Where angels fear to tread

Door David Appleby, MSc, CCAB

The saying 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread' is never truer than when it is said in relation to advice about canine behaviour problems, each of which has many possible causes.

A child recently told me that an exam they had taken was ‘really easy’. As they had not yet had the results it is equally possible that they had not understood the questions. So it is with people who take it upon themselves to give advise about behaviour problems with inadequate training in the subject. Sadly the answers seem blindingly obvious to them because they don’t know what they should be looking for and are missing.

There are numerous ways in which bad advice can cause harm. For example, there is a common notion that some dogs are aggressive, full stop, that's it, no explanation as to why they are aggressive. So how do you make such a dog better? Well there are people and some companies that will encourage you to use methods or devices of various kinds that are intended stop the expression of the aggression but their use will not address why that dog feels it needs to be aggressive. To address the problem properly it is necessary to know what factors make the dog feel the emotional states, such as anxiety, fear and frustration that result in the aggression.

Neglecting to identify the cause or more probably causes of a problem behaviour and/or applying inappropriate treatment compromise the dog's welfare. For example, some clients of mine recently sought advice because their dog growled at them when they touched its paws. Various relatives, friends and subsequently professionals or semi-professionals had told them that this was a dominance trait and that they should show it who is boss by keeping it off their bed, out of their bedrooms, off the furniture, not letting it through doors before them, not giving it attention when it demands it and exhausting themselves playing games in the garden and being determined to win and keep the toy. All of which they did despite being a little bemused about the fact the dominant dog described did not fit the description of the sensitive dog they knew and loved. One look at the dog's medical record during consultation caused alarm bells to ring because, there in black and white, it said that the dog had had an unpleasant time when it had two deeply imbedded grass seeds in its feet. Lots of questioning revealed that the dog’s tendency to growl when its feet were handled started at the time of this event. Although the original cause of the grass seeds had long gone the event had been unpleasant enough for the dog to be anxious and defensive when its paws were handled.   

In addition to being better for the dog’s welfare treating the cause of a behaviour as well as managing the symptoms is also more efficient that simply suppressing the behaviour. This is because attempts to block the expression of an emotional response to whatever cause are likely to result in that emotion being expressed in another way. For example, a recent client whose dog barked when it was left alone in the house illustrates the point. Due to the fact that their neighbors complained about the noise their dog was making when they left it unattended the owners used a device they found advertised in some small adds. This was, in effect, a delivery system for an unpleasant experience that was triggered when the dog barked. The owners’ intention was that the device would stop the barking but they had not considered why their dog barked and therefore they had not considered other possible consequences of using the device. In fact it transpired that their dog was vocal when they left it because it was dependent upon them and it vocalized to call them back. Applying the device stopped the barking but the dog's anxiety was increased by the experience. As a consequence of this and the fact that barking was no longer a way in which the anxiety could be expressed the dog started to cause damage to doors and windows in increasingly frantic attempts to escape.

If there are many factors that have to be considered before it is possible to understand the motivation for a behaviour problem, there are still more things to be considered before any advice can be given. These include the temperament of the dog, the owners' circumstances and the situations in which the problem occurs. Don't take advice from anyone who does not seem to have a hundred questions for every one of yours.

David Appleby MSc, CCAB is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist certified by ASAB. He is the co-course coordinator of the Postgraduate Program in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare of Odisee, University of applied sciences.