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  • Writer's pictureErika Marshall, CPDK-KA, KPA-CTP

Wanted... Instant Results

It took time to create the behavior it will take time to change it.

So many conversations start... "I need to stop my dog from barking at other dogs" or "how do I break my dog from pulling on the leash" or "my dog has to stop jumping, it is unacceptable". What people want is a simple, easy (no, they are not the same!) instant solution to these issues and many other behavioral problems they have.

Owners get so frustrated with trainers. They get annoyed that the solutions offered are protocols that work in days and weeks, not seconds and minutes. They get exasperated at incremental behavior change that inches forward rather than a cure that changes behavior in leaps and bounds.

This desire for miracle cures is what leads to adoration of trainers as "dog whisperers", who achieve major behavioral changes in mere minutes, correcting the bad behavior of multiple dogs and rescuing distraught owners in a single 60 minute segment! What people do not see are the segments unfilmed or left on the cutting room floor, they do not see the side effects that can result in aggression, or increased fear, they do not see the behavior return after the TV cameras leave, or the owners who are left feeling that they are to blame when it does, feeling it is their fault, their lack of positive energy, or their failure to be a leader.

The step-by-step procedure to teach a dog to walk on a loose leash causes owner's eyes to glaze over. They look at the results from a prong collar or a shock collar and are seduced by "instant" fixes. Jumping? A knee to the chest of the dog, hard enough to knock him backwards appears to work, and is so satisfying for the owner that has been scratched and had clothes torn. A hard yank on a prong collar causes the dog to stay close, and the owner knows the dog has felt the wrongness of his behavior, they can see it in the dog shrinking slightly, and looking guiltily towards them. Very satisfying to have immediately changed the behavior and shown the dog who was boss and how bad his behavior was.

But we know the follow-on effects of punishment-driven behavior modification can be substantial, and we also know that behavior that is repressed by punishment often returns, requiring more severe punishment to once again repress (for more on this, please see my article "Because It Works" and other blog articles that deal with training methods such as shaker cans, alpha rolls, and dominance).

Frequently, owners who do not get "instant" results move from trainer to trainer, medication on top of medication, methodology to methodology, searching for the magic bullet. They remain convinced that there is one single thing that will unlock the "good" behavior and banish the bad forever.

I was speaking with a friend about a client's resistance to systematic behavior modification and she said the behavior has to be treated "like an addiction". A wonderful analogy. Behavior takes time to develop, and behavior - good or bad - always fulfills a need. Behavior has a purpose, though it might not always be clear to us what that purpose is. Like an addict, whose life appears to be one we simply can not understand as desirable, there are behaviors that a dog does for reasons we can not fathom (for example poop-eating!). Like the addict, or the alcoholic, or the smoker, those of us that do not have these desires can only see the negative aspects of the behavior, we don't see what need it fulfills, the need that drives the behavior to continue.

The dog that jumps is jumping for a reason. They are getting something from that behavior. Now it may make them unpopular to be around (like a smoker who is isolated outside) but there is something about that behavior that causes the dog to keep at it. It is not spite, or stupidity any more than the smoker on the porch in the cold is spiteful or stupid...there is a need that the behavior fulfills.

We know that when we seek to change addictive behavior, punishment rarely works. We usually look for alternative behaviors. When trying to quit smoking, I chewed nicotine gum. I twirled worry-beads, I drank tons of water, exercised... When we want the dog to stop jumping, we offer alternatives... a "down" and treat, or tossing treats on the floor, greeting only when 4 feet are on the floor, etc. These are not instant fixes, they are repeated changes to the dog's reward system, moving the dog from the unwanted addiction to the desired behavior.

There are no miracle changes to behavior. Trainers that promise miracles should be viewed with a lot of skepticism. Behavior takes to time to build and become habit. It takes time to alter and modify. Real change - lasting, positive, sticky change - takes time. Many medications used in conjunction with behavior modification can take weeks or even months to show effect. Many schedules of behavior modification go slowly, cautiously, incrementally. It can be frustrating, especially as owners may be too close to the issue to see the changes that are occurring. Take pride in small changes, and recognize them. Keep moving forward, but be accepting that sometimes you have to step back.

If you're working with a trainer or a behavior modification specialist, get them to review progress periodically.

Understand that change over time allows you to make small mistakes, because we are only making small changes, that slow and incremental change allows your dog to relearn, and allows you to find ways to communicate what behaviors you want.

Embrace slow and steady, it wins the behavior modification race every time!

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