Solve the problem, change the behavior

cartoon of boy doing a math problemWhat is behavior all about anyway? Why do dogs or anyone, behave the way they do? Why do they make choices to behave one way over another?

In some cases there’s not much choice involved. If I am stepping off the curb and see a car speeding toward me out of the corner of my eye it’s not in my best interest to think too much about what I should do or how I should do it. By the time I come to a conclusion I will likely be a statistic. If my nervous system is working optimally in that situation it will have triggered my muscles to get me back onto the curb post haste.

The behavior we see in fearful dogs is often due to the response of their nervous system responding to a threat, not because they have taken the time to weigh their options. When we are working with our dogs it is up to us to provide them with conditions under which they can think and make choices, and not continually provoke them into jumping back onto the curb.

I think about ‘behavior’ as a way we solve problems. If I need to pay the mortgage every month I have to figure out how to behave in order to do so. I’m sure there are people who would continue to get up early in the morning, sit in rush hour traffic and spend the day in a factory, office, school or other place of employment, even if they weren’t going to get a paycheck at the end of the week, but I feel safe in betting that many would not. Going to work solves a problem. Some people solve the problem of providing a roof over their heads or acquiring food or something else they feel they need, by picking up a gun and robbing liquor stores. This solves the problem of getting money, but it’s generally frowned upon.

When we catch someone behaving out of accordance of rules we’ve established we punish them. The robber goes to prison. Recidivism rates in the U.S. do not indicate that this method of changing behavior is very successful. Sixty seven and a half percent of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years. And just because someone wasn’t apprehended for 3 years doesn’t mean they waited that long to commit crimes again, nor does it include numbers of people who were not caught.

When our dogs behave in ways we think are inappropriate we can punish them, but this does not help them solve the problem they were responding to to begin with. If we want our fearful dogs to change their behavior we need to provide them with acceptable alternatives that not only make us happy, but work for them. If a dog learns that growling and snarling effectively keeps scary things away from them, simply punishing them for this behavior only solves the problem for us, and like a jail sentence, the result is often temporary. Not only does the dog still perceive that there is a problem, but the effects of continuing to suppress, through violence or the threat of violence, a dog’s behavior to protect themselves, is potentially dangerous. If growling ceases to work to make scary things go away, a dog may up the ante by biting.

After having their behavior suppressed, an animal can react in a way that is out of proportion to whatever is provoking the response in that particular instance. In humans we see this in women or children who respond violently toward someone in their life who has abused them. Victims of this sort of attack often suffer what seems like ‘over kill’? I recall reading about a woman who stabbed her husband over 50 times and I had to wonder, didn’t the first 20 do the trick? In the research done in animal behavior we know that reactions like this are not unusual. How many dogs who are defined as ‘dominant’ are only responding to being subjected to painful or threatening control of their behavior by their handlers?

If we can come up with behaviors for our dogs to perform that are appropriate from our point of view, but also help solve whatever problem the dog perceives, we not only have a win-win situation, but the likelihood that our dogs will be willing to practice and be able to replace their old behavior with this new behavior increases.

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8 comments so far

  1. Donna and the Dogs on

    I agree entirely with not punishing things like a growl (on the grounds that you will only suppress the behaviors you are trying to eliminate and not solve your dog’s discomfort), but I wonder what types of alternate behaviors you would suggest? In my case, my fearful dog shows no aggressive tendencies, instead her fear causes her either to freeze, or bolt. We are working on desensitization, but I was wondering what alternate behaviors you might suggest to teach her instead of shutting down or taking off?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You can’t ‘teach’ an alternate behavior to shutting down. That’s a physiological response which the dog is not in control of. You need to manage the dog so that she is not put in positions in which that is what happens to her. That’s really step one. Stop creating or allowing opportunities for the dog to be that scared.

      Desensitization alone is not enough. You also need to be counter conditioning, while the dog is not so far over threshold that she shuts down. Once she builds up tolerance and some resiliency you can begin to give her more skills for dealing with stressful situations. Any appropriate behavior can work, sitting, targeting, lying down, moving away, so long as the dog feels safe doing it and safe enough to do it.

      • Donna and the Dogs on

        Thank you for the thoughts on counter-conditioning.

        As far as preventing the scenarios, unfortunately in our case, it is hard to avoid the situations that cause our dog fear. Much of it is triggered by loud noises (thunder, fireworks, hammering, cars backfiring), or by unexpected changes in the environment, (this we have a bit more control over, but not entirely.) For example, I was walking her on a familiar path through woods she was comfortable in, and then someone appeared on a quad and drove too close, causing her to try to flee.

        She has definitely come a long way since we adopted her, but this responses continue to occur when the above triggers happen, and I thought I could try to teach her to react differently, rather than have her panic or disengage from me. Just not sure what the best alternate behavior would be for that sort of thing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      For dogs with general anxiety or sound sensitivities if we can lower their overall stress level we can see improvements in their behavior. This is often done with behavioral medications. It’s important for us to realize that dogs who startle easily and are super sensitive to changes in their environment are not just experiencing stress when something occurs but can be stressed worrying about when the next scary event is going to occur. These dogs can appear wary or vigilant. It’s not easy having a dog like this, that’s for sure. But it’s also not an easy way to live if you are that dog.

      By teaching the dog a behavior which they practice so much they don’t need to think about it, like eye contact, or coming to their name, you can build a behavior that is almost like a reflex. I say my dog’s name their head snaps around and they look at me. I reward my dogs for giving me unsolicited eye contact so they do it a lot. When in a stressful situation it’s important to ask for a behavior which the dog is good at, so it doesn’t require much thought on the dog’s part. It’s why soldiers, police, and even musicians practice and practice behaviors they will need to perform under pressure. For a scared dog, these become the alternate behaviors. The alternate behavior must also solve the problem the dog is facing, often this means increasing distance with a trigger. When my dog is spooked by something I ask him to sit near me or behind me, but will also move away from whatever might be scary to him, before I ask him to sit. He gets his favorite treat (canned cheese) if he can eat it while the trigger passes and then food stops once the trigger is gone, and life goes on.

      You could also do some reading about Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That protocol from her book Control Unleashed.

      I have use play a lot to change how my dogs feels about triggers. I find it even more potent than food for Sunny (not so much for Annie). People walking into the training center mean frisbees will be tossed, and no one is going to try to handle him. Strangers coming to my house mean dogs to play with or treats to eat or balls to chase, and again no pressure is put on the dog to interact.

      Again, desensitization alone is not enough for these dogs, you must add in the counter conditioning piece of the equation, and remember that exposing a dog to something that scares them is not necessarily desensitizing them to it. Depending on the intensity of the exposure it can do the exact opposite.

      We have to figure out how we can change what a trigger predicts. If a trigger predicts feeling afraid, we have to sort out how to change that, and it’s not anything we can force on a dog. Finding a trainer near you to help you with different skills using positive techniques might be useful.

      • Donna and the Dogs on

        Thank you very much for your in depth response. We are actually doing some of what you suggested already, including using the “Look at that Game” for her nervousness around cars. (works great!)We are being very careful not to flood her while implementing desensitization, and I really like your idea of somehow incorporating play into that routine, rather than just using food rewards. One remarkable thing about this dog is, when she is not scared, she seems very at ease in her environment, and very playful. She tends to go from one extreme to the other very quickly – joyous to fearful and right back to joyous again once the scary thing is over. When she first came here, that was not the case, she would be off for the rest of the day if something frightened her, and then she would sort of reset each morning – so I guess she is improving in that regard. Our main concern is we would eventually like her to be able to play without dragging a 30 foot line, but we are afraid she might one day bolt at a loud noise, and so we are working hard to change that reaction. (She has climbed seven foot fences so even though our yard is fenced, it can not contain her safely) We do consult several trainers, including her previous foster mom who is very skilled with rehabilitation, but I am always on the hunt for more info. Thanks so much for your time!

    • fearfuldogs on

      An increase in the speed of recovery and improved resiliency are often what we see, even if the fear of a trigger remains. It may be that triggers never lose all of their impact on a dog. Again I would suggest talking to a vet about a behavioral med to help the process. There is often only so much that DS/CC can do.

      • Donna and the Dogs on

        Thank you again for your helpful advice. For now, we would prefer to hold off on medications…but it is good to know they are out there if needed.

  2. Kristine on

    I am so grateful I found my dog trainer when I did, otherwise my dog may not be as confident as she is today. Before we consulted with her, I assumed growling was bad and didn’t think about how it was a warning sign. Like a yellow light. If you correct the yellow light, then it will switch straight from green to red, which will only end in major problems. Now I recognise the growl for what it is, praise my dog and move away. Much safer all around.


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