I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.

The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?

Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.

The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!

If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.

This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues?   When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.

The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.

Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.

When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.

The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.

2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!



  1. While I understand your point of view when saying you don’t need to see the behavior to help it, I also have to point out that what the owner says is not always what is going on. In my business I have many times heard the answers to all my questions and formulated a working theory only to discover that they are completely misinterpreting the situation. This can be misinterpretation of the dog’s motivations, his emotions, or the behavior itself. How many times have I gone to a multiple dog household and studied their behavior only to realize that the owner-identified ‘problem dog’ is actually NOT the problem. I can only see this when I see the ‘problem behavior’ happening. Yes, videos are wonderful tools but I find many owners just don’t have time to get their phone out to video the behavior in time. Some behaviors are so quick and/or the motivation for the behavior is so transient that it cannot be captured on camera. Also, some behavior issues are so complex, or some owners too prejudiced against a particular dog to see what is really happening. Yes, viewing the behavior myself involves the animal practicing the behavior and therefore reinforcing it but sometimes I find this step is necessary to render the correct assistance. Sometimes dogs are smiling not growling, playing rough not being aggressive, or responding to a prompt that the owner does not see or realize is affecting them, for example. So I have to respectfully disagree with you and say that since correct interpretation of the behavior is essential to solving it, as the professional I have to see it happen myself to make sure my behavior modification plan will be effective.

    1. I used to work the way you do and I used to think I needed to see the behaviour in order to help. As I gained experience and education I got better at observing and at asking questions and now I feel this tactic put me and my staff and the dogs we worked with at risk. Once in a while I need to see the behaviour in situ, but that really is the exception, not the rule for how I work. When clients want to show me behaviour, they often want to put me, the dog, themselves or a guest in harm’s way. My most recent example was a client who called me because she had tested the dog to see how he would behave around strange men. After the dog bit her new boyfriend during this “test” she thought perhaps she should believe what she had been told about the dog by the rescue; he was not comfortable with men! This is an all too common problem with clients. They want me to walk down the streets with them and see their dogs lunge at strangers, they want me to come to the house and see the dog lunge at me or they want to show me how aggressive the dog is when you try and take something away from them. Danger, danger, danger! I just don’t do it anymore. I can usually suss out what is going on without taking the risk that I will get hurt or worse that my client or a member of the public will get hurt.

  2. Rosemary says:

    I once hosted a behaviorist who presented a workshop for owners of dog-aggressive dogs. I actually heard comments (complaints) from the participants about how none of the dogs had shown aggression during the entire working weekend!

    1. I have had that same problem in seminars. One of the messages I repeat over and over when I am teaching a seminar is simply that we don’t need to see the behaviour to resolve it.

    2. Sometimes I don’t need to see the behavior to resolve it, that’s true. However, since motivations in dogs vary so much, how do you decide what is motivating a particular dog when you only have the owners’ analysis to go on? I do agree that sometimes certain behaviors are going to be dangerous to view but I do not allow the owner to dictate the way in which I view it. If I would be in danger by the behavior, I take precautions (stand on the other side of a fence, sit in my car, etc.), depending on the situation. I can’t count how many times I have done this and viewed the behavior and had to change my protocol as a result because it was not at all like described or was motivated by something the owner had completely missed.

      1. While it is true that owners sometimes miss details, when it comes to working safely with dogs, and effectively, I have found that taking a good history, determining the antecedents and observing the outcomes of training has given me enough information to help. We also have a unique community at Dogs in the Park were our students work with one another and discuss what they are seeing and doing and we find that we get all the information we need to secure the outcome we want.

  3. Juel Duke says:

    When I was doing one of my first case studies toward TTouch practitioner certification I worked with a dog that had suffered physical trauma and had severe neurological issues. I’d been called in because he had started refusing to go up or down stairs after he had fallen on them. The owner said to me “If he shakes like that long enough, he’ll fall over. Wanna see?” NO! I don’t need to see that to know where to start helping. I agree that experience and the ability to ask good questions can get you started in almos every situation.

  4. How did you learn what you know of dogs and aggression issues? I work with dogs that have issues but some things I just can’t put my finger on and you seem to be a world of information. Do you have training classes for dog trainers? Thank you!

    1. That is a long story! The short version is that I started out as a dog trainer, training my own dogs for sport. Then I started to attend behaviour conferences and hang out on behaviour lists. I read a lot. I got to know other trainers and went to more conferences. I was grandfathered into the IAABC and then I studied for and passed the CPDT. Then I studied for and passed the CBCC. One of the blogs I wrote is called “So you think you want to become a dog trainer” and it outlines how I suggest going about it now. If you have to pick and choose what seminars you attend, I would suggest two resources; first is e-Training for Dogs which has a really broad range of courses in behaviour and they are really really good and the second would be to go see a Suzanne Clothier seminar and if you can afford to do it, take her CARAT program. I took her level one workshop and it is well worth the time and money and that is probably the seminar that most convinced me to look at the dog and ask questions instead of trying to elicit the behaviour that needs to not happen.

    2. Trisha says:

      Seminars alone will not teach you how to work with dogs. We have a lot of armchair trainers out there these days. They attend seminar after seminar. They often don’t have experience with a lot of dogs, and that is truly the way to learn. Seminars are a great supplement (I have been to countless numbers). But go and work with shelter dogs as much as possible, work with dogs as an apprentice. Put a leash in your hands. Sitting and listening and taking notes only won’t do it. Feel and observation of real dogs is the key.

      1. I am going to disagree with one point here. Shelter dogs are not the best subjects to learn behaviour consulting upon. They are the most at risk population of dogs and I have handled more than a few whose behaviour problems have been worsened instead of improved by handling by novice trainers. Imagine for a moment that you told psychologists that they should practice on children in foster homes only! We would never do that as it would not help the child to be mis-handled by someone who didn’t have the bests skills possible to help them.

        I do agree that you must handle as many dogs as you can. When I was first involved in dog training I had the great fortune to have my own dog and the dogs of several friends and neighbours to go to classes with. Nice, normal dogs who benefited from my training even when I made mistakes.

  5. Sergio Reyes says:

    The experience give you shortcuts. Great article.
    How works the video consultation?
    Is really useful to solve the problems?

    1. If the behaviour is already on video, then I can look at it, but it really doesn’t change my approach. I need to write a blog sometime about how I take a history because the history tells me much, much more about the behaviour than seeing it does. The problem is that what people want to know is something that takes years to learn-if a doctor was going to describe to you how they do a physical, you would not really know much more than you do before they describe what they do because the doctor knows how to interpret the information that they gather when taking a medical history. The same is true for taking a behavioural history. There is little benefit to telling you that the doctor is listening to the quality of your breath and needs to know if you have been in a dusty environment if you have not learned what that breath should sound like and what each of the abnormalities they hear sounds like. I don’t do video consultations, however I DO look at video of problem behaviours if they already exist.

  6. I like the way you think. First, I work in a shelter. I agree with you about novice behaviorist, try well adjusted dogs before you handle the unknown. Second, although I’m by no means a trainer or behaviorist, I, with my limited experience, know a host of behaviors without seeing them. I do have a question, but it doesn’t pertain necessarily to this blog. What do you think is the proper reaction when a dog has a behavior problem (resource guarding, specifically) but it does not, yet, cause problems. My 5 pound chihuahua does this. I find that all the trainers in my area kind of dismiss this, either because she has not hurt or been hurt and because she is so small. (I also have a very tolerant 75# Boxer and a 6 pound “pomehuahua”). My problem is, she is very “bossy” with the other two (which she has been around since 8 weekis of age) and people just think it’s funny. With all that said, I guess my question really is, do you think the training of tiny dogs is just as important as training of large dogs, and do you think a 5 year old tiny dog can be taught to not guard or be bossy? (She’s super friendly, that is, until she gets “in a mood”, but always friendly with people.

    1. I absolutely think this is worth working on and I know you can change the behaviour of five year old dogs. I would suggest you look into getting a copy of Jean Donaldson’s book “Mine” if you cannot find a trainer local to you.

    1. This is an example of not enough information, but I still don’t need to see your dog doing the behaviour to help! If you are local to Guelph Ontario, contact me by email and I would be happy to help you in person. If you are not local, you can get in touch with a behaviour consultant by looking at http://www.iaabc.org!

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