Wednesday, June 16, 2010


It’s been said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This statement is fundamental to understanding what so often goes wrong and how we sometimes manage to derail the best made plans for our canine buddy. Despite our intention to properly train him (or if there is already a problem, do “whatever it takes” to get him back on track) we ofttimes simply don’t follow through. In this section I want to examine what makes it so hard to succeed even when we know what needs to be done.

When the owner desires to train their dog or solve a problem, it would seem all that is needed is the right information combined with the correct application. “How to” advice is available from a variety of sources and in all kinds of media. For every endeavor there exists reams of sound and useful suggestions. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. It is not unusual for a new client to tell me what they need to be doing but ‘something’ (they are not always sure what) has prevented them from applying that knowledge. For some of those answers, I encourage owners to look inside themselves, to what makes them “tick.”

The following case illustrates some of the more common traps owners can fall into:

B.T. is a fourteen-month-old, very active and assertive Belgian Tervuren. Margaret is an easy-going woman in her mid forties. They had been to class when B.T. was just a puppy for some very basic puppy training exercises and socialization. About a year later I had occasion to become reacquainted with her, her husband and the dog.

This was not one of those occasions which all trainers enjoy when someone drops by to say how wonderful everything has been going; this was a much more serious occasion. B.T. had inflicted several bites on his owner, a few serious enough to require medical attention.

When this puppy had been obtained at 7-8 weeks (from a local first-time breeder) they had every good intention of raising him right and turning him into a great companion. They heard socialization is critical and so from the time they got B.T. they took him everywhere with them.

Margaret had heard dogs make better companions if they are trained and so she arranged to bring him to my beginners training class when he was 3.5 months old. The dog caught onto things very quickly and demonstrated a keen working ability. It was also in the context of the class that I could see (and pointed out to his owner) the potential for serious problems in the future.

Margaret is an intelligent person and grasps most concepts without difficulty, yet she was having a lot of difficulty training B.T. He pulled her all over the place, didn’t pay attention to her and ignored any attempts she made to set limits. Her generally permissive style and the fact that she always seemed prepared to lavish affection upon him, saw B.T. continually gaining the upper hand.

When I met with her to address some of the problems, she admitted that even though she knew she needed to, she just didn’t seem able to assert herself when it came to dealing with B.T. She had a hard time setting limits and saying NO and tended to make excuses for maintaining the status quo, rather than look at the changes she needed to make.

As bad as things had become, I likely would not have heard from her had it not been for her vet urging her to call me. The vet was very concerned that she had a serious aggression problem, was not willing to acknowledge it and, therefore, was not dealing with it. The staff at the vet clinic were becoming intimidated by this dog’s behavior and, as already mentioned, he had already bitten the owner a few times.

According to her all the bites occurred when she was running to get to the ringing telephone. In addition to this however, she noted the dog (who is never confined in their home) often blocks their ability to move freely about the house. He challenged the husband once and got kneed in the chest for his trouble; since then he has backed right off when the husband gets firm with him.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Margaret remains exactly as she was when I met with her a year previous. She was still far too permissive with B.T. She was still resistive to changing how she interacts or to setting limits with the dog. She still was making excuses for his behavior and even though he could behave himself quite nicely with her husband, he would not listen to her. Though a treatment plan was agreed upon and put into place, it will not be easy for Margaret, but the outcome very much depends on her ability to stick to it.

On an intellectual level Margaret knows what the problem is and what steps must be taken to rectify the problems she is having with her dog. She readily admits that she needs to change if she is to have any hope of getting things under control with B.T. On an emotional level however, she is having some difficulty taking those steps. Certain feelings she is having are clearly interfering with her effectiveness. For example, she speaks about feeling guilty if she corrects B.T. and fears he won’t like her (rejection) if she imposes limits. She also becomes anxious when contemplating asserting herself and the possibility of a confrontation. Ultimately, what is stopping Margaret from succeeding is the same thing that all of us stumble over from time to time - personal inertia and resistance to any changes which requires us to operate outside our comfort zone.

While everyone has their own unique personality style, it generally encompasses common elements which others can identify with and share. Our own personal style will contain traits and sub-traits that, when combined, determine our comfort zone. Generally changes within that zone are fairly easy to accommodate but being required to operate outside that zone will be experienced as uncomfortable and is usually resisted.

Even when willing to do so (and convinced of the necessity of operating outside that zone) energy and conscious effort are required. Depending on our state of mind and the length of time required, this can be quite draining and anxiety provoking. Anytime we are tired, stressed or operating on ‘autopilot,’ we tend to revert to old comfortable patterns. This is something to be watched for and guarded against because, while we can adapt and learn many new skills, our core will remain as the place we are most likely to go to when pushed hard enough.

Let’s use Margaret as an example: she is an easy going woman with the personality traits of patience, persistence, thoughtfulness and friendliness. What she needs to practice more to correct the imbalance in her relationship with B.T. is assertiveness (expressed through the sub-traits of efficiency, self-motivation, independence and self-confidence). These qualities need to be utilized when B.T. is pushing her, testing her limits and resolve and when he is most stimulated. Once he calms and is more accepting, she can then calm as well and move more into her comfort zone - but always with the understanding that she would move back into the “more assertive Margaret” role whenever necessary.

In order to be able to move into this role, Margaret would have to work on developing those sub-traits she was currently lacking or low in, i.e.,. Could she do it? Yes. Would she do it? That depends on how much she is committed, motivated and willing to change.

The examples of both Mocha and B.T. help illustrate that whatever changes are being sought must be worked for. In order to effect a change in each dog, the owners also had to make some changes. The metamorphoses of both dog and owner are often connected, with the changes evident in the dog reflecting those in the owner.

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