Positive solutions to behaviour problems

As a dog owner you may have been in a situation where you dog was doing something undesirable, obnoxious, annoying or even dangerous. I'm sure all of us have. 

So let's say you have a young border collie who just started this car chasing thing. You go out with him and every time he sees a vehicle, he stops, crouches down, stares at it, and when the car is very close he lunges at it. 

This was my story when my Chester was a few months old. He also tried to chase the cars when inside of our car which was really not cool. He was darting back and forth as much as his harness allowed him to and barking in excitement, frustration or both. I contacted a trainer who was recommended by a friend. “A very nice lady”, I was told. She said we have to “nip it in the bud” and that I should bring the dog to her so we can eradicate the behaviour. 

Concerned with the tone of her voice I asked how she was going to do that and she had a vague answer of “we'll see what works” and “ we can't allow that”. I didn't make that appointment, I didn't like the way it sounded. 

Instead I read a bit more, then took my dog to a nearby village, sat by the road and waited for cars so I could click and treat my youngster for not lunging at them, for any attention he could give me, for watching without reaction etc. Soon these were the only things he did when he saw a car. 

Inside our car, I had a tub with sausage pieces on the passenger sit and I was tossing a few pieces when another car was approaching us. I didn't do it for long, it worked very quickly. The behaviour was gone in probably couple weeks, and never came back.

You see, I was committed to finding a positive solution, one that resonated with my believes and ethical stand. I got interested in dog training only when I discovered clicker training and its underlying philosophy. Before that I thought dog training was boring and quite cruel, with all the chains and prong collars (they used to be very popular in Poland) and constant corrections. 

Therefore all I ever learned was so-called positive training. And with it the vocabulary. That trainer 9 years ago was using words that were not coming from a positively minded trainer and it put me on guard.

Today I'm still committed to positive solutions. Even more than then as I learned much more about them and their power. 

I learned a way of looking at behaviour problems as lack of skills rather than something to eradicate or stop. The dog who's displaying that problematic behaviour just doesn't know what else to do in this situation. He needs skill building training, not correction. He is screaming for help, not punishment. 

So the way I think about it and approach it is: What is the dog getting out of this? What would I like the dog to do instead? How do I teach it? How do I prevent the current reaction from occurring? Because no matter how good you are at teaching the required skills, if you allow the reaction to happen alongside it, you'll have a pretty long work ahead of you. 

I'm not going into details on these questions, it's maybe for another time. The point is that rather than have this eliminative approach of: let's stop it right now, let's eradicate it, I use constructive approach and concentrate on what's the missing skill, or emotion, that I can teach and build on.

As a trainer educated in science and principles of learning and behaviour I have the necessary tools to tackle most challenges that I come across in a positive way. 

However I have to say that I am not limited to those options. When I was studying I was introduced to a hierarchy of training methods called LIEBI, which stands for Least Intrusive Effective Behaviour Intervention. This system (and similar ones like LIMA: least intrusive, minimally aversive) puts all available methods in an order from the most humane and force-free to the most aversive and potentially damaging. 

It should be used as a guide for behaviour professionals. When presented with a challenging behaviour, we start at the top and first implement the most humane method/s. In majority of cases these are the only ones we need. But in some situations we can reach for the next one and, maybe, the next one. We want to find a solution for our clients and their dogs, so they can live together in harmony, and sometimes, very rarely, it requires us to step out of our preferred zone. 

I have to add here that each case has to be considered individually, I'm not saying that some problems need certain (more aversive) solutions. What's more, in reality, getting down to the really aversive ones is just not necessary, ever. 

I deeply believe that our dogs deserve to be given a chance at kind, positive learning experiences first, and only if we have tried the humane methods (of which are many), can we perhaps consider the use of the more aversive ones.

So do your dog (and yourself) a favour and start thinking in a constructive way: what does my dog need to learn, know and feel in order to change his behaviour? Once you switch to this way of thinking, you'll look at him with fresh eyes, you'll have better results and you'll forever transform your relationship.