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Behavior modification is the treatment and change of unwanted behaviors. The goal is to substitute desirable behaviors for unwanted ones, while allowing the latter to fade. A dog who growls when his nails are trimmed learns to lie quietly instead, a dog who is anxious when his owner leaves is able to play with an offered toy, then take a nap during the owner’s absence, or a dog who lunges at other dogs on leash learns to pass by in a calm manner on a loose lead.
Issues often treated with behavior modification include fear, separation distress, anxiety, timidity, aggressive behaviors, reactivity and more. Dogs can be fearful, reactive to or behave aggressively towards a huge variety of “triggers.” “Triggers” can include people in general, specific groups, such as men over 6’2" that wear hats, riding in a car, other dogs and sudden environmental changes (SECs), such as the appearance of a skateboarder, a wind gust or the flapping of a plastic bag. Dogs can have one or many triggers and their reactions can range from lunging or biting to cowering, trying to hide or fleeing.
Anxiety differs from fear in that it indicates a state of apprehension regarding something. Dogs can become anxious when in the car because they associate an unpleasant destination with the car. They may become anxious when their owner picks up their keys, puts on a coat, etc. because they have come to associate those activities with being left alone. Either anxiety or fear, if generalized, lowers the quality of the dog’s life and is challenging for owners to live with.
Unless the dog is chasing something, the goal of aggressive behavior for dogs is to increase the distance between the dog and its trigger. While this includes things like toy or food guarding, the great majority of aggressive behaviors, such as lunging, growling, snapping and biting result from fear, anxiety, uncertainty confusion, stress or pain.
Traditional approaches to behavior modification focused on punishment, or “correction.” Aggressive or reactive behaviors were usually considered an attempt by the dog to “dominate” humans or other dogs, rather than being triggered by fear. Severe fears were sometimes dealt with by “flooding," which forced the dog to “face its fears," even if this involved dragging it across a terrifying surface, or holding it immobile while being petted by strangers. Sadly, the fallout from such approaches often increased the fear or anxiety or resulted in the dog becoming increasingly aggressive.
While these approaches are still used, humane training has made huge gains in the last decade. Rather than coercion, educated trainers now teach their clients science based, compassionate behavior techniques. They include classical and operant conditioning, counter conditioning and desensitization, directed relaxation and many others to change the way a dog feels about its triggers and help it learn new behaviors. Methods like “clicker” or “marker” training, games, and a wide variety of reinforcers, from food to play to allowing a dog access to something it wants, are used successfully. This “positive reinforcement” training not only results in behavior change but in a trusting, happy relationship between dogs and their owners.
Positive reinforcement training does not mean that we are permissive, but that we reinforce the behaviors which teach our dogs to live successfully with us and that we refrain from using coercion or force.
PawsWise Dog Training believes that dogs are intelligent, cooperative beings, and that our willingness to respect their reality not only results in a in a well-trained dog that is a pleasure to live with, but also opens the door to reciprocal communication and joy.
Our Behavioral Consultant, Harline Larkey, B.S., M.Ed., APDT, owns PawsWise Dog Training, and is a dog trainer who specializes in anxiety and fear, separation issues, lack of focus, impulse control, and human-dog and dog-dog aggression. She is available for private and on-site behavior consultations. You can visit her website at www.pawswise.com or call 970-493-3333 for us to set up an appointment with her. For any questions, you can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Initial Consults range between $110 and $155 and are typically 1.5 to 2 hours long. Paperwork for your Initial Consult is available as a fillable PDF here or online here.