By Tatiana Garrett
As the “animal person” among my friends, I’m often asked for advice, and I wanted to take a few minutes here to outline some common misconceptions about dog behavior issues. A very common pitfall is for dog parents to see signs of aggression in their dog and think an obedience class will fix the issue. Most behavior experts won’t (and shouldn’t) allow an aggressive dog into a group class, so that’s not really a viable first option.
To get the word from an expert, I spoke with The Anti-Cruelty Society’s Manager of Animal Behavior and Training, Karen Okura, CPDT-KA. Karen has been with the Society for 29 years and she is the one that I go to for advice on my pets at home.
When asked about aggressive dogs in classes, Karen said, “Group classes are not an ideal environment for training a reactive dog. To successfully train a dog to control poor reactions to other dogs (or to people), you must keep the dog ‘under threshold’—meaning you must keep the dog’s emotions and behavior below the point of barking, lunging, retreating, snarling, etc. Once a dog has become over-aroused with anxiety, he literally cannot learn new or alternative behaviors. Placing a dog in the highly stimulating environment of a classroom of unknown dogs and people will only serve to allow the dog to practice his inappropriate behaviors.”
Here are some training options for ongoing learning and behavior modification:
Obedience Class. These basic courses are often taught in a group format and are as much about teaching the human as they are about teaching the dog. The human is learning how to be consistent and correctly use positive reinforcement to train desired behaviors in their dog. Typically, the dog would be learning some basic commands (such as “sit” & “stay”).
Behavior Modification. For dogs that are experiencing difficulty such as separation anxiety, resource guarding, or aggression, behavior modification is needed to address the specific issue. Every case is unique and some pet parents can work through a situation themselves. For example, a dog with separation anxiety could learn to overcome the problem by being given a frozen Kong toy stuffed with kibble and peanut butter and having the parent leave for shorter intervals in the beginning. The dog learns that leaving is followed by a return and gets something fun to do while mom/dad is away.
Agility Training. There are many levels and options available, but in most agility classes, one would expect to see dogs learning to work through fun courses that could include tunnels, hurdles, and ramps. The obedience basics should already be covered so dog and guardian have a foundation of solid communication.
Dogs are incredibly intelligent and require ongoing enrichment and training to keep those brains busy and developing. Parents can take on training themselves or join a class. There are many more options aside from what’s listed above—from special “Holiday Manners” classes to Canine Good Citizen certification courses. Before signing up for any course, however, get to know the instructor (apdt.com is a good source for finding local trainers). Don’t be afraid to ask questions to ensure the person is truly an expert. Ensure that your trainer uses only positive reinforcement and won’t hurt your dog using old-school techniques that involve leash corrections or dominance. (You want your dog to be a loving family member, not a submissive member of a wild wolf pack.)
A good behavior expert will also teach you to train behaviors instead of working directly with the dog. After all, the ideal end result is that your pooch should behave well for you, even when the trainer isn’t around. The training process is also very much about strengthening the bond between you and your dog. The key is to be consistent. which is vital in animal training.
If you’re not sure whether your pooch would benefit from a class or has a more serious behavior issue, free help is available. Contact The Anti-Cruelty Society’s free behavior hotline by calling (312) 644-8338 ext. 315 OR ext. 343, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.