Treat the cause, not just the symptom

When working with any pet with a behaviour problem, it is important to look not just at what the problem is (e.g. barking, biting, scratching) but why the problem is occurring.

Traditional training relies largely on waiting for the animal to display the problem behaviour, and then reacting to this with some kind of aversive (or punishment). You might pop the dogs leash, flick the birds beak, or squirt the cat with water. Often this results in the animal stopping what it was doing…temporarily. By focusing only on the problem itself, without addressing the underlying cause, the animal will resume the problem behaviour.

Modern, force-free training looks at when the behaviour occurs, what triggers it, and how we can go about changing things so that the behaviour is less likely to occur in future. We also think about what we would rather our pet be doing, so that we can teach it how to behave correctly (using positive reinforcement) and by providing plenty of motivation when it gets it right! The combination of changing the environment to make the problem behaviour harder, and increasing the motivation to offer good behaviour, results in a pet that is eager to spend its time practising the good stuff!

dog training

If the animal is behaving a certain way because it is uncomfortable, or even frightened, by something, then we can gradually change its association with this trigger (using desensitization and counter-conditioning) so that it begins to feel good instead of frightened when the trigger is presented. At all times the animals behaviour is observed and respected. Believe it or not, the fastest way forward is to move at the animals pace rather than pushing it!

Next time your pet does something you don’t like, instead of being reactive try looking at the whole picture. What could be causing your pet to behave like that, and how can you help your pet to behave in ways that you like? By teaching your pet what to do, rather that what not to do, you are giving him the tools to be successful in a human world!

Train smart, not tough!

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Which dog is for you?

I would like to introduce you to two of my canine friends, Wilbur and Tedda.

wilbur and tedda

As you can see, they have many similarities, but they also have many differences. They joined the family about the same time, and each has come with their own unique set of characteristics.

Wilbur is a real dog, living and breathing. From puppyhood he has shown an interest in his surroundings. He wants to investigate, meet people and dogs, he loves to chew, run, bark, dig, and play. He gives me feedback on my actions in the form of body language and behaviour. He has good days and not-so-good days. He has likes and dislikes. As Wilbur’s owner it is my responsibility to help him meet his needs on a daily basis, to provide him with good choices so he can keep busy and active without leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, and to provide him meaningful feedback in the form of training and interaction so that he knows what behaviour leads to good things happening in his day.

Tedda is a stuffed toy, designed to be played with by dogs. He has squeakers, which can be annoying, but his list of annoying behaviours ends there. He sits around looking really cute, and he’s soft and cuddly when i feel so inclined to interact with him. He doesn’t make a mess (unless Wilbur tries to de-fluff him), he is quiet, and he has very cheap upkeep. He doesn’t ruin my stuff, and i have no need to spend any time training him or teaching him to behave in ways i like. He is a very easy addition to the household.

Unfortunately many people acquire dogs thinking they will behave like stuffed animals. Seen but not heard. Still and quiet until called upon to spend a short time doing dog-stuff: fetch, belly rub, walk. Punished for engaging in other dog behaviours: barking, digging, chewing. There is no time given to teaching our dogs good outlets for these behaviours, and too much time given to trying to quickly suppress these annoying characteristics.

Dogs are not pre-programmed at birth to know how we want them to behave. They do not know, automatically, right from wrong. They don’t know we will be upset when they chew up our shoes, pull on the lead, or dig up our lawn, they just know it is great fun. When we invite a dog to be part of our family, we need to do so with a commitment that we will help them to be the best dog they can be. We will provide them with the training, enrichment, socialisation, and exercise that will let them show us how awesome their doggy behaviours can be.

If this is too much responsibility, then you can purchase a Tedda from your local pet store instead – they are very cute!

It’s Real for Them

It’s very common to see and read about pets being punished for trying to let their owners know they are uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re so fixed on what we’re trying to get done, or what we think our pets should be doing, that we forget to  look at the picture that’s right in front of us.

When your dog barks or growls at an approaching dog or person, your cat hides when visitors enter the room, or your parrot lunges or bites when you reach into their cage, stop what you are doing and review the situation. Don’t pop the leash, drag your cat out, or flick your parrot’s beak. They are telling you they’re worried. Listen.

I recently read a light hearted news article that got me thinking. A postman in Canada was unable to deliver a parcel. On the delivery notice he ticked “Other” as the reason for failing to deliver the parcel, and he elaborated with “Bear at door” as the reason. I wouldn’t have delivered that parcel either! But what if his boss told him to stop being silly and just do it? Or told him he was being unreasonable, the bear wasn’t going to hurt him? That wouldn’t seem fair would it?

Bear

When it comes to things humans are afraid of (or cautious of) we can often empathise easily, because chances are that we might be afraid of something similar. Our pets, on the other hand, are often scared of things that we perceive as being benign. This makes it harder for us to take their fears seriously and even harder when it might mean we have to put in actual time and effort to help them come around.

Next time your pet tells you they are worried about something in their environment, don’t punish them, and don’t try to move them closer. They are telling you they are not ok. Help them to increase their distance, help them to feel more comfortable, and set them up better next time so they can feel safe from the start. What they’re experiencing may seem silly to you, but it is real for them.

Not sure how to help your pet? Consult with a trainer! That’s what we’re here for.  Train smart, not tough!