UNDERSTANDING 'BAD' BEHAVIOUR: Where to start.


Undoubtedly, the most common problem we are contacted for is some form of 'reactivity'. Whether that's towards other dogs, people, other animals, bins, trolleys etc etc. You name it, and there's probably a dog out there that's reactive towards it.


When we work with these clients and their dogs, we tend to get a common concern voiced when we tell them "okay, well let's stop exposing them to those things for a little while". The common rebuttal is typically "But aren't we then just going to avoid the issue?"


I completely understand why this would be a concern for people. Traditional thinking would tell us to expose the dog and teach them what is the wrong behaviour when they 'misbehave' or expose them until they get over it. We will need to expose them eventually but this is a very gradual progress. Similar to the way we deal with humans who have irrational fears, phobias, or simply undesirable behaviours in given situations.


If someone struggling with alcohol asks a professional to help them with their issue, and the first thing they were told to do was NOT visit a pub, I doubt many people would say "but isn't that just avoiding the problem?' It's a pretty rational starting point. It's the antecedents we need to change initially so the unwanted behaviour isn't triggered in the first place. Until we learn how to cope better with those antecedents, visiting the pub is simply off limits.


I personally think I would need a lot of support, help, and guidance from the people closest to me. I wouldn't need a professional to tell me off for making a poor choice when being purposefully exposed to the things that make me want a drink. That would be unfair to an alcoholic and thankfully we all know this. But unfortunately for a lot of dogs this is still a common trend of thought.


We know dogs really aren't that much different to us and most other animals when it comes to habits, behaviour, and cognition. We know if an animal practices something (that's including us) we generally get better at it or it simply becomes self-reinforcing in some way and is practiced more and more. Whether that's drinking, lifting weights, playing sports, eating fast food, barking at people, barking at dogs, biting people, jumping up at people, reacting to trolleys etc etc.


Simply being told 'No!' very rarely cuts the mustard. For solid behaviour change we need a good management plan to start with. We need to figure out all the triggers that trigger the behaviour we want to stop and we need to reduce our (or our dog's) exposure to them. If going to the pub makes you want to drink, stop going to the pub. If going to the dog park makes your dog react to dogs, stop going to the dog park. It's not that different.


Now, if you know anyone that has beaten a form of addiction, they'll very likely tell you that there is always something in the back of their mind trying to temp them down that road again. That's the unfortunate thing with behaviour. These bad habits unfortunately never really go away for good. You can't unlearn something you have previously learned. It's not easy. It's hard! Luckily we can eventually learn to cope with temptations by managing what we expose ourselves to and also replace the 'bad habits' with 'good habits'. Rich Roll is a great example of this. His book 'finding ultra' is worth a read.


You never just stop drinking. It's not that simple. Similarly, your dog will not just stop reacting. It's usually an involuntary response in a given situation. Pub equals beer. Dog leash equals walks. Phone beeping equals a message. Dog approaching equals fun or fear. The next time you get message try not to check it. See how long you can do that for. Habits are habits. Good habits and bad habits are just as hard to break as each other and over time they just become things we do subconsciously a lot of the time.


For reactive dogs, they require lots of support, guidance and management - they can't do it on their own. And they can't do it if you're just there to tell them off when they mess up.

To change a dogs' behaviour for the better whilst having their welfare as the main priority, we first need to change the way we view dogs and reactive behaviour. It's not simple. It's complex. And so too is the training involved with helping them through this. There are lots of views on what's the best way to do things, but I think if we all agree that the dog's welfare is priority number 1 (they didn't choose to live with us, we chose them so I think this should be a given), then we should adapt our training to suit them best, not what looks best for us.


For more info and video regarding helping dogs who struggle with these issues, please visit our 'reactivity and aggression' section here: https://www.thinkdog.nz/reactivity-aggression


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