Dog Grant Me The Serenity To Accept The Things I Cannot Change
Although modern dog training techniques and methods are sophisticated and efficient, there are certainly some limits to what we can do. For many dog owners, a training journey is about acceptance as much as it is about action.
Don’t get me wrong: we can often make huge gains in a bunch of ways. We can get even the most cue-deaf dog to do a ‘come when called’ behaviour. We can get a dog to sit instead of jumping on guests, we can get a fearful dog comfortable at the vet’s office, and we can offer comfort and peace to a dog who is worried about strangers. We can switch up your snarling, food-guarding dog to be one who enjoys and even joyfully anticipates having their bowl of food touched. And we can help your dog who, upon seeing another dog across the street on a walk, becomes a barking and lunging Tasmanian devil.
But all that said, we can’t always meet the expectations that our clients have about their dogs. In these cases, we, as the pet professional in the room, work to educate and find solutions that are both achievable for the dog in question, and work-able for the humans involved.
Some of the things that typically involve compromise rather than a behaviour-change resolution include:
Bite pressure: a dog who bites with maiming force.
Energy level or “calmness”.
Scrapping, if our clients want “never again”.
Let’s unpack each of these a bit more.
Dogs are domesticated social carnivores and some of them have behavioural remnants of their wolf ancestors: they try (and sometimes succeed) to hunt for their dinners. Predatory behaviour in dogs has many manifestations and can be both playful or “for real”. It ranges from gentle play to intense play to chasing cars to herding sheep to the full meal deal: finding, chasing, killing, and consuming. Predatory behaviour is not aggression, it is simply dogs getting something to eat.
If this describes your dog, what can you expect from your trainer? If your dog rips apart stuffed toys with gleeful abandon, we’ll counsel you to simply provide more stuffed toys. We won’t generally train a dog to stop committing stufficide, because it’s harmless, enriching, and…well, hilarious fun. Trainers want dogs to get more of what they love, not less of it. For the same reasons, we’ll counsel you to sit back and enjoy the stalking, chasing, and biting games your dogs play with each other. Nature made play to be enjoyable and enjoyed, and it’s not our place to police our dogs’ preferences if no-one is getting hurt.
If your dog chases bikes, we’ll probably recommend a training protocol to reduce this behaviour: we’ll train your dog to ignore bikes or do a recall instead of chasing, for example. And we’ll probably counsel you to use a fence or leash to make sure everyone is safe if and when the situation demands it. This is because behaviour change is, just like my grade in high school biology, never 100%. Good trainers won’t offer guarantees: we can only alter the likelihood of x, y, z happening in situations a, b, and c. So for a dog who might get injured on the street or scare some innocent cyclist, a leash will provide safety and security.
Further to the “no behaviour change is 100%” thing, those dogs who are truly predatory must generally be prevented from carrying out these normal, but unacceptable, behaviours. A dog who kills cats isn’t evil, but shouldn’t be allowed to kill cats: prevention is key, and leashes and fences are usually the solution. This is a question of ethics too, of course. My dogs kill and consume mice, for which I neither train nor restrict access to inside my house…or outside my house, all of which is prime mouse habitat. And in other cases, 99% is good enough. My dogs have been trained, through habituation, reinforcement, and time-outs, to refrain from chasing cattle. They still occasionally get a bit too interested in a cow and I have to actively call them away, but this is a level of predatory behaviour I am OK with.
We can often make great strides in a profoundly fearful dog’s quality of life by preventing them from experiencing whatever it is they’re scared of. We can also usually chip away at their fears, to make them less scared. When a client and their veterinarian find a good fit for the dog, medically, this can really help. But a dog who is abjectly fearful will likely never become a social butterfly or truly comfortable in situations that naturally confident dogs take in stride, like crowded, noisy public settings. Abject fearfulness generally stems from poor breeding choices, lack of socialization, or sometimes from fear-evoking events in a dog’s life, including confrontational training.
If you have an abjectly fearful dog, your dog trainer should be a supportive ally on your dog’s care team, and should help you feel capable and understanding when it comes to keeping your dog feeling safe.
Bite pressure: a dog who bites with maiming force
Although the specific practical science is slim, the best thinkers in our field suggest that dogs’ ability to bite in social situations (fights, guarding, or out of fear) is a part of the suite of behaviours ethologists call ritualized violence. The vast, vast, vast majority of the time when a dog bites in a social situation, she does so with much less force than when she bites a prey item (i.e., her food). Dogs who bite outside of food-acquisition situations really are communicating, not killing.
And again, although the science is slim, it appears that dogs have a bite pressure, or confined range of bite pressures, that is stable in healthy adult dogs. In other words, a dog who bites and causes a small bruise will likely continue to bite and cause small bruises in the same context in the future.
The other side of this coin is that if dogs bite with maiming force in a social situation, this is not something that qualified dog professionals can “train out”. By maiming force, I mean the removal of flesh, broken bones, or deep punctures causing extensive bruising. Luckily, dogs who bite with maiming force are rare…no matter what the news reports imply (some experts believe that some dogs with good bite pressure might bite with increased force in real “panic” situations as well…we could use some good science on this topic).
If your dog bites with maiming force in very particular situations, your dog trainer will talk to you about prevention. If your trainer suggests they can change your dog’s bite pressure, be wary: in my opinion, the suggestion that this is a possibility is dangerously incorrect, in the absence of science supporting any behaviour modification success. But prevention can work: muzzling dogs is a wonderful way to simply, and wholly, prevent bites. Dogs can be trained to enjoy wearing muzzles, giving everyone breathing room. If a dog bites with maiming force during dog-dog altercations, then it is often easiest to have the dog avoid contact with other dogs, and have their sociability needs met in other ways.
Trainers like to think of ourselves as behaviour-change machines, but the truth of the matter is that if you have an enthusiastic and energetic dog, you’ll need to provide more exercise and enrichment (on top of any short-term training to be done). We can absolutely help identify exercise and enrichment opportunities that will work in our clients’ busy lives, but we won’t be able to wave a magic wand that will turn a young field-line retriever into a lazy couch potato. Happy, contented tiredness is a state earned every day through brain and body work-outs, not a trained trick.
“No More Scraps Ever”
Dogs are animals, and animals fight. For clients who have scrappy dogs, there are a few training options (depending on when and where the fights happen) that can reduce the frequency of fighting. But for infrequent, non-injurious fights? Your friendly neighbourhood dog trainer may recommend simply accepting that this natural, normal, and non-worrisome behaviour may happen here and there. In fact, your friendly neighbourhood dog trainer may push back a bit if you feel very firmly about “no more scraps ever”, since the only way to achieve 100% would be to remove all dog play from your dog’s life. For a friendly and social dog (i.e. most dogs), being jailed away from dogs forever because they occasionally show non-injurious and species-typical conflict resolution behaviour isn’t a good training protocol, it’s a welfare issue.
Expectation vs. reality
Dog training isn’t always about getting a dog to do (or not do) a certain behaviour, although training on that level tends to be the fun stuff for us trainers. Frequently, dog training is about finding peace and compromises that allow a dog to fit in more smoothly with her human family members, so that everyone—canine and primate—can live a life of comfort and joy.