I have been thinking about learning a new skill lately, specifically using the keyboard without looking at my fingers, which I am doing right now – slowly. I have been typing while looking at my fingers for a long time and it is really a struggle to resist the temptation to take a peek. How does this issue relate to dogs, though? A student in one of my “growly dog” classes asked me a question that I couldn’t answer and to help him understand why I used the analogy of typing without peeking.
What Are The Predictors?
The student was concerned with the speed at which he was seeing improvement and whether the approaches we were using would be successful. Answering that question is dependent on so many variables I wasn’t sure where to start. If I had to come up with just three factors that could help predict whether we would succeed with any particular dog they would be:
- client interest, involvement, compliance and follow-through with suggestions
- when the objectionable behavior began
- how predictable the behavior is
Whether or not I am learning this new skill of typing without looking, or relearning it, is also dependent on the three factors above. Think of it this way. I am mostly likely to succeed if I am involved in the change and thus willing to practice frequently, haven’t been at the bad habit of peeking for very long, and I only cheat and look when I have a deadline to meet. The fact that I am willing to practice and that the slip-up is predictable (I only cheat when I have a deadline to meet) I hope will outweigh the first factor. I have been practicing this behavior for a very long time, quite successfully I might add.
But let’s look at it this as it relates to a dog’s behavior problem.
Owner’s Willingness to Follow Through
Sometimes I find that an owner will come to me with a behavioral issue but a closed mind. These are the most difficult situations to deal with as it involves first convincing my client, who may have a strongly held belief, that in fact there is an alternative way to look at the situation that explains the behavior in an entirely different light. A good example of this was with a Golden Retriever/Chow mix who would continually demand attention from her owner by draping herself across across her lap, licking her hands, and pawing at her for attention. This dog was a new member of the family, a rescue dog, and for the first two or three months it appeared to be a perfect fit with the family. However, she began to behave aggressively towards the woman’s husband and to growl at strangers, which is why she came to see me. In the mean time, the woman however continually reinforced the pawing for attention and draping over her lap by petting and talking to the dog when she did this, thus reinforcing that behavior. She felt that since the dog was a rescue she needed to be reassured she was loved. Convincing this lovely, gentle lady that her dog’s “loving” behaviors were actually “demands” turned out to be a monumental issue. She felt very strongly that her dear dog was only expressing her love and adoration for her new owner and did not want to change this at all. Fortunately, she reluctantly agreed to give my suggestion, that at the very least this dog should sit and wait patiently for attention, a try. She began to see improvement almost immediately.
When Did It Begin?
If the objectionable behavior began in puppyhood it is more difficult to change. It just stands to reason that if “practice makes perfect” and the behavior began early on then it is likely that much practicing has been done already!
Predictability Can Help Predict Success
Predictability is another factor that can influence success. If the objectionable behavior seems to occur randomly and unpredictably, it becomes more difficult to understand what the triggers are and thus deal with them. For instance, if we are using counter-conditioning for aggression towards strange men, but without rhyme or reason the dog sometimes greets strange men with all the appropriate body language that says “I am soooo happy to see you! Come and pet me!” it will be more difficult to understand what the trigger is. Is it men with hats? Is it men with deep voices? Maybe it is the way men approach the dog. Or it may be a combination of several of these factors.
So the more predictable the behavior is, the easier it is to identify the triggers and an approach to treat it.