You may be surprised to find just how many people have a dog with behaviour problems. In response to this, there are a growing number of people marketing themselves as dog behaviourists, dog trainers and dog experts, especially since Covid. Many of these people, however, are no more qualified than the owner! (Arguably, they could be less knowledgeable than the owner).
If you don’t mind making your dog’s behaviour problems worse and spending a small fortune on dog trainers, then don’t read on.
So, how do you avoid falling into the trap of hiring one of the many people marketing themselves as dog behaviourists and trainers? And why should you worry? Let me go through a case study with you.
Before explaining how you should get help for your dog’s behaviour problems, please read this real-life case study (with permission and anonymised).
Mrs. T’s 3 year old castrated male bull breed cross, Rover, was showing aggression towards unknown dogs whilst out on walks.
Mrs. T saw a trainer who suggested the dog was being dominant. No history was taken, and he duly boarded the dog with his pack for a week. He returned the dog “cured” and suggested she use a prong collar to make the dog walk to heel. She was instructed to jerk the lead if Rover looked towards other dogs. He showed her a video of how Rover behaved with his pack, so she could see he was not being aggressive to them. In the video I was able to detect that the dog was, in fact, wearing a shock collar. The owner had not noticed this, nor had the trainer told her he had used one.
When she got Rover back, all appeared well for just over a month when she decided she didn’t feel comfortable with using the prong collar, so she reverted back to a traditional collar. A few weeks later, Rover was significantly more aggressive to dogs than he had been prior to seeing the trainer. She told the trainer about this and he told her she should not have stopped using the prong collar and suggested Rover go back to him for refresher training.
At this point, Mrs. T came across my details and phoned me for guidance. During the conversation I felt that there was evidence that he might have a medical condition. He suffered regularly from loose stools. I observed a video of him at his home and saw that he was walking with his tummy tucked up and his back arched as if suffering from abdominal pain. I referred Mrs. T to her vet who conducted some tests. These tests revealed inflammatory bowel disease with vitamin B12 deficiency. He began treatment for this condition under his vet and was referred back to me for behavioural support.
The original behaviour was aggression shown to dogs, but since boarding with the trainer and after stopping using the prong collar, Rover was also showing aggression towards people. This was a new behaviour. His aggression towards other dogs was much less predictable and much more aggressive than before.
I observed the videos taken by the trainer and saw a very closed down dog. Nothing he did made any difference, so he just gave up. His eyes were dead, and he looked soulless. He walked with the trainer with his head down, steadfastly looking forward with dogs either side of him. His body was rigid and his tail down.
No, he did not show aggression. His aggressive behaviour was being suppressed by fear of the consequences of expressing himself.
Once he learned that the prong collar was removed, he knew the pain would not come. However, by this time, his fear association had been tainted with anger because each time he had seen a dog he had had prongs jabbed into his neck. Furthermore, most dogs are walked by people, and people were associated with this pain now too. So, he was also showing aggression to people now and this was a direct result of the methods used.
When a dog shows fear aggression (staring, growling, snarling, lunging, barking etc), this is designed to repel the scary thing. Adding pain in association with a scary thing increases its scariness. This makes the behaviour worse in the long run. It also can make the dog very angry. Think for a moment how you feel if you hit your thumb with a hammer by accident. Most of us hop about using expletives and are pretty cross about it (or is that just me?).
If the owner had continued to use the prong collar, eventually Rover would still probably have started showing aggression again. Over time, many dogs habituate to the pain and harden up to it, anger builds and this inevitably leads to even more force being used by unskilled trainers. The dog has no way out. This is why dogs are taken back for refresher training to remind the dog how much they can be hurt as the trainer uses more force or shock collars than the owner would to stop the dog showing signs of aggression.
Just because you can stop aggression with these devices, doesn’t mean you should. Nor does it mean that the problem has been resolved. It might appear so from the human perspective as the human is happy the aggression has stopped. But from the dog’s perspective, there is a bigger problem and more stress as they are not allowed to react in a way that brings them relief. This can lead to autoimmune issues and other health issues related to stress and inevitably expensive vet bills. It stops dogs giving warnings as they learn that if they warn with growls etc, they are punished harshly. It doesn’t stop the motivation for the behaviour though. This often leads to dogs showing more severe aggression without warning.
So, what was my assessment of this dog?
After history taking it transpired he was a rescue puppy who had been born in a kennel where he lived until 6 months with other members of his litter. He had not had much interaction with other dogs and this had only been at the kennels. This would have predisposed him to developing fear related problems in a new context. He had attended puppy classes where he hid, and his owner had stopped taking him as she was not happy that he was so stressed. Rover was re homed at six months old, which is quite a sensitive stage for dogs and it might be this is a second sensitive period and could have predisposed him towards being anxious in his new home. Rover had always laid down on his back or side when greeting other dogs and Mrs. T had thought this was good as she believed submission is a good state for dogs (having watched Cesar Millan). In fact, submission is a response to fear, or perceived threat and lying down on the side/back is aimed to appease the other dog by showing they are not a threat and to reduce the risk of personal injury.
We don’t know how long he had been suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, but he had always had sloppy stools since acquired aged six months. He might always have had this. Bowel disorders can affect behaviour in several ways.
1) Having inflammatory bowel disease is painful and can affect confidence and mood. Think about it. The dog is in pain all the time, so any social exposure in this state could assume an aversive association.
2) Serotonin (the brain chemical associated with happy mood state and non-aggressive behaviour) is made in the gut. If the gut is not functioning properly, it is likely that this affects the amount of serotonin that can get into the brain. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are associated with increased risk of aggression.
3) All nutrients from our food pass through the intestines into the blood and are transported via the blood to where they are needed. If the gut is not working properly this can affect the availability of amino acids that are used to convert into important brain chemicals. This can affect behaviour.
It is likely that inadequate social exposure, and age at re homing, combined with the effects of the inflammatory bowel disease are what led to his aggressive behaviour in the first instance. Had a vet been told about sloppy stools, it is likely he would have been treated and this would have improved his behaviour. As it happened, the trainer advised raw feeding to resolve the sloppy stools. This is illegal under the Veterinary Surgeons Act (1966) Section 19 as the trainer diagnosed that sloppy stools was a result of diet. Only a vet can legally say this after making a medical diagnosis that there is no medical cause.
Early referral to a behaviourist after Mrs. T had left puppy classes would have helped so that Rover could have had the right help to build up his confidence at such an important time. Combined with the proper treatment of the medical disorder, this would not have escalated to Rover showing aggression.
The methods used by the first trainer exacerbated the problem. Although it looked like it worked, it stored up deeper trouble under the surface. The fact that it was suggested the dog keep going back for refresher training shows that the problem was not resolved. It was temporarily suppressed.
How did I work with this problem? I assessed this dog was frightened of dogs and people. He was treated for his medical problem, which improved his mood. I educated the owner how to read his body language so that he could be worked from a safe distance at which he was not fearful. We used a method called counter conditioning that enabled Rover to learn that lovely things happen when he sees dogs and people and his aggression is much reduced. It might not be that he never shows aggression, thanks to the use of aversive training devices. It would have been much easier to work with as soon as it was discovered Rover was hiding under the chair in his puppy class. Early intervention is best. So how was it possible this client's dog was damaged by a dog trainer?
Dog training regulation
This is why, when the government established the Companion Animal Welfare Council, they concluded that dog training required regulation. As a result of this, The Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council was established. This organisation developed standards that should be required of various levels of animal training and behaviour counsellors. The ABTC now lists accredited dog trainers and animal behaviourists. Members will have undertaken a rigorous application process and are working at the very highest standards. So the ABTC is the regulatory body for dog trainers and behaviourists in the United Kingdom. Currently, this is a voluntary practice, but it is expected that this might become compulsory. the ABTC is committed to ethical methods of dog training and behaviour modifiction.
Your dog trainer should be assessed by someone other than themselves as fit for purpose. This is why professional bodies that assess their members are so useful. Being a member of a professional body enables clients recourse if you are unhappy with the help you received. With an individual dog trainer, there is nothing you can do about this.
So, how to find a good dog behaviourist?
Firstly you must see your vet and ask that they check your dog for medical causes of the behaviour problem. Your vet should then be able to refer you to someone they know who is qualified. There are a number of excellent organisations, some of which are not yet members of the ABTC (Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council - regulatory body for animal behaviourists and trainers). Some of these are listed below:
The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
The Canine Training and Behaviour Society (TCBTS)
Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers (CAPBT)
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (IAABC)
Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) members will be titled CCAB (Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourists)
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers U.K. (APDTUK)
The Canine Behaviour and Training Society (TCBTS)
The Pet Professional Guild (PPG)
Victoria Stillwell Pet Dog Trainers (VSPDT)
Of course, there are trainers who are not members of any organisation who are also excellent. Your vet will know who these are so do ask your vet for a list of local trainers.
Do take testimonials with a pinch of salt, especially if they claim quick cures. You will know these dogs have, most likely, just been suppressed. Watch out for words such as "dominance" "correction" "pack leader" "control" "cure" "trained in just 20 minutes" as these are all indicating that the trainer is not properly qualified.
If in doubt, talk to your vet.