Like many people, you may once have been (and if you are reading this, probably still are!) the owner of a dog with behavior problems. But, you made the decision that you have struggled for long enough and got help. Hopefully, you gave yourself the best chance of success and employed the wisdom of an experienced Dog Behaviorist or Trainer. Or maybe you did extensive internet research and created your own strategy. In either case, the advice might have worked well at the start. So why is it then, that a month or so on, you are still struggling with the same problems, if anything the situation is now worse than ever!
Don’t panic, this is a common problem. I will explain why, and crucially, what you need to do to change it, maybe this is a familiar story for you…
This was the day the whole family had been waiting for, the day that the canine behaviorist came to visit. They will probably have spent a few hours with you, while you watched with amazement as they worked their magic. You were excited, you could at last see an end to the trauma that you had endured at the paws of your dog. You were confident that everything is finally going to get better, and you couldn’t wait to get started.
In fact, you were so inspired on that day, that as soon as they left you were straight out the door again. You were no longer fearful of your dogs reactions as you marched confidently around the park. With your best friend walking beautifully at your side, you’re now actively looking for opportunities to practice your new skills. You revel in your buddy’s new and improved attitude. He is far from perfect, and you have a lot of work to do together. But you are full of enthusiasm as the advice they gave you is already working a treat, you couldn’t be happier.
By day four, the novelty had started to wear off a little. You stopped begging anyone and everyone to ring your door bell, just so your dog could practice sitting in his spot while you opened the front door, again. It was difficult to make yourself get up early again, just because it takes him so long to calm down in the morning. But you made yourself do it anyway, just because you could see it slowly working, and you knew your efforts would pay off in the long run. You slowly started to sink back into old routines. No longer seeking out training opportunities, you’re now taking opportunities only if they naturally presented themselves. But it’s OK, he was still improving. Life was still good, and your enthusiasm remained, if not very slightly diluted.
Life got busy and time became limited, so you started to fast track and skip parts. In fact, only the night before, you gave in and put woofers in the kitchen for an hour, so you could watch that elephant documentary in peace. You were tired of having to give out a treat every time he ignored the animal on the telly! In fact, you had actually run out of treats a few days earlier and had to manage a day without. But he seemed to have mostly got the hang of things, so that was good. Maybe you had cracked it already, you did seem to be going through an awful lot of treats. And actually, he only ran off after one dog that morning, which was a huge improvement, compared to how bad he had used to be, so you’re not worried.
His behavior had really started to slide over the previous few days. In fact, by day 28 he was almost totally out of control. Not even his favorite treats were helping, you were so frustrated with the whole thing. You were even starting to wonder if it wasn’t a mistake getting a dog in the first place.
So, what went wrong?
The truth is that dogs will only behave in a way that works to get what they want, and in the most efficient way. The only way he can judge that is to consider what has worked for him in the past. It’s really that simple.
So, if he is excited to see you when you get home from work, and wants your attention, he might sense from your calm, patient demeanor, and the fact that you have a tasty treat in your pocket, that under these circumstances it was quicker to sit quietly to get your attention and the treat. However, if he thinks you are impatient and agitated, then by past experience, it possibly makes more sense to jump a little higher or even to grab at your clothes to get your full attention.
Don’t forget that he has nothing better to do all day than to study you and your behavior. He doesn’t have a job, or Facebook, or family dramas, to dominate his thoughts. So it will be really obvious to him if things are starting to slide. What might have seemed like a good behavior choice on day one, when you were enthusiastic and uncharacteristically patient, might no longer feel like the best way to achieve the goal on day twenty when you are feeling tired and irritable. Before you know it, you are back to square one.
Don’t rush it
Another huge contributor to this problem is an impatience to declare the problem solved. If you say sit to a puppy, push his bum down and then give him a treat does he now know how to sit on command? Or do you need to practice a few more times to be sure? In fact, you may need to practice another hundred times in various different places and under different circumstances before you can even think about very gradually phasing out the treats.
If this is a familiar story, and there are no other explanations, then the answer is pretty simple. Just take a step back and refresh your memory of all the advice you were given at the beginning. Then start again with the same enthusiasm and patience you had last time, if the advice worked for you once, it will work again. You will just need to be more stubborn and stick with it for a little longer this time.
The 28 day rule
It takes 28 days to form a new habit. So this time make a deal with yourself to keep it up for at least this long. Don’t slow down, no matter how well you are doing. You are both working on a habit change together. Between face to face sessions and follow-ups, all my training packages are designed to take around four weeks. This naturally gets you over the 28 day mark without realising it. If you are choosing a behaviourist for the first time, look out for regular check ins. You’ll also know straight away if things are genuinely not working…
He’s not feeling well!
Don’t underestimate the potential effect of his health and well-being on his behavior either. Even something as insignificant as a few fleas or a tummy upset can cause a significant behavior change. If his behavior has recently changed, a trip to the vet should definitely be considered – just to be safe!
The plan wasn’t right to start with!
The assessment is the most important part of the training plan. I talk more about assessing behaviour here but if the assessment is not thorough you could be on the wrong path from the outset. When advice is sought from the internet, books, or well meaning friends, you are relying on your situation being a perfect match for the advice they have offered. Unless, your behaviourist has spent time with you and your dog trying to understand all the factors that have contributed to the problem, then it is a possibility that the plan was partly to blame.
It just stopped working
Of course, it is possible that the advice you were given has genuinely stopped working. Maybe your circumstances have changed or something significant has happened in yours or your dogs life which has affected his behavior. Or maybe it was destined to never really work in the first place. Maybe it didn’t really suit you, or perhaps they only gave you a quick fix. Or maybe it focused too much on the behaviour rather than the underlying cause. In this case, call the behaviorist and explain what has happened. If necessary, book a follow-up session so the situation can be reassessed and the advice adjusted accordingly.
If you’ve never heard of them, these are subtle behaviours that may not be problems in themselves, but might be connected to other problems that you are having. For example, frequent peeing on a walk might not be a problem on its own. But, it is related to territorial behaviour, and therefore might have an impact on your training if you are working on front door etiquette! Likewise, walking ahead could be considered protective behaviour, if your dogs is trying to protect you, you’ll want to work on this too. If you feel like there’s “something missing” in your training, it could be a missed related behaviour!
What would you change about your dogs behaviour?
If you’d like help with your dogs behaviour, why not book a FREE zoom and find out how I help people like you resolve your dogs training and behavioural challenges, and keep you on track right until the end!
I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.
I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.
In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.