The questions I get asked frequently by fed up owners are: “Can it be trained out of him?” and then “How long will it take?” The owner is frustrated and wants a solution to a problem that has been festering for a while. After all, who doesn’t want a quick and easy resolution to an annoying problem? The reality however, is that ameliorating these problems is more complex than teaching a simple training exercise, like having a dog learn to sit or get down.
To understand the answer to both questions, we need to understand the difference between behavior modification and training. Behavior modification explores the motivation and emotional needs of the animal and manipulating those to obtain a result that enhances the dog’s well being and emotional state. Training is teaching an animal to respond to a cue or prompt and responding with reinforcement for doing so. Let’s look at a human example for comparison.
Suppose your goal is to lose 25 pounds and lower your cholesterol levels. To do so and have lasting results, you would need to do several things. One is training. You would go to the gym, meet an athletic coach, and he or she would take you around the gym and show you how to use all the equipment properly. Your coach might write down settings, suggest weight amounts and supervise you for a few repetitions to make sure you are doing the exercises safely. You might accomplish this in one session or two and then be ready to use the equipment on your own in subsequent gym visits. Or you might want a little more time with the coach to perfect your skills. But either way, once you have an understanding of the mechanics of the exercises, you have the skills to lose weight and lower your cholesterol. You “know” how to do it.
So why don’t more people lose weight easily and have great cholesterol levels? It is easy! You learn the exercises and do them! The truth is, you need more than mechanical skills training to change your behavior. You need a behavior modification plan. You need to figure out why you eat certain foods that are unhealthy to begin with. Is there an emotional component to the meals you choose? Grandma’s home cooking might be comforting to you, but might be high in fat. Then you need to have a plan for how you are going to make sure you can get to the gym to do the exercises you learned. Will you pack your workout bag the night before so you get to the gym? Will you wake up an hour early to do your workout before work? When obstacles pop up and interfere with your schedule, what do you do? What happens when your coworkers bring donuts to work…again?
You need to have good management strategies. You want to set yourself up for success so you don’t succumb to temptations. Some management strategies might include keeping nuts or carrot sticks or fruit available to eat instead of hitting the vending machine. It may include not buying certain things so they are not in your house at all, or driving a different route to make it harder to pass your favorite fast food joint. It may include parking further from the entrances to stores or calling a workout partner so you are less likely to skip a session.
Then there is the second question: “How long does it take?” Well, we can look at the same example. When you do lose the 25 pounds and lower your cholesterol levels, if you return to your previous habits, what is likely to happen? Yup! You will likely regain the weight and end up as unhealthy as before in very short order. The behavior changes you make will need to be permanent changes for long term success. It takes “forever” because if you go back to eating pizza and donuts, the results won’t last either.
So you can see, behavior modification is much more difficult than it seems on the surface. The same is true for your dog’s behavior. To truly change how your dog acts towards other dogs will require a multi-faceted plan of basic skill training: changing his emotional response towards whatever upsets him (probably counter-conditioning and desensitization); and managing him and preventing him from getting too close to what bothers him before he is ready.
This means you may have to carry treats on walks with you always or avoid walking past a certain house with the one dog who terrorizes your dog or move the couch from in front of the window so Fido can’t see out to bark all day when you are not home. It may mean you can’t leave him unsupervised in the yard for hours at a time, that you will need to go out with him or put him on a leash. Behavior modification for your dog requires behavior modification for the human also. Sometimes it isn’t fun to take these extra steps day in and day out.
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“How Do We Fix This?” Behavior Modification vs Training
Dog reactivity (barking, growling, lunging, pulling, jumping) towards other dogs or towards people is an all too common problem. The dog’s “out of control” behavior is distressing and embarrassing to owners, leaving many disheartened and frustrated people to feel their dog is a “bad dog.” Often the owner tries to “correct” the dog, using a technique, tool, or something punitive or unpleasant which may suppress the outward behavior for a short time. Eventually though, the behavior reoccurs or escalates, prompting the owner to call for help.
Behavior modification can be tough, time consuming and tiring. But when you put the effort in to do it correctly, the results can be so satisfying for you, and your dog will feel so much better!
We can help with both behavior modification and training for your dog. Let us go over your dog’s behavior, identify what is bothering him and work from there. Give us a call today to get started.
Lisa Marino, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, PMCT, has taken her varied teaching experiences and applied them to helping owners understand and train their beloved four-legged family members. She has more than four years’ experience leading group dog training classes at Best Paw Forward in Hartland, WI, and opened Head of the Class Dog Training LLC in Winchester, VA in 2012, where she conducts group classes and private lessons, as well as helps owners to modify their dogs' problem behaviors. Lisa earned her CPDT-KA in 2012, is a 2015 graduate of the prestigious Karen Pryor Academy and is a Pat Miller Certified Trainer.