What are the two biggest factors I use to effect beneficial changes in dogs with behavioral problems?
Typical dog training has become too mechanical over the past 25 years. Training has become Input => Output, and we are back to the old views of Descartes that animals are just complex machines. That viewpoint prevailed for a very long time, and allowed scientists to carve up and experiment on animals like they were taking apart an old clock. This reductionist viewpoint was used experimentally to pick apart dog behavior in laboratories to identify different reflexive actions. The horrible side effect was that treating dogs like wind-up toys turned dogs into neurotic zombies.
Many people assume that the only way to break a dog down is to use some kind of aversive method, such as telling a dog “No”, or a leash correction, or by using this or that device. Well, it turned out things aren’t all that simpleminded. You can break a dog with the misuse of all of those “positive” sounding tools used incorrectly. And the most incorrect way of managing and training a dog is to see it as a machine.
Which leads me to giving you the correct answers.
The first factor that must be implemented to fix any dog behavior problem is putting a dog in a healthy environment. A dog’s environment has a significant influence on a dog’s behavior. That includes things such as a predictable daily schedule, exposures to various pleasant stimuli, proper hygiene and medical care, proper feeding and nutrition, healthy exercise and exploration opportunities, sufficient sleeping opportunities, proper containment to prevent intruders or escape, proper housing, comfortable temperatures, and physical and psychological safety.
Many times, I suggest changes in a dog’s environment. Any number of factors can upset a dog. These influences aren’t going to be found in a book about how to train your dog to Come when called or to stay off the couch.
The second factor is the dog’s social relationship with its owner(s). Dogs need good people around them. I can recite countless stories of how dogs improved or deteriorated when around different people. I remember a Vizsla I worked with several years ago. The dog was very skittish around the home. The main cause of the problem was that the wife and husband were locked into a marriage struggle, and the husband was redirecting his hostility to his wife by taking it out on the dog. He didn’t like the dog; he wouldn’t have anything to do with the dog; he would scowl at the dog; and so forth. The dog was walking on eggshells all the time when he was around. The marriage was on the rocks, and I let the wife know that regardless of what we tried, if the husband didn’t quit it, there was no way to help her dog.
I heard about a dog today that is acting completely crazy. Something bad has happened to this dog, I don’t know what. It is a rescue. One minute the dog is fine, next it is bouncing off the walls, next it freaks out if you try to bring the dog back inside, the dog still has an injury that is on the way to being healed but is still under treatment by a vet, and so on. This dog can’t figure out what is going on. This is what happens often from some kind of abuse. Abuse can be what you might imagine, or it can also be from putting a dog into an intensely conflicting set of environmental influences. Rest alone won’t solve this kind of thing. This dogs problems need to be unraveled, and to never be put in a situation that resembles wherever this dog came from.
Even the worst behaved dogs have some glimmer of hope if someone loves the dog enough to use their relationship with the dog to help solve whatever is going on. Dogs are very social animals, and we can have a profound influence on their behavior if we can establish a good relationship with that dog.
I sometimes have students that don’t seem to understand that. They hire me, and they expect me to come in and, zip zip, do this or that and the expect some kind of miracle cure. What they don’t expect is homework that is first targeted at fixing their relationship with their dog. I think people have watched too much TV and think whatever dog training they have seen there is what works. In a similar fashion, I must get a dog to naturally warm up to me so I can properly work with the dog. The TV types force themselves on the dogs, and the dogs appear to just take it. But if you look closely at the dogs, they aren’t happy, they are even more terrified. That temporary shock of confrontation the trainer uses freezes the dogs’ responses in most cases, which makes the dog seem to be compliant. Shock any animal with a strong enough stimulus and they will choose a behavior of last resort, too; usually freezing or shutting down. But that doesn’t now mean the dog will have a good relationship to build upon. What’s happening isn’t coming from a good place.
So, to get a head start on fixing whatever dog you have or are working with, start with those two areas: how is the environment and how is the relationship? Get those things going in the right direction and then any subsequent training will make sense to the dog and will get you better results.