Home Dog behavior Dog behavior: beware of simple names for complex problems

Dog behavior: beware of simple names for complex problems



During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “a serious territorial assault” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I watched the wide-eyed, trembling Hound mix hidden under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.

It turned out that the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based on fear and completely independent of any concept of territory, he never hurt anyone. He moaned, barked and barked his teeth at anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them terrible fear, but even when people tried to stroke him (reckless, but it happened!) , he did not bite.

Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disappointed with the labels so often applied to behavioral problems in dogs. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is fake.

It’s no surprise that we wanted to label dog behavior problems: it matches the system we use for humans. In human healthcare, labels are needed because billing codes are needed for insurance coverage of treatments and drugs.


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Having a dog behavior problem tag can also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that this is a syndrome or known problem often makes us feel better before there is even a discussion about what to do to improve behavior. It’s a natural human tendency – just naming an issue can give us a sense of control over it. But unfortunately, a labeling error interferes with getting an appropriate answer to the problem, regardless of the problem.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shortcut that speeds up communication. There is an appealing simplicity in using a short sentence or two to identify a dog’s problem rather than going into the details of each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It is not uncommon for an assessment team to include a behaviorist, veterinarian and trainer, as well as other experts.)

On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail gives precision to the situation that sometimes labels obscure.

For example, each year several clients ask for my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (wrongly) that their dog has it. The dog may show behaviors often associated with separation anxiety – including excessive barking, elimination inside, or destructive chewing – but the real problem can often be revealed with a detailed description of the dog’s behavior before. , during and after the departure of the keeper.

When the real problem is boredom, incomplete house learning, or just a case of adolescence (which is not easy!), Changing the unwanted behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is a problem. little chance of success. Rather than drugs and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to the starts and signals that precede them, the real solution might be to add enrichment activities and opportunities, return to Housetraining 101, or provide a long session of training. ‘exercise before putting the dog in a cage with the long lasting chews.

It’s also common for people to come to me because their dog is “protecting” them. Lila brought Banjo because whenever someone approached Lila, Banjo would bark, growl, and run. Lila feared he would hurt someone, but delighted with his daring confidence. The problem was, after taking a case story and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell he wasn’t protecting her as much as he had her. He kept the toys, food, sleeping spaces, and anything else he considered valuable, including Lila. He wasn’t her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her the best bone in the world, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else have it. Falsely labeling Banjo’s behavior as “protection” rather than “possession” hampered attempts to change that behavior and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.

Another downside to labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sound “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that just isn’t there. Even among the many dogs whose fear leads to aggressive behavior, the differences are huge. Dealing with a dog that is afraid of red-haired children (and therefore reacts badly in the presence of a child) because it has been traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very focused approach to overcome this fear. Changing such specific behavior is different from working with fearful dogs; dogs who lack socialization early on but are very good with familiar people; or even dogs panicking and biting in reaction to loud noises such as gunshots, fireworks, or the crash of a pot hitting a tiled floor.

A related downside to labeling behavioral problems is that the label implies a solution, again just like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Locked-in thinking about how to change unwanted behavior can bypass ongoing investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is well understood and that all it takes is an appropriate behavior modification program that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to control himself. However, this tag can mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

Then there is the question of shame; tagging a dog’s problem makes it more serious and alarming for many caretakers and can also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. This is especially true for any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s a shame that a stigma exists, but as it does, it makes sense to take it into account when discussing dog behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to learn that their dog is aggressive, especially if he is gentle and affectionate in the family. It can be even more difficult for a family whose dog behaves out of character due to injury or other physical illness to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in so much pain that the problematic behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned that it is going to hurt, I would rather say that – even though it is long and a bit heavy. – rather than calling the dog aggressive. Even though it is modified by the term “pain induced”, the word makes people feel bad, and it is not helpful.

It is common for people who are told that their dog is “aggressive out of fear” are more intimidated and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is afraid and acts like he is because he cannot. say, “Please, oh please don’t come near you’re scaring me!” And for heaven’s sake, don’t stroke me because I can’t handle this except with my closest friends. If people understand that dogs bark, growl, or bite because they desperately want to increase the distance between them and anything that scares them – other dogs, people, trash cans, bikes – and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there is less judgment and more hope. Focus on the behavior itself – what the dog is doing – and discuss the motivation behind it to avoid problems that can arise by simply labeling the behavior.

I recently consulted with a family whose dog suffered a labeling error that hampered his ability to help. The sweet three year old Newfoundlander in this family was urinating inside the house and because their vet could not find any medical reason for it, she referred them to me to deal with the ‘home training’ issue. . A complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement between the disciplines on what it means. For many people, household dirt without a medical cause is still linked to toilet training, but behaviorists recognize that many problems involving urination indoors can be signs of calming or poor behavior. ‘a need to mark a territory, among other possibilities.

It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they kept saying, “He’s peeing everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” Then detailing the cleanup, which was undoubtedly considerable considering the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent investigation, however, I was finally able to get a more complete picture; it turned out not to be a housekeeping issue after all. The dog’s training was solid, but he peed during the greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted someone, but now he only did so when he greeted the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached out to the dog.

Recognize that inappropriate urination was a specific type of social problem (often referred to as “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs over 12-18 months of age) rather than a bladder control problem – or not knowing or caring about where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to solve the real problem: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Even though he thought he was doing well with his dog by being firm and applying tough and consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband nicer, gentler, and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence his behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a home education problem would have achieved this result, which also had the added benefit of improving overall family dynamics.

The temptation to name a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too great and too many for me to adopt. Tags can prevent the dog from being seen, focus our attention on a pathology, and make the dog an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he really is: a complex individual and a unique case.



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