The Tincture of Time

Your dog just bit you. Your dog is barking incessantly. Your dog is bouncing off the walls, counters and people like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer. You are at your wits end and you want this fixed . . . NOW!

Dog trainers like me get these calls on a regular basis. The phone conversation usually entails a Q&A to discover things like:

  • how long this behavior has been going on;
  • what the family has tried to change the behavior;
  • what prior training has been done; and, most importantly,
  • what the family’s expectations are.

Typically, this conversation illustrates one of several scenarios.

Scenario One: “She’s been doing this for years, and it’s only gotten worse. We’ve tried EVERYTHING and have worked with lots of different trainers. My husband/wife doesn’t think it’s a problem, but I think it’s embarrassing and I don’t (have people over/take my dog out in public). We need to get this fixed NOW or I’m going to have to get rid of the dog!””

Scenario Two: “This just started . . . out of the blue! I never saw it coming. She’s been a great dog until now — never needed any training. Maybe a little skittish in certain situations, but we try to avoid those situations. Now, all of a sudden, she’s done this. I just don’t know where this came from. I’ve got to get this under control NOW! I love my dog, but I can’t tolerate this.”

Scenario Three: “We just adopted our dog and she’s doing this. I don’t know how to handle this behavior. My last dog was the easiest dog in the world. She never acted like this. If I can’t get this behavior corrected NOW, I’m going to have to return this dog to the shelter!”

Believe me, professional dog trainers are very glad you called. We can and want to help. We have the tools and skills to make the vast majority of these situations better with time. We want you to have a great relationship with your dog. We want dogs to stay in their homes; a loved and loving member of the family. We’re not doing this to get rich. BUT . . . behavior change requires patience and consistency to get things on the right track. There are no quick fixes.

Ours is an age of instant gratification. Need something? Download it from the Internet. Hungry? Microwave something or go to a drive-thru for food. Most things are readily at our fingertips. I completely understand this. I’m an instant gratification person, too. But some things just can’t be had quickly. Behavior change is one.

I think about the several attempts I made to quit smoking. I was a heavy smoker, back in the day when you could smoke everywhere and anytime. I had smoked for more than 10 years. But I was finally ready to quit. I mean REALLY ready. And yet it took a long time to achieve true non-smoker status. I got help: acupuncture. It helped tremendously with the physical withdrawal, but there still was some of that. The real challenge was the behavior change. My environment was filled with “smoking cues:” phone ringing, getting in the car, before meals, after meals, and so on and so on. It took months for me to quit “twitching” in response to these environmental cues. And it took years more for me to lose the attraction to the smell of smoke and to not feel tempted when stressed. Nearly 30 years later, the last thing I want to do is smoke. It holds zero appeal for me and I find myself immediately getting out of elevator cars that have that faint smell of a smoker who rode in that car sometime earlier. I’m not trying to be superior. I’m just trying to illustrate how behavior change can be dramatic and complete. This change takes time for even us Big Brain Humans. Why would we expect our dogs to master behavior change faster than we can? There are no quick fixes.

Here are some things to keep in mind, relative to the three scenarios above:

  • There is a direct (although not mathematical) correlation between the length of time the dog has been practicing the behavior and the length of time it will likely take to change that behavior.
  • Most behavior problems have actually been brewing over time. Behavior change can be very subtle and take a long time to become noticeable. That’s true for the emergence of problem behaviors, as well as the creation of new, desirable behaviors.
  • Behavior that works to get the dog some desirable result, such as making The Scary Thing go away (growling, lunging, snapping) or getting attention from people (jumping up) is self-reinforcing and it takes time and strategy to eliminate that unwanted behavior and make another behavior more desirable for the dog.
  • Re-homed dogs need time to acclimate to their new home and learn the ropes. Be patient with them, but set boundaries and rules. Enforce those rules consistently and benevolently and begin training right away to establish desirable behaviors and build that loving bond between the two of you. But you still shouldn’t expect them to ease in quickly. Expect that full transition to take months.
  • Consistency is a critical tool in behavior change. Having all members of the household on the same page, doing the same thing is an Absolute Must. Also, stick with a strategy. Don’t bounce around different methods after brief try-outs.
  • Set realistic expectations. Your dog is an individual; not the dog you had before her or the one your family had when you were a child. She has her own qualities that you love, despite her challenges. But just as you wouldn’t appreciate someone asking you to change your ways overnight, you really shouldn’t expect your dog to change overnight either.

And most importantly . . .

  • Use positive methods to effect lasting behavior change. More on this in a moment.

Most of my clients expect faster results than they should. I get it. They don’t do what I do for a living. Even those who teach or counsel humans for a living tend to have inflated expectations for canine behavior change. When a behavior is annoying, destructive or dangerous, we want to resolve it quickly. Have I mentioned that there are no quick fixes? Even if by the time you call me you’ve been working to resolve this for a while, please give me time to work with you and your dog to see progress. Setting hard and fast deadlines sets everyone up to fail: you, your dog, and me. There are a great number of variables that effect how long behavior change takes.

A recent experience has made this even more poignant an issue for me. A client, anxious for behavior change, decided to take their recently adopted adolescent dog to a Board and Train shock collar trainer. They liked the positive reinforcement methods I was using and felt they were making slow progress, but couldn’t wait to have that “well-behaved” dog. They did this before talking to me so I could offer them a stepped-up positive program. By the time I spoke with them, they had already dropped this delightful, spirited dog off at the shock collar trainer’s place.

I am completely opposed to shock collars as a device for training household obedience and changing problem behaviors. (I won’t debate electric fence merits here.) I’ve done the research. I know what effect electrical stimulation has on a dog. I will not use shock collars. Period. End of story. Among the many reasons are:

  • The method sets the dog up to fail so she can be punished; as opposed to setting the dog up be successful and choosing desirable behavior as her default.
  • Electrical stimulation sends stress hormones coursing through a dog’s blood stream. Now why would you want to stress a dog you are trying to train out of problem behaviors? If the behavior is fear or anxiety based, you will only make matters worse.
  • Force-based, punitive methods suppress unwanted behavior, but you often find “side effect” behaviors as a result. Besides, suppression is not behavior change. If the problem behavior was aggression, you haven’t changed the dog’s mind or motivations, just suppressed the outward signs — a very dangerous development.
  • And finally, heavy-handed methods can break a dog’s spirit and leave them feeling helpless. Sure, you don’t have that unwanted behavior anymore. Instead, you have a shut-down dog who has lost their joy of everyday life and bond with you.

You are your dog’s guardian. Why would you let anyone inflict pain and stress on your dog?

Any trainer who guarantees the correction of a problem behavior within a short period of time is going to use aversive, intimidation methods. To preserve your bond with your dog and ensure they continue to be that happy, loving dog, you have to use rewards-based methods to resolve a behavior problem. It takes trust, management, positive training and behavior modification methods, and the tincture of time. There are no quick fixes.

7 thoughts on “The Tincture of Time

  1. Very nicely said! Not sure how I got your blog emailed to me, but thank you! I have to remind myself constantly that it takes time as you noted?

    Regards, Micki

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. Good reminders– and I stand convicted! I know Doug and I are not consistent with Jenny. We were just talking about this yesterday, how we tend to be more relaxed at the cottage and not practice what we’ve learned in our classes.

    Thanks for administering the kick in the behind that Jenny’s people needed!

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  3. Carol, thank you for beautifully putting into words what I battle to explain every day of my life. Well done, friend.

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  4. This is very sensible, BUT when we asked you to help with our dog (fear-reactive, growling, some ankle nipping, snarling at children and other dogs), instead of giving us positive reinforcement techniques, you told us to go to a behaviorial vet — who charges thousands of dollars (and from people I have spoken with, does not help much) and who puts the dogs on prozac and xanax. Is this truly better than the shock collar? Drugging your dog into compliance?

    I don’t use the shock collar (I don’t have it in me to shock anyone or anything!) but the people who DO the training, are adamant they do not simply shock the dog into compliance, but use a light “tingle” the way people use a clicker (to “mark” desirable behaviors).

    I’d literally give ANYTHING for positive techniques to get my dog to stop growling and snarling at people (and other dogs). But nobody can help me. It may be a hopeless situation, I understand that — but please do not give other people false hope.

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    • I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are, so I can’t respond specific to your particular situation. If you’d like to identify yourself, I’d be happy to have an open discussion with you. My experience with veterinary behaviorists is very positive. I have found that medication in concert with behavior modification is a very effective solution. It is far from false hope. It is also not drugging your dog into compliance. The drugs most often used are not sedatives. They are anti-anxiety medications and help reduce the dog’s anxiety level and re-wire neural pathways to make the dog more receptive to the behavior modification. The blog post is pretty clear on why the use of shock collars for behavior problems is not a good idea — ESPECIALLY for fear-based aggressive behavior. If you’d give ANYTHING for positive techniques to help your dog, why are you not pursuing the course I recommended? Or ask me for further help? Every dog’s case is different, so taking someone else’s experience and/or opinion is of limited value for you and your dog.
      Again, if you’d like to identify yourself or contact me directly (855.286.3647), we can have a more productive conversation on the specifics of you and your dog.

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