The first 8 weeks are a crucial time for a puppy to learn how to interact appropriately with his littermates, including how to play safely, accurately interpret and perform dog body language signals, accept corrections from his dam and littermates, and inhibit his bite. For this reason, even missing out on 1 week of this crucial dog-socialization time can stunt a pup’s ability to interact appropriately with other dogs even later in life.
A dog from a shelter or foster group, especially adult dogs (one year or older). While shelters and fosters typically do their best to train and socialize dogs to maximize adoptability and increase the chances of a permanent placement, many dogs have been shuffled through multiple homes or had difficult lives spent fending for themselves with minimal human contact, and rescue organizations have limited resources with which to help them. Potentially difficult behavior problems related to socialization and anxiety may appear later on.
You have the best chance to resolve, reverse, and permanently change unwanted behavior and avoid severe behavior problems by addressing the issue early, when it’s still relatively mild. Seek help at the first indication that the dog’s behavior may not be able to be managed or is escalating to another level.
The “blame game”
As with all things training-related, the dog is only half of the equation. The humans that handle the dog and create the dog’s home environment comprise at least half, if not more, of the problem and solution. Even if your dog’s behavior problems are mild, if you fit any of the descriptions below, you should seriously consider getting professional help for your dog’s behavior problems.
You are scared, apprehensive, or anxious around your dog. You will be ineffective at retraining your dog if you’re intimidated by the dog or uncertain about what you’re doing. The dog can sense your uneasiness and that will hinder your ability to calmly and confidently communicate your behavior expectations.
You’ve tried training classes or used a trainer in the past and were unsuccessful-now you’re thinking about trying a different approach and have a lot of doubts about effectively training your dog. It’s important to commit to a single training approach and/or tool for a period of time (a minimum of several months to a year). Quickly switching from one approach to another will confuse the dog and can lead to ineffective training at best, or increased behavior problems at worst. Check out the article entitled “Finding a Training Approach that’s Right for You” for additional information about finding an effective training approach.
You’ve had “bad luck” with dogs in the past. There’s no nice way to say this, but if you’ve had multiple dogs throughout your life and always experienced behavior problems, it may not be the dogs, it may be you. The good news is it’s relatively easy to change your own behavior if you can commit to it. Once you change how you handle and interact with your dog, the rest is easy.
You become easily frustrated with your dog. In my experience, the root of this frustration for most people is lack of communication and lack of a means for correcting unwanted behavior. And the dog is usually just as frustrated. If you experience resentment, anger, or frustration when training or interacting with your dog, get a balanced training professional to help open up the lines of communication and teach you how to safely and fairly correct unwanted behavior and when it’s appropriate to do so. Never saying “no” to the dog is simply not an option for most people. If a trainer tells you to never correct your dog, seek out a different trainer. You will almost inevitably experience more frustration using a training approach that does not allow you to safely and fairly confront unwanted behavior. For more information about different training approaches, see “Finding a Training Approach that’s Right for You“
A Word about “Doing it Yourself”
An effective DIY analogy for dog training would be the difference between trying to treat a small cut at home versus a broken bone. A small cut may be treated effectively at home with a band aid. If the small cut becomes infected, or you’re dealing with a more severe injury, you’ve got to go to a hospital and get a professional involved. If your dog is already deep into a serious behavior problem (a broken bone), you should seek professional help and not try to address the problem on your own. You risk making it worse with ineffective training and the result of this could be serious, including injury to you or your dog. If you’re dealing with a mild behavior annoyance (a small cut), and you feel relatively confident about your ability to address it at home, give it a shot. If the problem worsens, you can always call in a trainer at that point.
If after reading this article you’re ready to try addressing the problem on your own, you can obtain training DVDs, books, read articles online, and even use YouTube to view training videos. Some of our favorite print resources are listed here <link to recommended reading>. Be aware that there are a myriad of different training tools and approaches out there, not all of which are necessarily well-suited to your specific behavior problem, dog, or lifestyle-meaning not all tools and approaches have an equal chance at getting you the training results you want. While you can ask specific questions of the trainer sitting in your living room, you can’t do so of the trainer in the DVD.
If you’re ready to bring in a professional, review the article, “Selecting a Dog Trainer that’s Right for You” for more specific tips and information about locating a good trainer or go ahead and contact us to get started.