Fix or Fulfill?
I wanted to write one more post on why the idea of “Fixing” dogs is problematic. I have already written about why, as trainers or behaviourists, we would be foolish to give guarantees when it comes to “fixing” behaviour problems and I have explored the complexities of why certain problems cannot simply be “fixed”. What I really want to focus on in this post, is why the very notion of wanting to “fix” a dog, often causes us to neglect what is really important for the dog, in favour of what we think is important.
As dog owners, we tend to fixate on a problem behaviour and feel that if we can just tackle that and sort it out, then all will be well and our dogs will be the way that we want them to be and will be able to do the things that we want them to do. The problem with focusing on the problem behaviour and devoting all our energy to “fixing” that one thing, is that we tend to neglect other things which are actually far more important.
The problem behaviours that we are most often asked for help with are issues of reactivity, fear and aggression. And I do get it. I completely understand that a dog that is launching at every person or dog that passes by on a walk is no fun to take out. A dog that can’t stand being around other dogs can limit one’s lifestyle and may even mean not being able to have any other dogs in the home for the rest of that dog’s life. Many people take for granted that when you bring a dog home, you will have years of beach walks and strolls in the park and when a dog’s behaviour makes such activities unpleasant, it is natural to want to “fix” the problem.
One can even say that wanting to fix the problem is better than giving the dog away or dooming the dog to a life of backyard boredom – at least people who want to fix the problem care enough to do something? The problem is not wanting to do something to change the situation, the problem is that the focus is on how to change the dog’s behaviour to suit our needs, rather than to look at how we can change our behaviour to improve the overall welfare of the dog and fulfil his or her needs.
We have to start realising that not all dogs are suitable for all activities and situations. Genetics, early environment and the sum total of life experience (learning) has moulded every dog into a unique individual who may be good with some stuff and not so good with other stuff. This may change over time and with further learning and life experience, but we cannot expect all dogs to conform to the ideal of the perfect dog in all situations at all times. What dogs need is not to be forced into a mold of what the perfect dog should be and what they should enjoy, but for us to acknowledge who and where they are in their lives as individuals and give them plenty of what THEY enjoy.
I want to use an example that we come across often – and I am sure it is a common issue for behaviourists and trainers all over the world: Someone adopts an adult dog from a rescue organisation and asks to join classes in order to “socialise” the dog. They had visions of strolling around the suburbs, but their dog is dragging them to every gate they pass, roaring at the dogs behind them. The knee-jerk reaction is to “fix” this behaviour. Keep walking the dog around the suburbs and teach him that it is “wrong” to bark at other dogs or just take him around so often that eventually he gets used to it. Few people consider what the dog actually needs. The dog needs to feel safe and secure in his new home, he needs to learn that the world he is now living in is not a scary, nasty place, but a place where good stuff happens, so that his general attitude to life can become more optimistic. The dog needs all sources of stress in his life removed, he needs to be given ample opportunities to carry out normal, fulfilling canine behaviours and he needs his new family to build a reinforcement history for engaging with them so that he learns they are a source of good stuff and are great to be around.
Continuing to walk that dog around the suburbs every day, where he experiences severe stress, in order to work on resolving a behaviour problem and making that the central activity and “project” for his life does exactly the opposite of all of this. Think for a minute too on how focusing on the problem behaviour in this way can affect the owner: Does the owner enjoy these walks? Are they having fun with their dog? What is having to work on this every day doing to their stress levels? Is this a good way for the owner to bond with their dog and develop positive feelings for their dog? Of course not. Fixating on “fixing” something keeps our focus on what is going wrong instead of what is going right. Focusing on the negative makes us frustrated, anxious and depressed. It can even poison our relationship with our dog.
These kinds of scenarios are not restricted to rescue dogs, of course. Sometimes people choose a particular breed of dog for a specific sport, but find that due to the dog’s particular personality or some early life experience, they can’t cope in a show or competition environment. Unfortunately many people will refuse to acknowledge what their dog is trying to tell them and will continue to strive to improve their dog’s performance, completely ignoring the fallout as the stress manifests in every other aspect of the dog’s life.
I understand the disappointment, when we have high hopes for what we will achieve with a dog and we see them crumbling, because of some issue. It is not easy to accept that what we hoped for might not happen. However, if we truly love our dogs, we have to start considering their needs – not what WE think their needs are. When we focus on giving our dogs the stuff that makes them happy, it will not only make them happy, but it will fill us with joy as well. When we listen to what they are saying and make an effort to reduce what they find stressful and increase those things that make them feel good, we give them the quality of life that they deserve. And ironically, this quality of life puts them into an emotional place where they ARE able to cope with so much more and where we are then far more likely to make real progress if we start GENTLY working on the things they are not so good at.
It is not wrong to want to resolve behaviour problems, but we need to change our approach to doing so. We need to put our ideals aside and look at the dog in front of us: What does their behaviour say about how they are feeling and how can we first make them feel better? What do they really need from us right now? Only once we have taken care of this far more important matter, should we start to consider how to resolve the problem behaviour – always ensuring that we NEVER undermine their overall wellbeing in order to do so.