While mulling over a “problem dog” the other day, it was interesting and amusing to reflect on my changes in perspective towards dogs and people over the 13 years I have been in the sport. I put the words problem dog in quotation marks because this is the way I first viewed these situations; but, as we know, it is much more than the dog. In fact, the dog is what the owner has made him.
When I first got in the dog game and began teaching classes, this was an area where I really felt inadequate. The solutions to these various “problems” such as digging, chewing, biting, etc., left me a little flat and without much enthusiasm in my answers. Those presenting clinics provided little guidance with answers such as, “I would handle it the same way you would” or “I would have to see the dog first.” Not having any good approaches with which I could feel confident, I continued to be optimistic with people yet taking it personally when things didn’t improve. I continued to read, listen, and look for solutions to these problems.
Gradually it became clear the problem was not the dog but his environment. I felt this inside but was not really confident about this until I started studying dog behavior more carefully and reading Bill Campbell’s first articles in Modern Veterinary Practice. The solution to the problem dog was really the problem owner. They must first be educated as to how his treatment of the dog and the dog’s genetic potential together have created these problems.
Generally speaking, most of the problems with which people want help are related to role reversal. That is, the dog has assumed the leadership role or is not sure of his position in the “pack”. Problems such as aggression, chewing, and household micturition can be related to the dominance hierarchy.
The question we are faced with is how to teach the owner. Initially, I presented solutions that were very much mechanical and in some cases worked. Yet the owners never really understood why and could not cope with relapses. In addition, being a little soft hearted, I would put little of the blame on the owner. Things have changed.
As with at home treatment of a sick dog, the success of any corrective procedure for problem behavior depends on the dedication of the owner to follow the prescribed treatment.
In dealing with aggressive dogs, I have found that if the owner is afraid of the dog to the point where he is unwilling to work with the dog to establish leadership, the battle is lost. All too often an overnight solution is sought and the owner is not willing to work with the problem for a number of weeks needed. I now lay the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the owner. It is made very clear that if he does not change his ways of interacting with his dog, the dog will not change.
Several owners have chosen an alternative solution. A professional trainer has taken the dog for several weeks at a substantial fee. The dog is then returned to the expectant owner who now has his problem solved – so he thinks. Even though pains are taken to educate the owner as to what the dog has been taught and what the owner needs to do, few seem to follow through. As a result the problem reoccurs.
Some owners take the approach of getting rid of the problem dog and starting over with a puppy. Unfortunately, if this dog is raised as the first dog was, the same problems are likely to develop.
Through the years, I have emphasized in my classes that I am teaching the owner how to train his dog and tried to develop approaches which are both effective and easy for the owners. Yet it all boils down to working with people. I now find the most helpful and educational programs that help me develop as a teacher are those I get in my job that teach leadership skills and motivation. Only a few students are self motivated with the majority needing additional motivation which I need to provide. As a trainer my job is to learn how to condition and motivate my dog. As an instructor, my job is to effectively communicate with and motivate people. It all seemed a lot easier when I first got in this sport.
©1984 W. Herbert Morrison, III