Cause or Symptom? How Dog Trainers Choose a Treatment Plan
I was recently at a seminar with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills, who said something poignant: to help dogs, “we need to recognize the difference between symptomatic treatment and causal treatment”. Symptoms that cause dog owners to call in a trainer include barking and biting; marking and mouthing; jumping, guarding, growling, fighting, chewing, and of course, using the new white living room carpet as a...waste receptacle, instead of the great outdoors. The causes for these behaviours are a bit trickier to identify, because unlike behavioural symptoms, causes aren’t visible right before our eyes. But to the best of our knowledge, many dog “issues” are caused by two things: by dogs just acting like dogs on the one hand, and by fearfulness on the other. Sometimes we can treat the symptoms, like taking a cough suppressant while you wait for your immune system to tackle the virus on its own time. But sometimes we really must push up our sleeves and look past the symptoms, to the root cause.
Symptomatic Treatment: Fine for lots of dog stuff
In many cases when someone calls a dog trainer with a problem dog, we can simply treat the symptoms. If a dog is jumping up because they’re social, dog-ish, and friendly...we can simply train a dog to do something else, instead. We can train a sit-stay, for example. We don’t need to treat the cause of the behaviour, which is “normal, social, energetic dog”. I shudder to imagine how we’d treat that cause, anyways… who wants a non-social, unfriendly dog?
And after a veterinary check for any medical issues, we can usually treat pottying inside as a symptom, too. Dog owners often feel like their dogs are urinating on the carpet out of some complex motivation, like jealousy. So they’re usually relieved (the owners, that is...the dogs are already good at relieving themselves) to learn that we can simply re-train the dog to empty outside instead. Voila: symptom treated. No need to delve deep, no need for a 30-page questionnaire, no need for hand-wringing and psycho-analytic analysis of what is essentially normal urinary habits.
Of course dogs are complex biological machines, so it's not always black and white. Sometimes, dogs who are destructive or more active than the owner wishes—so have the symptoms of destructive chewing and so on—can be treated by a simple increase in their exercise and enrichment regimens. We're treating the symptom of chewing and the cause of doggy boredom and over-zealousness. If they’re tired from working on a good food toy, and snoozy after some cardio-pumping exercise, they aren’t destructive anymore. (Note: For some dogs, alone-time destructiveness is a symptom of a panic attack, and that needs to be treated differently.)
Causal Treatment: Better when dealing with fear
Sometimes, though, we can’t treat the symptoms quite so neatly. If a dog barks ferociously and bites guests, we need to dig a bit deeper. Training a sit-stay at the door, which works so nicely for the friendly jumping greeter, probably won’t work. We need to pay attention to the cause here, don’t we? Generally, these dogs are feeling threatened and fearful. If we treat the fearfulness by keeping the dog safely away from strangers to start, and then creating positive and lovely associations between the strangers and something the dog enjoys like good food, then we’ll start to chip away at the underlying cause of the behaviour. The barking and biting are symptoms, and the cause is the underlying emotional state: threatened and fearful.
A dog who breaks into the basement during a thunderstorm similarly won’t be helped by an increase in exercise and enrichment. A solid training plan that teaches her to go upstairs instead of into the basement won’t help either. The symptom of breaking into the basement isn’t very treatable, on its own. Instead, this is another time when we have to tunnel down to the cause: this dog is scared of the thunderstorm. We need to treat the fear to the best of our ability, usually with a combination of training, provision of a safe space, and medication. Once the fearfulness abates, the symptom of breaking into the basement will go away by itself, as the dog just isn’t motivated to escape anymore.
How to Tell Which is Which
If you’re struggling with your dog right now and can’t figure out how to change, there are a few things you can do. The easiest and the quickest is to hire a good trainer. A good trainer can quickly identify the best treatment plan and have you skipping merrily on your way to resolution. You can also ask yourself: is my dog’s body language telling me she’s feeling threatened or scared (see body language help here)? If so, then protect your dog from whatever it is that scares her and get help. If your dog is joyful, silly, or wholly dog but his behaviour is at odds with what you’d like to live with, then knuckle down and do some training. Check out my online course to help with jumping and pestering, head to your local dog class for help, or for those with broader goals, this online class is fantastic. And if your training plan isn’t helping, your dog has multiple issues, or your dog is fearful beyond just a mild anxiety, talk to your vet. They can help, too.