I had a rather unpleasant experience recently with a person who wanted help with a reactive dog, but wanted me to guarantee that I could “fix” the problem, before agreeing to book a consultation. When I tried to explain that I could not make such guarantees and sent the person details on how we would approach this type of problem, as well as factors that might influence the outcome, to help her make an informed decision as to whether she wanted to proceed,she refused to read the information (because, in her own words, it was too much effort) and insisted again that I guarantee a result. At that point I responded that I was obviously not what she was looking for.
The problem is that there are “behaviourists” and trainers that do guarantee results. One popular local expert states on their website that they will fix any problem in one session. So, what is wrong with this? Should we not be confident in what we do? Surely, if we know what we are doing, we can solve whatever problem the person is experiencing with their dog?
Well, actually no. Dogs are not appliances that can be fixed, oiled or rewired when a part is broken. Dogs are living beings and behaviour is a complex function of genetics, developmental experience and reinforcement history. Physiology, health, past learning, general mood and current environment all play a role in how a dog will respond to a situation and how far they will progress with a certain behaviour modification plan. Furthermore, some owners' expectations for their dogs' behaviour in general is completely unrealistic and may have to be carefully "negotiated" during a consultation.
For example, there are some dogs that exhibit dog-dog reactivity that may very quickly change their behaviour to become quite sociable, with the right training and opportunities, there are others that may make slow progress, but learn to accept other dogs within certain limitations over a much longer period of time and there are others still that will never be comfortable in close proximity to other dogs, no matter how long you work with them.
Why are there these differences in outcome? Well, there could be many factors. Some dogs may have had a really traumatic experience that they struggle to overcome. Some may have had virtually no social experience at all and really have no idea how to interact with other dogs. On the other hand, you may have a dog that has become a bit rusty socially or had some poor social experiences, but has an excellent early socialisation history to fall back on and so “recovers” fairly quickly. You may have a dog that physiologically reacts more mildly to stress or who does not disinhibit as quickly into a fight or flight response, which means that they are generally easier to work with. However, you might also have a dog that has done serious damage to another dog and who it is too risky to work with safely around other dogs, meaning that management may be a better option.
During a consultation, we would obviously try to find out as much as we can about a dog, so that we have a better idea of what they can cope with and how they might respond to certain scenarios. If it turned out that the dog was really well-socialised, with a fantastic early history, a generally confident and easy-going disposition and a good track record of positive and appropriate interactions with other dogs and developed some reactivity due to just a couple of recent bad experiences, I would be fairly optimistic about making progress and possibly getting the dog back to where he was before this happened. If, on the other hand, I found the dog in question was hand-raised, had no exposure to other dogs at all before the age of 6 months, is generally anxious around anything new and has been rehearsing reactive behaviour for 4 years, I would be far less optimistic. It doesn’t mean that we would not be able to help that dog, but the outcome may not be what the owner is hoping for. In some cases we may not be able to find out much about a dog at all (with most rescued dogs their history is full of holes) and may have to try and guess at how and why the reactivity developed, making predictions about likely outcomes even harder.
Then there is the human factor. While we may have the greatest training or behaviour modification plan, we have to rely on owners to implement it. Handing someone a plan and showing them how to apply it is similar to giving someone a lovely recipe and explaining how to cook the dish. Unless the person actually goes into the kitchen and assembles all the ingredients according to the instructions, the delicious meal will never appear.
So, what does it mean if someone guarantees results? Usually, it means one or more of the following:
1. They are lying to you
2. They are self-deluded
3. They are using positive punishment techniques resulting in emotional shut-down, which inhibits ALL behaviour temporarily and may look like a quick fix
4. They don’t understand anything about animal behaviour at all
As I said to the person who wanted a guarantee: The only guarantee I can give, is if you find a “behaviourist” or trainer who gives guarantees, they have no idea what they are doing!