Written by Billie Groom
Expert in CCBT
NOTE: The information and studies referred to in this article are in respect to dogs over the age of six months.
Dog training and education has seen dramatic changes over the last two decades. Canine behavioral advice is always developing, as animal scientists, veterinarians, and behavioral experts continue to study how dogs think, feel, and learn.
For example, industry experts finally recognize the inherent limitations in giving a treat to a stranger to give to a dog who is nervous of new people. Falling in line with positive reinforcement training, which teaches and encourage wanted behavior, and conditioning techniques, which uses desensitization and association to change behavior, this approach relies on reinforcements. Although often effective with puppies, this approach is commonly limiting and even counterproductive with dogs over the age of six months. The goal of this technique is to encourage the dog to like and trust the person, yet dogs do not necessarily dislike people – they dislike what a person is doing or distrust the perceived intentions of the person. Dogs often like treats, and they like people giving them treats. The act of taking a treat is comfortable for them, so they accept a treat, but this does not translate over to having the skills to read, process, and be comfortable with everything that person does, such as move, come out of the bathroom, or laugh loudly.
Thanks to science, the over-all mindset relating to how we treat, interact, and communicate with dogs is changing. Scientific studies prove, essentially, what we already know – dogs are sentient beings.
Despite all the advancements and successes, and the appearance of progress, mainstream dog education remains disappointingly stagnant, and is a bit of a hot mess right now. Pet parents, adopters, rescuers, trainers, and animal welfare advocates expect industry experts to provide them with the most up to date information, skills, and knowledge, to succeed.
Let’s take a look at six trending recommendations circulating in the dog education sector. Are these really advancements in dog education, or simply measures designed to mask deficiencies within the system?
- Proper Terminology and Language – The use of terminology and language that promotes a healthy mindset toward responsible pet parenting is important, yet enforcing socially acceptable verbiage is merely creating the false impression that by changing our language we can change mindset. For example, I have many clients who may use the term “crate” instead of “safe space,” or refer to themselves as a “dog owner” instead of a “pet parent”. Never-the-less, they are kind, caring, loving, and respectful toward their dog, and correcting their verbiage may only make them feel uncomfortable. Alternatively, if my client is disrespectful to their dog and this is reflected in their choice of language, this is commonly because they are frustrated. Asking them to change their language is not going to change their perception. By providing them with advice that is calm, logical, and effective they choose on their own to view their dog differently and adapt their language accordingly.
- The Decompression Period – Integrating dogs with disadvantaged pasts into families can be challenging, as dogs may feel uncomfortable, nervous, and unsure. In response, the system has created the need for a decompression period. Upon researching exactly what “a decompression period” entails, I learned there are many variations, ranging from the obvious – if the dog is tired from extensive travel, let him/her rest – to a laundry list of rules, including: no walks, confine the dog to a small area, refrain from any formal training, crate train, do not have guests over, and/or establish boundaries. Essentially, the decompression period was created to prevent problems, and ensure the comfort and safety of the family, the dog, and the community; however, these structured, generic rules can lead to confusion and frustration. Generic rules do not recognize the individuality of dogs, restrictions prevent bonding opportunities, and many dogs do not need a decompression period – they need calm, clear direction, combined with bonding activities. It is vital during the initial integration period to harnesses cognitive skills, respects emotions and personalities, and adapt to individual dogs.
Although dog training is not commonly associated with canine advocacy, it is an integral part of rescue, responsible pet ownership, and animal welfare. Animal welfare activists and rescuers work tirelessly to save dogs from inhumane conditions only to learn the dogs are euthanized for behavioral reasons. It is imperative to implement an easy, logical, and effective program for integrating dogs over six months of age from disadvantaged pasts into foster homes, shelters, and their forever homes.
- Three Days/Three Weeks/Three Months – Shelters and recue organizations do their best to ensure successful adoptions, yet many dogs are returned, some in a very short amount of time. In response, the industry created the “three day, three week, three month” protocol. The proclaimed intent is to educate adopters on what to expect during different stages of adoption, and what is expected of the adopter – mainly patience, combined with basic positive reinforcement training. It is true there are stages in the adoption process, and patience, flexibility, and effort are required; however, the current integration program, based on positive reinforcement training, often fails.
Most adopters are prepared to be patient, and apply recommended training techniques to address problems, but when they do not see progress, or feel a bond, they conclude they are not the right home for the dog, and, often, sadly, feel they have failed their family and the dog. They return the dog to the original shelter or rescue organization, or, out of embarrassment or fear of being blamed for not having enough patience, they surrender to a different rescue.
This protocol serves to provide justification for blaming adopters when the adoption fails, instead of providing adopters with advice that allows for “productive patience.” When people see improvement, and feel a bond, they are more likely to continue working toward a successful adoption. The system is well aware of their inability to provide effective advice for successful integration of dogs with disadvantaged pasts and use the 3/3/3 to put blame on the adopters.
- Avoidance/Distraction – When conditioning methods prove limiting in addressing unwanted behaviors, most commonly ones associated with aggression, fear-based reactions, or leash reactivity, industry experts recommend 1) avoiding the stimulation that is causing the unwanted behavior, or 2) distracting the dog from looking at the stimulation by, for example, giving a treat or creating something more exciting than the stimuli.
Courses for trainers often include these approaches, presented as valid techniques or methods. Behavioral Veterinarians present avoidance as simply a part of the process as progression occurs, which is valid, but there needs to be progress. When trainers recommend these “techniques”, it often only serves to frustrate their clients who were relying on avoidance and distraction prior to hiring them. Avoiding stimuli is often unrealistic in urban areas, and distracting a dog from watching a stimuli can be unsuccessful, and/or increase fear and decrease trust, leading to increased unwanted behavior.
- Flooding/Fixation – In short, flooding occurs when the dog is saturated by stimuli, and fixation occurs when a subject is forced to watch stimuli. These stimuli induce fear and anxiety leading to unwanted behavior. Flooding and fixation can have immediate effects, such as barking, lunging, urination, hiding, or snapping, and/or long-term effects, such as increased fear and anxiety.
These terms are taken directly from psychology for humans and are, therefore, valid. The problem arises in differentiating flooding or fixation from that of progress. The level of flooding or fixation should be determined by, 1) the ability of a method to pro-actively prevent feelings of fear or anxiety, or, 2) if signs of fear are present, the amount of time required to return the subject to a calm state. Let’s use a human example: When a parent first takes their child to a swimming pool, the child may show signs of fear and nervousness. The parent reminds the child how much he loves the bathtub, and swimming with his sister in the wading pool, and, as the child begins to process this, he begins to calm. The child gains confidence, and soon enough is enjoying his time in the pool. Had the parent immediately removed the child, the child would not have overcome his fear and enjoyed his swim time.
It is important to have the skills to determine if flooding or fixation are occurring, and, if so, the skills to address the anxiety at easier times, with the goal of returning to the situation with greater success. Conditioning methods are not designed to proactively prevent behaviors, or change perception to change behavior. The inability of conditioning methods has led to the improper, and overuse, of the terms “flooding” and “fixation”, and are often used to justify the need to “cope with” or “manage” fear and anxiety.
- Coping/Managing – Counter and classical conditioning can be successful in decreasing fear and anxiety; however, when they prove limiting or ineffective, mainstream dog education provides helpful tips on how to cope (tips for the humans), and calmly manage situations (tips for the dog), to prevent surrender and euthanasia. Yes, it is admirable to not give up on a dog who suffers from fear and anxiety, however, living with fear and anxiety is not comfortable for people, nor is it comfortable for dogs. Skills to cope and manage can be part of a program that shows success, but they should not be solutions or simply a way of biding time until eventually, often months or years later, the dog “desensitizes” to his or her surroundings.
- Reliance on Medication – Behavioral Veterinarians are recommending medication at a much higher rate in recent years, in a particular for anxiety and aggression and to supress common adolescent behavior. Behavioral Veterinarians rely on conditioning methods only, and when these methods fall short, they recommend medication to enhance the success of the training, or simply grant the pet parent some reprieve from typical adolescent behavior until adulthood is reached, when conditioning methods are more effective.
Trainers depend on Behavioral Veterinarians to provide them with the most up to date information. As Behavioral Veterinarians continue to rely on medication, so do trainers, to the point that medicating dogs has become the norm and an acceptable solution.
Somehow, the industry has created a mindset that serves to justify their inefficiencies at the expense of the dogs. But are these distraction from the real problems intentional, what are the implications, and is there a solution?
The Fear Free Movement has achieved success in positioning positive, fear free conditioning methods as the dominant method in mainstream dog training. The goal, or intent, of conditioning training, is to teach right from wrong, or change behaviors through desensitization, and associative techniques, using reinforcements. There are different ways to apply these methods, all of which rely on reinforcements in accordance with the principles of conditioning methodologies. Based on the goal and intent, it makes sense reinforcement-based methods are successful with puppies, as we are “starting with a clean slate”, and with some dogs; however, it is common for conditioning to fall short with adolescent dogs, rescued dogs, or when addressing behaviors associated with anxiety, aggression, or change in behavior.
When methods and suggestions are ineffective, limiting, or simply unrealistic, pet parents search for alternative solutions. Unfortunately, this journey often takes them to the dark side, where they feel they have no other option than to resort to unsavory methods and tools to avoid surrender or euthanasia. In many instances, these methods and tools are effective, making it challenging to convince people they should not be using them. By continuing to promote positive reinforcement training as the only fear free, non-aversive, effective method, many dogs will be unnecessarily subjected to harmful techniques and tools, and unnecessary surrender or euthanasia.
Is There a Solution?
Canine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CCBT) is a scientifically proven methodology that adheres to the principles of CBT. CBT recognizes preconceived thought patterns, harnesses cognitive skills, and takes a holistic approach to change perception to change behavior. CCBT is proven to decrease surrenders and euthanasia, eliminate the perceived need for harsh methods and tools, provide trainers with the skills to address behaviors associated with rescued dogs, adolescent dogs, aggression, and anxiety, and easily integrate dogs into new families.
Industry experts encourage trainers to implement approaches that provide options, proactively prevent unwanted behaviors, address the reason for the behavior (not simply the behavior itself), and respect the emotional intelligence and individual personalities of dogs; they also only educate trainers using conditioning method. Conditioning methods are not intended to harness emotional intelligence and cognitive skills. This is not to say those who apply conditioning methods are not stimulating cognitive skills, bonding with dogs, or respecting the emotions of dogs, but simply that the platform and principles of conditioning methods are not designed to follow this mindset. It is awkward, at best, to incorporate a mindset that aligns with cognitive behavioral therapy while relying on techniques that adhere to the principles of conditioning methodologies. It is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Canine CBT is proven to decrease the need to rely on the seven signs. Trainers need more than one method to address the needs of all their clients (unless they only work with puppies). Pet parents should have options that allow them to bond, understand and communicate with their canine companion.
To successfully reach our mutual goals of eliminating the perceived need for harmful methods and tools, preventing behavioral surrenders and euthanasia, implementing laws to end abuse, and changing societal mindset toward dogs with disadvantaged pasts, we need to demand more from a system that is masking inefficiencies, resisting progress, and failing the dogs.