Originally posted October 2013
For the past twenty years, I have offered a program I call the Good Dog Program for good dogs who have big problems. Every month, one or more student manages to pass their dog through the program and into our regular obedience class. I am enormously proud of the program I have developed. I have tremendous respect for those who put in the time and effort into training a problem dog because taking a dog from the behaviour program and being successful enough at counter conditioning the dog so that he can cope with a regular obedience class is a ton of work, and a huge commitment. The dogs too have my respect, because day in and day out, no matter what they are experiencing, they keep trying and they often come a very long way to get to a regular obedience class. There is a problem for these dogs that we often miss.
The dogs who make it from our Good Dog behaviour class are often dogs who start out without good resilience. When they are startled, frightened or overwhelmed, they stay upset for a long period of time. These dogs have to learn incident by incident that they are safe in novel situations, or in situations where they are overwhelmed easily. When these dogs master their trigger stimulus, then they need to continue to have opportunities to re-experience success, over and over again, to maintain their confidence. With dogs who are fearful or aroused by other dogs, quitting obedience classes simply means that their opportunities to practice their skills in the face of dogs they don’t know well goes away.
Most folks who live with dogs with behaviour problems didn’t get these dogs because they wanted to do training for the rest of their dog’s lives, but often this is what they are signing up for. The person who lives with such a dog goes through several stages. At first, they may not realize that they live with a difficult dog. Perhaps they got a puppy who just didn’t have the genetic recipe for confidence. As they get to know the pup over the first few months of their pup’s lives, they start to get an inkling that something isn’t quite right. Or perhaps they got a dog from the shelter who appeared to be calm and confident in the shelter, and again over the early months, behaviours that they didn’t expect start to appear. During this time, the family may try and explain their dog’s behaviour away as a developmental stage or as a remnant behaviour left over from some trauma before the dog came home. A few people see the behaviour in its earliest stages and seek out help, but the vast majority of people wait for a very long time to seek help.
The problem with waiting to seek help is that the dog gets faster and better at his go to behaviour in specific situations. If the dog is afraid of children, and every day he passes a school yard full of screaming children, and each day the dog gets better at noticing the kids, at anticipating the children, at reacting to the children and takes longer to come back down. The longer that the dog practices his fear sequence, the more deeply engrained it becomes. The same is true of dogs who are aggressive, or who show bravado or who bolt from the things that he is afraid of. The more often the dog experiences the problem situation, the more work it is going to take to resolve that problem.
Often, there is a critical event that brings clients to my door. Perhaps the dog has injured another dog or a person. Perhaps the dog was taken on vacation and out of his normal environment, his abnormal behaviour becomes too obvious to ignore. Whatever it is, when clients eventually find their way to help, be it with me or with any of my colleagues, the journey towards better behavioural health begins. This journey is usually long, in months or even years. Sometimes clients may end up at the vet’s or the vet behaviourist’s office, and we may add blood tests and medication to the mix. Along the way, we will hit plateaus, and go through long hours of desensitization exercises and operant protocols. There will be set backs and successes, and often compromises in what the original goals may have been.
There are very few dogs who don’t get better, but better may not be best. Better than you were is not the same as fully well, but for many dogs, better is good enough. For some dogs though, they really do get better enough that they can come to a regular obedience class. As long as there is a problem, there is an internal pressure within the relationship between the dog and the family to keep working on the problem. Once the dog is able to cope with day to day situations and go to a class, the pressure comes away from the family, and training starts to drop off the day to day activities.
For a while, the dog doesn’t seem to change, but over time, responses to cues get slower. The dog is less willing to follow directions in the face of his old triggers. The dog may begin to slip back into old patterns. The family, having lived with the problem for a period of time initially may not notice the old patterns re-emerging. The dog is still better than he was, but he is no longer at the peak of his success in coping with the world. This slippage, this forgetting, is a common occurrence in dogs who have come out of a behaviour program and graduated to an obedience program. Over time, the dog becomes less functional in the world he lives in until there is another crisis that brings the dog back to the behaviour program.
As the person who helps these dogs this is frustrating because often the dog and the family has to start over from the beginning again, a second, third or even fourth time. Often new triggers have been layered onto the old ones, making the problem even more complex. New problems may have been added in. In successive sessions, the family may get frustrated because I really don’t have much new to add to what they did the last time they were with me. Going through a desensitization program once is a lot of work, but at least it is new and you can see change. Going through a desensitization program a second time is annoying because you are looking for benchmarks that may or may not come in the same order they came before. The second time through is often faster, but it may feel like it is taking longer because everything is just the same as it was the last time.
Let’s face it; classical conditioning is a boring technique. It is highly effective but it is absolutely boring to carry out. Trigger stimulus appears, feed the dog. Trigger stimulus disappears, stop feeding the dog. Do this until the dog is relaxed. Test if the dog is able to follow a simple cue. If he isn’t, then keep doing classical conditioning. If he is, then increase the intensity of the trigger stimulus. For the trainer, if you are doing this properly it is not terrifically interesting to watch because nothing happens. The dog just gets progressively more relaxed. Having to go through this a second, third or even fourth time after teaching the dog once is an exercise in frustration and boredom. Not maintaining your dog’s success results in having to go through the whole process again.
After we have desensitized the dog to his triggers, we typically move the dog into a behavioural obedience class. In this class, students learn to get their dog to do behaviours in the presence of other dogs. We teach the dogs routines to help them to predict what is coming up and what is going to happen next. Students may take months to master learning in the presence of other dogs. Eventually, and this may be as long as two years in for some dogs and people, the dogs are able to learn in the presence of other dogs, even when the other dogs or people may not be behaving predictably or calmly. At this point, we transfer the dogs into the regular obedience stream and we love seeing the dogs succeed here.
At first in the regular obedience class we may be really stretching the dog’s ability to cope. The dog may have to go back to classical conditioning to the stimulus of a regular obedience class, and then they may need to rely upon the routines we have taught them in the behavioural obedience class in order to cope. Eventually though, the dogs integrate into an obedience class and we all feel like the team is successful. Often the student will ask me “What is next?”
The next thing is maintaining the success, and that is the difficult part. Some dogs plateau at the level of the behavioural obedience class and that can be especially difficult because the dog just keeps working at the level that he is already successful at. In an obedience class the dog may start learning new behaviours but they may not be relevant to the person’s life or relationship with their dog. It can be very difficult to remain enthusiastic about training your dog when you aren’t doing work that is meaningful to either you or your dog. This situation often leads to people pulling out of training. Often people pull out with the intention of training at home, but the fact is that few people actually continue to work with their dogs when they don’t have the structure of a class to keep them on track.
Over time, frustration and boredom hand in hand erode the commitment that the person has to the work that the dog needs to remain fluent in his behaviours and his tolerance of his triggers. As this erosion occurs, behaviours degrade and the problem resurfaces. This cycle of problem, desensitization, training and maintaining, behaviours degrading, and problems resurfacing and go on and on and on, with the problem behaviours getting worse on each pass through the cycle. What to do?
There are some dogs who just need to keep going to class. They need the structure to keep the triggers below their thresholds. They need the challenge of learning new things. They need the repeated successes of careful exposure. When these dogs don’t get that structure, they fall back to their old patterns and then eventually they are no longer successful. While this isn’t true of every dog who comes through my Good Dog program this is true of enough of these dogs, that staying in class beyond the resolution of the initial program is going to be my best recommendation most of the time. Success is not really the goal. Maintaining success should be the real target in training, and some of the time that means staying in class over the long term.
When you stay in class over the long haul, when you continue to seek out training opportunities, and you work really hard, you can achieve great things. Here, Champ is attending his first Leash Club Class, outdoors in downtown Guelph. I think this is pretty darned amazing!