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Canine Training and Behavior

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Training involves training a dog to respond to audible commands and hand signals. It is, for a dog, like going to school to learn language, in this case, English as a second language, and obedience. Behaviorism, however, is based on fundamental psychological research and the study of dogs in the wild (ethology). It involves something more than training and is akin to human psychological counseling. Behaviorists attempt to understand a dog's unwanted behavior, recognizing atypical or aberrant behavior, and employing techniques ranging from environmental modification and programmatic shaping of behavior to address behavior problems. In addition, veterinary behaviorists address underlying medical concerns and may prescribe mood and behavior-modifying drugs.

Trainers and behaviorists rely on principles and techniques that cross each others' domains, but there are fundamental differences, too. While trainers may make good teachers and family counselors, behaviorists are best suited to unraveling complex problems and modifying unwanted behavior.

Even if no behavior problems existed, training would still be necessary. Dogs, like children, need to learn how to behave in human society in order to be socially acceptable. To have dogs running rampant is unacceptable, and proper training is what is required to teach the dog acceptable alternative behaviors.

Acquiring the right interspecies communication skills is an important part of training and is necessary to secure the rudiments of an appropriate human-animal bond. Most of the problems in dogs are the result of poor training. The trainer's function is to provide such instruction to assist in the healthy behavioral development of pups and juvenile dogs and to teach owners how to train their older dogs to perform new behaviors. (And yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks).

If every dog was genetically sound and his owners followed through with the instructions of a knowledgeable trainer, there would be no behavior problems to plague us, but unfortunately this utopian situation does not exist. Instead, dogs are too often bred for the wrong reasons, acquired for the wrong reasons, are raised inappropriately and are untrained.

Despite a few hundred years of selective breeding of dogs and at least a hundred years of "modern" dog training, the leading cause of death in dogs is still behavior problems that owners erroneously believe to be irresolvable. To be a little more specific, the number of dogs dying as a result of behavior problems is approximately three times the number that die from cancer, and half the dogs in the United States do not see their second birthday for the behavioral reasons.

Fortunately the American Veterinary Medical Association has seen fit to accredit a college of Veterinary Behaviorists. This new college will provide board certified veterinary experts to help train the veterinarians of the future and, through continuing education, to educate the ones of the present. This should help ease the problem considerably. Also, the Animal behavior Society of the United States now certifies Applied Animal Behaviorists, all members having a further (research) degree, and many of whom pitch in to help deal with this major league problem. Behaviorists spend most of their working time trying to resolve behavior problems in dogs using a Sherlock Holmes-like approach. It requires taking a detailed history, making a diagnosis of the problem, and establishing whether the behavior is a normal behavior or a truly abnormal behavior.

The behaviorist then employs all measures likely to help resolve the problem for the owner and the dog. Fortunately, in many cases, many of the formerly unmanageable problems are now resolvable, though different problems respond somewhat differently to the various therapeutic interventions.

The Bottom Line

Dog trainers may snipe at behaviorists as being a white-coated brigade who sit behind desks and do a lot of talking, handing out instruction pamphlets without actually touching the dog, and behaviorists may look down on trainers as less well educated, poorly grounded counterparts. The fact is that both groups need to work together to resolve the multitudinous problems facing today's pets and their owners. Rather than a territorial approach, it would be more effective for the groups to work together towards a common goal of improving the lot of pet animals and strengthening the human-companion animal bond.

To use an analogy of the human medical system, which has in its ranks the family counselors, the psychologists, and the psychiatrists. Family counselors address domestic problems and train us to communicate and live together harmoniously. The canine therapy equivalent could be the dog trainers.

Psychologists advise us when we have seriously detrimental behaviors that are self-destructive or problematic for others. The equivalent here would be the certified applied animal behaviorists.

Finally, in human behavioral management, there are the psychiatrists, who deal with chemical imbalance situations and medically related behavior problems that may require medication. The only group qualified to intervene at this level, regarding canine behavior problems, are the veterinary behaviorists.

All puppies need to be trained otherwise there will be behavior problems for the owners, at least. All the behavior problems need to be and can usually be addressed by either a trainer, certified applied animal behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist, depending on the level of the disturbance. Hopefully, these latter expert groups will combine their forces and refer one to another, to solve the massive problem now facing the pet dog population and the many devoted dog owners.

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