About a month ago, I had an accident where I nearly amputated my thumb. I was trying to medicate my horse’s eye and she was tethered to a wall, and she panicked. In the melee that ensued, the clip on the end of the tether ricocheted off my thumb, split it wide open almost to the bone and tore 2/3rds of my thumbnail right off. Needless to say this has been an incredibly painful injury and has negatively impacted my ability to do a number of things. The problem is that post injury, in spite of all the pain, there really isn’t much that the doctor can or should do. After getting it stitched up and getting a prescription for antibiotics, we just have to wait and see what will happen. Once in a while though, something funky happens that is a bit worrisome, which leads to the title of today’s blog. I was sitting in a meeting the other day looking worriedly at my thumb when one of my colleagues said to me “what’s wrong?” “My thumb is changing” I replied. And it had; it was painful and the scar had begun to swell. It wasn’t significantly different, but it hurt more than it has and it was different enough that I was concerned. “I am not sure if I should bother the doctor with this though” I said, still looking intently at the very slight swelling. “Well” replied my colleague, “if your arm turns black and falls off, you should definitely call the doctor”. What can you say to that? It really reflects how people treat problems though!
We see this all the time when it comes to behaviour problems. I have worked with families who have lived with a behaviour problem for many years, allowing and sometimes supporting the problem to continue, because the problem doesn’t feel serious enough to address. Usually in such cases there is some single event that makes the behaviour problem relevant enough to get help, but by the time that happens, often the problem is so deeply entrenched that it is a lot of work to resolve. Often, if the family had come for help early on, there would have been some simple solutions to carry out. When behaviour problems are allowed to persist, they don’t usually get better all on their own. Most of the time, behaviour problems just get worse and worse as the dog practices the undesired behaviour successfully.
So when is a problem bad enough to seek help for? This is the conundrum I face with my thumb. It is always somewhat painful, so I am aware of the problem most of the time. Never the less, as my vet would tell me “it is a long way from the heart”, meaning that the discomfort caused by the healing injury just isn’t something that the doctor can do much about. In fact, this time, I did go see the doctor and she looked at it and said that she was glad that I had come in, but that it was healing nicely and that there was nothing that we could do; the swelling was likely due to scar tissue forming. Just like my doctor, I am always glad to speak to people about behaviour problems; they may not be serious, however, they could be, and I can usually tell after speaking with my clients if there is a simple fix, or if we need to engage in a full blown behaviour modification program.
Some of the time, what appears to be a small problem to my clients appears to be a great big problem to me. This means that I may be delivering bad news to my clients, and that can be tough for everyone. If you have a problem, ask someone who knows. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer will know, and so will a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant. The lady in the park who has always had dogs may have an idea, but like my colleague who suggested that if my arm turned black and fell off, I should go to the doctor, the lady in the park really isn’t qualified to give you an opinion on how serious a behaviour problem might be.
All of this begs the question of when is a behaviour problem a problem, and that really isn’t an easy question to answer. I have sat through numerous professional conferences where researchers have told us that people don’t try and resolve their dog’s behaviour problems until the behaviour directly impacts the people! I also know from personal experience that many people don’t address their dog’s behaviour problems when they don’t know that the problem exists. What do I mean by that? If you think that a behaviour is normal for a dog, but it isn’t, then it is a problem, but you won’t seek help. I have for instance had clients whose dogs have still been having regular toileting accidents indoors at the age of four years. This is definitely not normal, but the clients I am thinking of didn’t realize that dogs should be house trained by about 17 weeks of age; they had been waiting for some magic to kick in that would somehow or another resolve the problem!
From my point of view, if any behaviour is not normal for a dog, then it is definitely a problem. By normal I mean behaviours that are outside of what dogs in general do. Behaviours in this category include things like spinning, chasing lights or shadows, licking the wrists, barbering the fur, licking walls, getting “stuck” and staring at things. Dangerous behaviours are similar; if the dog is chasing cars or jumping out of windows, then the behaviour is a problem for the dog even if it isn’t for the humans who live with the dog. Some problem behaviours may pose health risks to the dog, such as eating feces or non food items such as rocks. It is not fair to the dog to not address these problems, but when the humans who live with the dog don’t consider them problems it can be a hard sell to convince them to work to resolve the issue. In the video below, the Australian Shepherd is showing a behaviour that some people consider funny. I would consider this behaviour to be a problem, and if the family waits to get help, it will become so entrenched that it may not be possible to resolve.
Any behaviour that negatively impacts the life of the family should also be considered a problem behaviour. Even when the behaviour is a fairly normal behaviour for the dog, if it interferes with the family’s enjoyment of life, then that would count as a problem behaviour. This category of behaviours includes things such as jumping up on guests, and getting into the garbage. Unruly behaviour can create so much chaos for families that living with the dog becomes very frustrating for everyone concerned. Although it may take work to overcome these behaviours, usually it is less effort to work on the behaviours than it is to live with the problem.
Once in a while the family may feel that a behaviour is a problem when it isn’t. Inguinal checking, self grooming and humping inanimate objects are behaviours that people often ask us about, and unless the behaviour is happening to excess, I am likely to just tell you that the behaviour is normal and something that dogs just do. I don’t mind being asked, however, unless these behaviours happen all the time, there is really no reason to interrupt the dog; in fact with inguinal checking and self grooming, stopping the behaviour interferes with the dog staying clean and healthy.
Finally, we come to the group of behaviours that everyone can recognize as problematic; things like aggression, and separation anxiety. These behaviours are more than a nuisance, and most folks recognize that and seek help. In some respects, these are the easiest of situations to deal with because the problems are obvious and the people recognize that the problems exist.
The take away here is that if you have any doubt about your dog’s behaviour, ask us or ask another credentialed trainer! We are trained to recognize when the problem is a problem, and when the problem is not, and we have the skills to help you when the problem really is a problem. Usually, the sooner you start to address a behaviour problem, the easier it is to resolve. You don’t have to wait till your arm turns black and falls off to call the doctor!