Riley’s people called me because Riley had been exhibiting some rather strange and severe anxiety behaviors which, besides the common behaviors of complete pandemonium when someone would knock on the door, and hysterical barking and carrying on when he would see another dog, included a few other interesting behaviors. One of these was barking and charging down the hallway at full-speed whenever someone would go into the bathroom, and another would be barking and charging out the rear sliding glass door whenever it would open, then tearing around the yard barking until someone could finally catch him. This behavior had been going on for a while, but since getting Riley, his family had grown to include two small, often napping or sleeping, children, so these frustrating problems had become more of an issue. Last, Riley had been growing increasing less tolerant and aggressive towards the children, especially when he would have a bone.
As with a large number of my clients, Riley had been through “dog training” several times, with several different trainers, and his people had received a whole range of often conflicting recommendations of what to do to help him. One trainer started him on a clicker training program. This was an effective method for teaching Riley some of his commands, but didn’t solve any of his developing behavior problems. The next trainer recommended a citronella collar that would punish him (with a blast of citronella in the face) when he would bark. This didn’t work because the desire to do the behavior that would cause the barking far outweighed the uncomfortable sensation of being sprayed in the face with citronella. Another trainer, undoubtedly uncomfortable with the use of a training collar, recommended that Riley be punished by (improperly) using a “gentle” leader collar, jerking on the collar when he would try to bark and dart down the hallway.
Before calling me, the last trainer they called was a woman here in the Bay Area who is the director of animal behavior and training at a local, SPCA, and who, in addition to authoring a book, travels around the country giving seminars on “training” management and assessment of difficult dogs. This last professional, after some phone conversations, finally interviewed Riley and his people in person, and dictated to her assistant a management program for Riley’s family to take home and follow. Having worked with many dogs that have had similar management programs recommended by this person before (which included tying aggressive dogs to furniture so they can’t bite guests that come in… problem solved, right?) I was familiar with what the “solutions” were as soon as I heard they had visited her.
Despite all of this professional advise, Riley still exhibited this bad behavior, and after snapping at the children several times, he was in real danger of being surrendered to an animal shelter, or worse, when I was called to help.
Most of Riley’s problems boiled down to the fact that he would make bad decisions when presented with the opportunity to do so. In other words, when he would receive the stimuli of someone knocking at the door, his anxiety level would rise and he would decide to charge the door like a maniac. Punishing the symptoms like the barking or charging would not change the fact that his anxiety level would rise drastically when this event occurred, and simply managing him, like keeping him away from the door or tying him up, certainly wouldn’t solve the problem, though the UPS guy might be happy not to have a wildly barking dog charging at him.
I helped Riley by teaching his people how to teach and maintain a new set of acceptable behaviors, away from the stimuli that would trigger the bad, unwanted behaviors. Once Riley learned the acceptable behaviors, we reintroduced the stimuli and Riley’s family learned how to appropriately reinforce Riley’s decision, whether it was the proper or improper decision. In a VERY short period of time, Riley learned to replace the bad behaviors with new behaviors, which to me is dog training, versus dog management. We treated the problem and the big picture, rather than correcting the symptoms.
Riley is doing great. He is no longer in danger of being surrendered to a shelter, and just a few days ago, I received an email saying that he was “an Angel” for the babysitter when kids came to the door on Halloween. He walks nicely on a loose leash, and is not only non-reactive towards other dogs, but is now able to “say hi” to them when he meets them on his walks. Managing these formerly bad behaviors would have meant putting him in another room when kids would come to the door, and either crossing the street when a dog comes, or joining the “midnight dog walking club” (I once worked with a family who, after paying a trainer for help with their dog’s aggression towards other dogs, was told after nothing seemed to work, to join the “midnight dog walking club” so they could take their dog out without encountering other dogs.) This, again, is the result of good dog training, and is a testament to the work his people put into the suggestions and recommendations I made for them.