By Jeff Stallings
I grew up cringing at those comically annoying radio spots by Tom Shane (my friend in the diamond business!), who guaranteed that I would not, could not, find a better diamond at a lower price. Likewise, in ubiquitous Men’s Wearhouse spots, company president George Zimmer sought to convince men across the country that they were going to like the way they looked—“I guarantee it”.
I began pondering guarantees recently when in the course of a single day I received separate emails from two dog owners, both describing complex and deep-seated behavioral problems, asking what sort of guarantees I offered. Here’s what I told them: Dogs are animals, multifaceted beings whose rich emotional and mental lives are affected by as many variables as are humans, and that while we’ve developed scientifically-sound methods for canine behavior modification, the only guarantees in life are death and taxes—and ostensibly diamonds and men’s suits.
There’s an old joke in the dog training world that the only thing two trainers can agree upon is that the third one is doing it wrong. Which I bring up mainly to refute. In fact, far more than ever before, dog trainers and behaviorists have common, clinically-proven techniques to effect real change in dog behavior. We benefit from a boom in canine behavioral studies over the past several decades, with cognitive development far more fully understood than ever. (For purposes of this discussion, I am referring to behavior modification for problem behaviors, as opposed to general obedience, sport and trick training.)
Our toolkit includes positive reinforcement and clickers, desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), and more behavior modification acronyms (BAT, CAT and LAT, to name but a few) than you can shake a stick at. The good new is that, with a targeted, science-based plan, canine behavior issues can be addressed, managed and mitigated, and frequently entirely solved. The not-so-good news is that, well, there are no guarantees. While we know much about how to effect change, each and every dog is a singular individual, with unique genes and experiences, including in utero environment, early socialization (or the lack thereof), the timing of weaning and at what stage a puppy is separated from the mother, and countless other factors that influence behavior.
In our modern world we exert far more control over daily existence than ever before in human history, and we sometimes, understandably, desire the same level of control over our animal companions. We download apps at the touch of a button to order dinner to be delivered just so. We control the temperature in our homes with the turn of a knob, and access the enormity of human knowledge with the flick of a finger. Unfortunately, perhaps it’s also easier than ever to give up too soon on a dog that does not behave exactly as we wish, and maybe this is one reason shelters from coast to coast are bursting at the seams: We want what we want, guarantees and all.
I certainly understand the inclination to want guaranteed results, but remedying behavior problems, be they canine or human, is rarely as straightforward as we’d like. Let’s say you’d really like your teenager to study more and spend less time playing video games. Would you send your son to the school counselor and demand that she modify his psyche to flip his most basic motivators? Hopefully not! But you could use positive reinforcement to influence his behavior by, for example, allowing him one hour of gaming for every hour spent studying, then perhaps offering him a car in exchange for a senior year of straight As—what we refer to in the dog training world as a “jackpot”.
One heartwrenching frustration I share with my dog training colleagues is that many behavior problems could be avoided, or at least minimized, by early puppy socialization. Those scientific advances I spoke of earlier have established clearly delineated stages of cognitive development, information we can use to directly affect life-long behaviors. I often hear distraught owners explain their rescue dog’s aggression (towards men, crying babies, skateboards, buses, other dogs) as “obviously” being the result of abuse, when it is far more likely the result of neglect, including a lack of early exposure to the things he now finds scary.
While formulating a potential behavior modification program, I often secretly, silently wish for a time machine to take the dog back to 8-weeks old, to fully expose him to all the things that fire up his reactivity (a word I generally prefer over aggression.) If he had been repeated exposed to the objects of his reactivity during the “fear impact/second socialization” period of cognitive development (8 – 18 weeks), you’d likely have an entirely different set of behaviors, rooted less in fear and more in tolerance and confidence. With a time machine to puppy socials past, I might follow in the footsteps of Tom Shane and the Men’s Wearhouse and offer guaranteed results. I would of course still be bound by the myriad other factors that affect behavior.
While there are no time machines on the horizon, we do have a path forward in most cases of behavior problems. Thousands of dogs and their owners have benefited from modern behavior modification methods. We now know how to slowly desensitize a dog with separation anxiety to being alone, for example, and how to countercondition fears to thunderstorms, children, men with hats and countless other reactivity triggers. Potty training is now more of a science than an art, and we know how to make basic obedience training—sit, down, stay, come—fun and exciting for canines and their human handlers alike.
I have observed extraordinary transformation in dog behavior employing these techniques. And yet, and yet… I have otherwise encountered dogs so impaired by nature and nurture as to appear beyond rehabilitation. These heartbreaking cases might thrive in a particular environment, for example, a rural home or farm with few interactions with people or other dogs, but might never achieve harmony in an urban location. Such is the case sometimes with dogs rescued from shelters. The new owners quickly discover alarming behaviors, and these folks are often the ones desperate for guaranteed fixes. Thankfully these discouraging cases are relatively rare.
The intent of this article is not to discourage, but rather to provide perspective. Dog owners with realistic expectations, perseverance and commitment, armed with the latest knowledge (and perhaps an experienced trainer) have a very good chance indeed of improving their lot and their dog’s alike.