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The First and Most Important Step to Solving Behavior Issues in Service Dogs

puppy jumps on young child, unwanted behavior

Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out what’s going on in our dog’s heads and solve our dog’s behavior? Well, we actually can, if we take the time!

Definitions

Many behaviors we see dogs do are “unwanted behaviors in a specific situation” as opposed to “problem behaviors”.  Yes, they are normal dog behaviors that are in contexts that don’t make sense to us humans or we don’t deem appropriate for the situation. If we take the time to actually figure why the dog needs to the behavior in that or other contexts, we can quickly get to the root of the dog’s need to do it.  Then we can help them learn to deal with the situation and give behaviors that we deem more appropriate in that context.

What is a Behavior?

Behaviors are actually very complex. There are reflexive behaviors and learned behaviors. Some behaviors may be both.

Reflexive Behaviors

Reflexive behaviors may be involuntary biological reactions, such as a fight or flight reaction or genetic predispositions such as guarding or herding. Some of these are exactly what humans bred dogs to do.

Learned Behaviors

Learned behaviors involve a change in a dog’s response to a previous situation. They also involve some sort of emotion that drives the behavior. In some situations, a single exposure can teach a dog to do a behavior in a certain way. Extreme emotions like fear or excitement can make “single event learning” occur.

For less intense emotions that have a good outcome for the dog, the more times he is put in the situation that triggers the behavior, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. The more likely the dog will do that learned behavior in that context. This applies to unwanted behaviors as well as ones we would rather see in each situation.

Good Outcomes

What is a “good” outcome? It might not be what most people think it means. It depends on whose perspective you are looking at the outcome from.

Barking Example

A good outcome for a dog is that the behavior relieves some sort of stress. Barking at a person, dog or object can cause that object to move away. That gives more distance between the dog and the trigger. That distance relieves the stress or fear of potential interaction.

A “good” outcome for the handler is that the dog stays calm and quiet in those same triggering situations. He may turn back to the handler and wait for a cue to move on or do some other behavior. But just because the dog is looking at the handler does not mean he is comfortable with the trigger. So while this may appear to be a good outcome from the handler’s perspective, it may not be from the dog’s perspective.

Greeting Peoiple Example

Another example is when greeting a person, a dog may get very excited and jump up to the person’s face. A “good” outcome for the dog is that the dogs gets physical interaction by the person touching him when pushing him away or looking at him and lowering himself to the ground to pet the dog. The dog gets the attention he desires. A “good” outcome for the handler may be that the dog keeps his feet on the floor when a person greets him (or in the case of a service dog) ignores the person until cued to “Go say Hi.”  Again, while the dog is keeping his feet on the floor, he may still be excited and his need for attention may not be being met.

Sniffing Example

A third common example of a “good” outcome for a dog: sniffing the ground when there is “nothing there” can give the dog time to assess the situation and decide if he will engage with the hander’s training session. Will the handler remove the social pressure they are using to force the dog into the situation?

Sniffing also allows a dog to disengage from the handler to give him time (a mental break) to figure out a solution to a problem that has been presented to him in a training situation. Sniffing may also relieve the stress of all of the above situations. Trainers knowledgeable in dog behavior call this a “displacement behavior” and it is a useful way for a dog to cope with a situation he is not yet ready for.

A “good” outcome for the handler is that the dog continues to work while figuring out the problem and does not need to use displacement behaviors that delays the training session.

Summary

Understanding and redefining a “good” outcome can help the handler be more relaxed in training sessions and that in itself leads to more success for both handler and dog. The key take away for behavior change is that we must look at what is going on for our dog and create a behavior modification plan that addresses the dog’s needs first. Looking at behaviors from the dog’s perspective will help us understand what he may be experiencing in each situation and how we can help him develop long-term success.

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