Why it is NOT just about Observable Behaviour
A while ago, on the support group page of a training course I was enrolled in, another trainer posted a question looking for advice about a dog that was going completely crazy whenever she arrived to work with the dog. By the time I saw the post, there were already about 20 comments giving advice on how to address this problem. Reading through the comments I felt very concerned, because while there was nothing “wrong” with the advice being given (there was no suggestion of aversives and it was all along positive reinforcement lines), not a single question about the dog’s background, lifestyle, health or living environment had been asked before the advice was given. Everyone jumped in immediately to give advice on addressing the behaviour in that moment, without any insight or interest in what the underlying factors for that behaviour might be. While everyone was quick suggest ways to distract or redirect the dog in the moment, no one gave a thought as to why the dog was doing what she was doing.
This approach is not unusual today. We are often told “focus on the behaviour in front of you”. While that might be good advice in a moment where you are training a particular task or assessing a dog in a particular situation, it is not an adequate approach for fully addressing any behaviour problem or long-term training issue. What we see in a moment is not just about what is happening in that moment – it can be a culmination of many events and the product of many influencing factors. Let me try to explain:
An employer approaches two senior employees, Nancy and Jane, and asks them both to prepare a short presentation for other employees in the company on workplace etiquette and standard operating procedures. Nancy is thrilled at the request and quickly starts planning what she is going to say and how to create an eye-catching presentation. Nancy has always loved public speaking. She was a member of a debate team in high school and feels that public speaking is a skill she has that so far has not been utilised enough in her job, so she wants to make the most of this opportunity. Nancy feels that this is another sign that life is great. She and her family have just moved into their first owned home and she is enjoying spending her time off gardening – something else she has always loved, and which helps her to relax after work. Her husband and kids are doing well (kids are older and pretty self-sufficient) and life at home is fairly harmonious. Nancy has no health problems and when she is not gardening, she and her family go hiking, which they all find revitalising. Nancy is excited for the presentation challenge!
Jane on the other hand, is horrified by her boss’s request. She has always hated public speaking and remembers a particularly embarrassing moment in high school when she went blank in front of the whole class and was sure everyone was laughing at her. This is not something she thought she would have to do in this job. Her husband was recently retrenched, and money is tight, so she really needs to keep this job, regardless of whether she enjoys it or not. Although her husband is at home, she feels guilty for not spending enough time with her children, who are still little. She can’t remember the last time they even all went to a park together. There never seems to be time to relax. She is also getting over flu (which she seems to keep getting) and is absolutely exhausted. She really just can’t believe that she now has this extra pressure on her to do something she really dreads.
Can you see how the two responses to the same task or immediate situation will be so vastly different, based on a whole lot of background factors which the boss may not be aware of at all? Do you see that no matter how much of a pep talk the boss might give Jane in that moment or even if he offered her more money (positive reinforcement) to complete the task, she would be unlikely to do well, due to all the personal factors in her life and her past experiences? If the employer really wanted to help Jane to succeed in her role in the company, he would need to sit down with her, get to know her and understand where she is coming from. If he were a compassionate person, who believed in helping his staff develop their full potential, he might reassign this specific task to someone else and give Jane another task she was more comfortable with. Or if he felt she was underestimating her abilities; he might ask Nancy to gently coach her and gradually build her confidence in this area. If he felt she was experiencing chronic stress, he might first suggest that she take a few days of sick leave. He might consider offering her flexitime, so she could be at home more and could find time to go for a short trip to the park every day with the children. He might suggest that she see a doctor and get her health back on track.
The same applies when we are looking at dogs with behaviour problems. Fear and reactivity are probably the most common issues we deal with as dog trainers and behaviour consultants. But fear and reactivity are never just about what is happening in that moment. The genetics, health, history and daily life experiences of the individual dog are all factors which the dog brings into every situation and which influences how the dog responds. Most often, when people approach us for help with a behaviour problem, they want us to go out with the dog and fix the problem right then and there. We are expected to put the dog in the situation he struggles with and train him to behave differently. Now, we can alter behaviour to a certain extent with this approach. We can manipulate the conditions of the situation to encourage a different behaviour and we can start reinforcing those new behaviours. We will probably have some success. But unless we look at the whole dog and everything which might be impacting his behaviour, we will simply be smoothing over the surface and sooner or later the problem will erupt again.
It is no good training a dog to “behave better” in a particular situation if the rest of the dog’s life does not support healthy behaviour. Background issues which HAVE to be addressed are:
1. CHRONIC STRESS – Most dogs we see with reactivity have been rehearsing it so often and for so long that they live in a state of chronic stress. They are constantly exposed to triggers and are always on edge, never in a relaxed state emotionally or physiologically. No meaningful learning can happen when a dog is living with chronic stress. Daily stressors HAVE to be eliminated or reduced as much as possible. 2. HEALTH PROBLEMS – Poor health depletes emotional and physical resources. Good health is vital for learning and emotional wellbeing. So many people ignore ongoing chronic health or pain issues in their dogs, but yet expect their dogs to be happy. Unless health problems are managed properly and appropriate pain relief is given, there is no point in addressing behaviour problems. 3. LIFESTYLE/MEETING NEEDS – Dogs have daily needs for social interaction (primarily with their own human family), exercise, mental stimulation, play, rehearsing species/breed specific behaviour patterns (stalking, chasing, grabbing, tugging, digging, chewing, scavenging, sniffing) and REST. Deficits in any of these areas will affect mood and lead to either depression or frustration, which will affect a dog’s ability to learn and cope with even mildly stressful events. 4. DIET – Dogs need adequate amounts of vital nutrients in order to maintain good emotional and physical health. Dietary imbalances (excesses or shortfalls) can affect mood (levels of certain chemicals in the brain) and how well the brain functions (the brain is an energy hungry organ!). 5. PAST EXPERIENCES – If a dog has had a traumatic experience with something, we first need to change how the dog feels about that thing (the underlying emotional response), before we try to change the dog’s behaviour. Desensitization and Counterconditioning (changing emotional associations) may need to be the initial focus and not operant conditioning (changing behaviour).
When addressing any behaviour problem, it is vital that we first investigate and address all these factors above BEFORE we try to change behaviour in a specific context. As I said in a previous article, only addressing the behaviour in the moment is like putting a plaster on an open wound, while ignoring the underlying infection. Surely we love our dogs enough to not want to simply change behaviour, but to want to ensure that they are truly and deeply happy, healthy, content and living the best lives possible.