Stay the Course! By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP

In Partnership With Dogs


Recently I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the dogs and humans that I’ve been working with. When some kind of behavioural issue or alarming behavioural change suddenly appears in their dogs, many owners are feeling compelled to abandon their original, positive training plan. I’m not sure why this is happening with such increasing regularity. Are people panicking and being swayed by “helpful” advice from friends or random strangers? Are traditional training methods (outdated but still stubbornly persistent) the cause? Could the myths and misinformation readily available all over the internet and social media be too much to ignore? Or are “reality” TV dog shows a source of the push to change direction?

I understand that a sudden change in your dog’s behaviour, especially if it seems to be aggressive, can be really scary. It can immediately cause you to doubt your original plan – what happened to my friendly puppy? The point of this article is to provide you with some supportive information and to encourage dog owners to take a deep breath and . . . Stay The Course.

You’ve chosen the path of positive training for a very good reason:
You may not even be conscious of choosing this path but your gut instinct was that this was the right way for you and your dog.
You may have done a little or a lot of research and discovered that positive training has a long history and plenty of research to support it’s effectiveness.
You may have heard from your veterinarian that all the major Veterinary Medical Associations and Humane Societies worldwide promote positive training methods as the only effective way to train dogs.
You may just know someone with a really nice dog and this is the training they chose.

New puppy Sherman just starting his training career

New puppy Sherman just starting his training career

Of course there are exceptions, but generally, one of 4 things tends to cause a sudden (or what may appear to be sudden) change in behaviour.

1. Physical injuries or an undetected illness of some kind.
This should be the first thing you investigate. A change in behaviour may not be behavioural at all but caused by pain or discomfort and this can usually be determined by a visit to your vet.

2. Something scary happened.
Sometimes things just happen that are really scary and it’s easy for us to understand why our dog would find this alarming and why it might have a long-term effect (abuse, harsh training, an attack by another dog or wild animal, being in a car accident, etc.).

Sometimes, though, things happen that we may not be aware of, or we may not be aware of the effect it has on our dogs. You would think that we should know if something has happened that scares our dog – but that’s not always the case. Maybe your dog was startled by something that barely registered to us. Dogs that come from a background of little or no socialization or even dogs who are particularly sensitive often find ordinary things very scary. The sights, sounds or even smells of random things like garbage cans, loud vehicles, vacuums, balloons, lawn equipment, seasonal lawn decorations, cigarette smoke, skunk odor (yes – even strange smells can be cause for alarm), etc. can be incredibly frightening to a dog already convinced the world is quite unsafe for them.

Many dog owners have other people involved in the care of their dogs – dog walkers, daycare workers, groomers, veterinarians, pet sitters, boarding kennels, etc. What if they don’t notice or think to tell you about something that has happened to your dog while in their care? Another alarming possibility is that there are numerous accounts in the news of dog care “professionals” who are using shock collars and extremely punitive handling methods without the consent or knowledge of the owner.

I worked with a dog once who had his tail stepped on by his pet sitter who was taking off her coat and stepped backward without noticing he was there. She was wearing high heels (ouch!) and his tail was very badly injured. That one incident caused this particular dog to become very aggressive toward someone as soon as they took of their coat – even though he was fine with them with their coat on. That seems pretty extreme – certainly the resulting behaviour was.

We have to keep in mind that we can’t possibly know how another being perceives an incident or how or why it has a particular effect on them. Even another human who we can converse with easily, can’t fully explain how something feels to them in a way that allows us to feel exactly what they feel. Certainly we will have even less success understanding the effect on a being we can’t converse with.

Punitive events often cause unforeseen associations to form – hence the very real danger of punitive training methods.

3. Early, subtle signs were missed.
I’ve met a lot of dogs who have probably been fearful since they first came into their homes (maybe from birth), but nobody really noticed or thought it was a problem. Signs of fear in dogs can be very, very subtle and not immediately obvious to an untrained eye. Also, human nature tends to believe that with enough time passing, dogs (and people) will just “get over it” as they age and mature or have enough exposure to the situation. However, in most cases, left unaddressed or unacknowledged, the fear continues and almost always begins to escalate.

Time moves on, the dog starts to mature into adulthood (or get comfortable in a new home) and suddenly the subtle signs are not so subtle. I often describe the change in behaviour we see in this situation as the dog “turning up the volume”. If, in your dog’s mind, no one is helping him then he needs to “get louder” – use bigger behaviours to help himself.

Take the situation where a dog seems to suddenly become reactive and aggressive on leash where previously he may have just seemed excited and pulled a lot. All along, this dog may have been concerned and worried about the approach of strange dogs. Nothing has changed to alleviate his concerns, so he needs to take matters into his own paws to make the situation better – beginning to act aggressively on leash. Reactive dogs often seem to be saying “keep your distance until I have a chance to see if you’re safe or not!”

4. We haven’t trained long enough.
Often I encounter people who may have taken a puppy class with their young puppy, but that was it – training complete. Once their young puppy was house-trained, appeared to be friendly and “problem-free”, they stopped training and just went on with their lives.

What many people don’t seem to realize is that your young dog is still growing – not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally until they are 3 or even closer to 5 years of age for bigger breeds. The stage of adolescence (from approx. 6 months to 3 years old), is a second critical training period and is often the time when many problem behaviours can come up. Dogs in this age group continue to go through periods of fear and uncertainty. At this stage, any sort of traumatic or scary event could effect their long-term behaviour if it’s not addressed quickly and positively. They are not mature, adult dogs until all this growing is complete.

If you have a breed who is historically a guarding breed or similar working type of breed, this period is even more important for you. You need to work hard to form a partnership that will help you work through the independence and general mistrust common in these types of breeds.

Don’t Panic, Don’t Stop Training and Don’t Change Course!
If you used an experienced, force-free trainer for your early training, they will be able to help you through whatever behavioural challenges you are now facing – get in touch with them.

If the trainer you used isn’t experienced with the behavioural challenge you are facing and they are responsible trainers, they will tell you that and refer you to someone who is.

Do your research:
Ask for references of dogs and owners who have dealt with similar issues to you and see what they say about the help they got.
Ask if you can watch a class or training session before committing to anything.
Ask for specifics – what types of things will the trainer be suggesting you do?
A good trainer will have many different techniques to suggest – not just one solution or one piece of equipment. All the techniques should fall within the same philosophy and guidelines.
Positive training may change course or techniques, but it should NEVER escalate or become forceful.

Every dog CAN be trained with force-free and positive techniques, and every problem CAN have a solution within the realm of positive and force-free training. There is simply no need to switch from Positive to punitive or forceful.