What is a Canine Behaviorist?
In today’s world, people and jobs seem to have inflated or even inventive titles leaving us to wonder what that “title” really means and what type of work that person actually does perform. At one time a Medical Doctor was a person who had an understanding of illness and how to treat many common ailments, but now we see Doctors who have a ‘speciality’ title. Science has advanced and has demanded that their work becomes a specialism, a complete study all in itself with its own identifiable title.
Similarly, increased understanding of new technology and sciences in other disciplines has led to new titles being given to the practitioners who carry out specialised work. A person working with animals developing their ability to do certain types of work is called a Trainer but now as we begin to realise the study of animals and their development is far more complex than we did a few years ago. Expanded studies, and the applications of our findings have led to changes in the animal world and also created specialised areas of work . In the study of animal behaviour the aim is to understand why they do what they do, or why they behave in a certain way, to understand the animal’s motivations and what reinforces, reduces or removes the behaviour. By understanding why an animal acts or reacts in a particular way and how to develop , minimise or remove the behaviour altogether we can understand the animal and design a training program to change or modify behaviour to meet our own needs, expectations and accepted social standards.
The title “Behaviourist” is given to a person who objectively observes, studies and analyses behaviour, and a Canine Behaviourist therefore, studies the behaviour of dogs. There have been some misconceptions about the title Canine Behaviourist, one being that the person is some form of psychiatrist (a ‘Shrink’), implying that owners need only consult a Behaviourist when they feel there maybe something mentally wrong with their pet. Dogs do get stressed and do get mental ‘hiccups’ which can create abnormal behaviour and the Behaviourist can help correct this, but their main function is to naturally progress the dogs growth and development through education and training not only of the dog but also the owner.
Many dog Trainers whether training for the gun, obedience, show ring, or whatever, use training methods based on their experience and experience of others. They have found that this is what works with this type of dog. Some Trainers know why it works and what makes a dog behave in a specific way. Others know that they get a particular reaction they want from a type of dog when they apply specific training techniques. And a few don’t know why it works, it just does. And then there are those who do not change their techniques and approach at all but deal with each dog in the same way. The top Trainers and Behaviourists are able to adapt to temperaments, characters, and problems that arise. They realise that there is not one best method but a variety of approaches to deal with specific situations. They read their dogs and their behaviour and adapt their training methods accordingly.
Many dog Trainers feel that Behaviourists don’t know the first thing about practical training and in some instances they may be justified. On the other hand, some Behaviourists feel that working dog Trainers are living in the dark ages no longer interested in improving their skills based on new knowledge and research. I feel quite strongly that a person should not set themselves up as either a professional Trainer or Behaviourist until they have considerable experience dog ‘training’ and dealing successfully with ‘behavioural’ dog related problems. A university degree does not make anyone an expert Behaviourist but similarly, neither does training two dogs well make a person an experienced top gundog ‘trainer’.
The gundog breeds can suffer from behavioural problems the same as any other. However, I have found that the working lines in general tend to be consistently far more stable, adaptable and forgiving of mistakes by an owner. They can still suffer from nervousness, phobias, aggressiveness, separation anxiety and many other behavioural problems as pet dogs do. Indeed this may be their secondary role in life – being the family pet as well as the gundog. Often, training for specific tasks can overcome these problems, even without realising why, but in most instances this does not always happen. Nowadays a good working dog also has to be a good companion and family dog. I feel this is where a good Behaviourist/Trainer can help the most, by training the entire family in the home environment.
A child goes to school to learn the things required in life for social acceptance and future life needs. Their character and temperament is developed through education, training and discipline provided by their parents and many teachers. This moulding of a young person into a responsible adult who can play a positive role in society is not because of mental instability – it is to provide for mental stability and the future of our society. This is also true for the dog and the canine Behaviourist employed as a teacher plays an important supportive role to the dog owner by helping actualise the much wanted relationship they seek – one of a true companion and ‘working’ partner. The Behaviourist provides the service role of a tutor by understanding, guiding, educating, training and developing not only the dog, but also the dog’s owner . The owner is the person that wants and needs to control the relationship they have with the dog, just as a parent would want and need control of their child. Therefore, it is the owner who should take the responsibility for providing and undertaking the necessary training lessons, later expanding the controls and learning to other members of the family. It is essential that the dog has the right relationship with its owner to reinforce and continue training that has been demonstrated by the Behaviourist. Like children, dogs figure out what behaviour they can get away with . When owners have been shown how to deal with their dogs and manage them correctly, an understanding and respect is built up between the dog and its owner. From that relationship of respect and understanding a strong bonding between the two begins to develop. A Trainer may take a dog in for training and produce a top quality working dog but if the owner and family do not know how to work with the dog, not only in the working environment but also in the home, then all the hard work the Trainer has done can be destroyed in a very short time. You may also find that the dog because it respects the Trainer, is perfect when handled by him or her but is a real ‘tearaway’ when it is with its owner. I have often been asked whether I have a cut out figure of myself or a tape recording of my voice, because a clients dog behaves completely different and much better when I am around.
A dog cannot tell you how it is thinking and feeling, therefore the main ‘tool’ of a Behaviourist is observation and where this is not possible, through in-depth questioning , what the owner and family have observed. This questioning is to get the facts from all involved to avoid confusion and clear up inconsistencies, and to provide the information from which an evaluation as to why the dog is doing what its doing and , if it needs modifying, how this can be achieved. Each dog is an individual and the same behaviour pattern from different dogs could have been created by completely different stimuli and need completely different training approaches to correct. The Behaviourist’s skill is to analyse and determine what is creating the problem, or foresee where potential problems may arise and to design a training programme for that specific owner, dog and family. It is fundamental that the dog’s character, personality and natural instincts ( such as the inclination to hunt, guard or herd) be known and evaluated to provide the right program. You may feel that it is straight forward to housebreak a pup, stop it barking, chewing or chasing the children but each of these can require differing approaches depending on individual family circumstances and especially on the breed of dog owned. And even when we think we have it right, because we are dealing with an animal, over a period of time new patterns of behaviour will emerge that demand our full attention and a rethinking of training routines. For example, recently I had a client with a three year old well adjusted, sociable and housebroken dog which suddenly decided to foul the house, defecating and urinating inside, minutes after he had just been outside and eliminated. Many owners would think the way to deal with this problem would be to give the dog a good whipping every time the faeces or urine was discovered. In reality, this method of correction would not have resolved this particular problem and could easily lead to even more problems. This situation needed far more understanding than the application of a heavy hand. The owner had not noticed changes in the dog which had occurred over a long period of time and had inadvertently allowed him to become a dominant leader within the family group. A training program which was constructive and firm, but kind, was introduced to positively reshape his behaviour, to show him that he was not in charge of the household, and was not going to be allowed to mark indoor territory as he wished. Owner education in this situation was important. By receiving the proper behavioural information relating to this dog it was possible to change the owners behaviour in all the circumstances that were inadvertently and incorrectly training this dog incorrectly and were directly causing the problems.
Although many of us want to enjoy our dogs and include them as members of our family we must always remember that they are dogs and are NOT born from the genes of the family they live with. We often love our dogs so much that we become over protective of them not realising that they can develop habits and behaviours which are antisocial and unacceptable. To be realistic and not blind to the ways of our dog can be emotionally challenging and, as you would with your child, there is no shame in asking for help, guidance and constructive tutoring. To accept the responsibilities of dog ownership and all that it entails takes determination and strength of character on a dog owners part. Dog Behaviourists are professionals and as such command a fee for their services. These fees range from area to area, so keep in mind that what you learn compared to the cost of the ruined carpet, whether destroyed by teeth, nails or urine, chewed furniture, neighbours complaining of dog barking , your family’s favourite pet killed because it ran out into the road, or the dog being euthanized because it bit someone, then the fee becomes insignificant. As always in this world you get what you pay for. When searching out a Behaviourist, the same as a gundog Trainer, look for one with a reliable reputation built on a history of success. Ask for references of prior clients or in the case of a Behaviourist ask for a recommendation from your veterinarian. As you feel you owe it to your children to provide them with the best experience, education and up bringing, you also owe this to your dog and yourself when you become a dog owning family and it comes to training. To help owners get the dog they want, they have had the expert services of primarily, Veterinarians and Professional Dog Trainers. Today the dog owner can in addition call on the support of an experienced Dog Behaviourist whose specialist knowledge may provide the solution to problems outside the expertise of the Vet or Trainer .