It’s not something any of us want for our dogs, but behavioural problems are a common struggle for many dogs and their humans. Whether your dog is anxious about being left alone or reactive towards other people/dogs, behavioural issues can be debilitating and have a huge impact on our lives. Behavioural issues are often misunderstood, so we’re here to help you learn how to recognise a behavioural problem and what you do if you find you and your dog needing support.
What is a behaviour problem?
Behavioural problems come in many forms, but typically we find our dogs are exhibiting unwanted, problematic and potentially dangerous (to themselves, us or others) behaviours as a result of extreme emotions such a fear and anxiety. Common behavioural problems include:
Looks like: barking, lunging, snapping at visitors/strangers/other dogs
Might be caused by: fear, anxiety, past traumatic experiences
Looks like: barking at “normal” sounds, stress signals such as shaking, drooling
Might be caused by: traumatic experiences, pain
Looks like: aggressive behaviour such as growling, snapping to guard things such as the dog’s own personal space, a person, food, toys etc.
Might be caused by: insecurity, fear, limited resources
Looks like: vocalisation and destructive behaviour when left alone, stress signals when they think someone is about to leave such
Might be caused by: insecurity, stressful experience of being left alone in the past
How do behavioural issues differ from regular training?
Regular training is usually focused on teaching a dog how to perform a specific behaviour and then building on that skill by putting it “on cue,” so we can let our dogs know when we would like them to do it, as well as proofing it in different environments, around different distractions etc.
Behavioural work, on the other hand, is needed to address problem behaviours caused by our dog's emotional state. A behavioural consultation should include an in-depth discussion to determine what is causing the dog’s issues. Once a cause has been identified, it is not as simple as just teaching the dog to do something different – just as for a human it isn’t useful to tell someone to simply “calm down” when they are experiencing a panic attack, simply cuing another behaviour won’t resolve a dog’s stress. Behaviour work will look to address the cause of the problem and implement an ongoing plan to support the dog, ensuring their emotional needs are met and beginning to build positive associations, develop their confidence etc. as appropriate. Every behaviour case is different - there is no one size fits all.
What process should you expect?
A behavioural consultation should be designed to support you and your dog in dealing with a complex behavioural problem and therefore will include several stages to ensure the behaviourist has all the necessary information and is able to create a bespoke training plan that will be effective for you and your dog’s needs.
You should expect that a behavioural consultation may be conducted via telephone and/or video link – this is becoming more and more commonplace. While many people can feel reluctant to work with a behaviourist via the phone/internet and are often keen for a trainer to visit them and their dog, this can actually be detrimental to the process. The presence of a stranger in the home/environment often alters a dog’s behaviour, and a behaviourist also shouldn’t need or want to see a dog exhibit the problem behaviour(s). A qualified behaviourist knows what a reactive, anxious, guarding etc. dog looks like and it would be unhelpful and unethical to deliberately distress the dog just to see what they do – as well as potentially unsafe!
Typically, behaviourists will ask you to fill out some kind of questionnaire prior to your initial conversation so they can get some information about the problems you and your dog are dealing with and have some idea of what may be a potential cause and how they may want to address it.
Your behaviourist will analyse this information prior to speaking to you, and your initial consultation with them should give you time to speak more in-depth about the problem. Behaviourists will ask you for details about your dog’s life – this may include things like their day-to-day routine, their diet, medical history, how long the behaviours have been occurring, when and where they occur, what things you have already tried to resolve the problem and more. They will then be able to advise you on initial steps required to begin helping your dog.
Following your consultation, your behaviourist will be able to make any relevant vet referrals – many behavioural problems can be caused by illness or pain which will need to be resolved before we can expect any positive progress. Even if this is not the case, sometimes medicinal support is needed to help a dog if they have, for example, severe anxiety. You will be able to begin implementing the advice given in your initial consultation and your behaviourist will also be able to put together a full training plan based on your discussion.
It is common to then have a further consultation with your behaviourist, to discuss the training plan and ensure you understand what you are doing, how to do it and that it works for you. Your behaviourist may then feed back to vets or any other professionals involved in the process, if needed.
Behavioural issues by their nature take time to work through and resolve, so some level of ongoing support should be offered as part of your consultation. However, you may also require follow up appointments if you are dealing with a particularly severe behavioural issue.
Why are behavioural consultation more expensive than normal training?
As we’ve discussed, a behavioural consultation should be significantly more in-depth and time consuming than a simple training session. Additionally, a behavioural session should only be offered by a fully qualified behaviourist. Unfortunately, the industry is unregulated and there are many unqualified individuals calling themselves behaviourist and offering behavioural support – however, a qualified behaviourist will have spent years studying to achieve their qualifications and accreditations.
In addition to years of initial study, a good behaviourist will also conduct annual CPD in order to expand their knowledge and keep it up to date – behavioural science is an exciting and ever-developing field and a passionate behaviourist will be keen to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest research and can provide you and your dog with the very best advice and help.
When you pay for a behavioural consultation, you are paying not only for the huge amount of time that the behaviourist will put into going through your questionnaire, working directly with you and liaising with vets etc, but also their ongoing investment into their career and years of training.
How effective is behavioural work?
Many people are, understandably, disillusioned about the effectiveness of working with a behaviourist. This is because, as I’ve mentioned, many people are out there offering behavioural work when they themselves are not qualified to do so. Not only do these people not resolve the problems they are being paid to help with, they sometimes make the problem even worse due to offering advice without fully understanding the implications of their methods.
However, behavioural support being provided by a qualified professional is highly effective. As we’ve already discussed, behavioural science is an ever-developing field and we now understand a huge amount about how dogs learn and behave. Behavioural issues are complex and require dedication and commitment from you as the dog owner, as well as a willingness to follow your behaviourist’s advice and seek out their support if you are struggling. The difference you can make to your dog’s quality of life when committing to implementing a bespoke plan provided by a qualified behaviourist can be absolutely astounding – many people far exceed the expectations they had for their dog!