Anyone who has cared for a loved one knows that being a carer can be tough at times. Caring for a child with special needs, an elderly relative, partner with mental health; whatever the need of the person, being their carer can often be challenging. It is no different if you care for a dog with issues, and it is important that as professionals we remember this.
Many behavioural issues are rooted in the animals’ fear and anxiety and they may communicate this through behaviours such as barking, lunging or even biting. Having a dog that presents like this can be particularly tough on the owner. They love their dog and they know how loving their dog can be in return, yet feel a whole host of emotions when the dog reacts in this way. Owners have told me they can feel guilt, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, frustration etc. They see others enjoying their dogs doing ‘normal’ things that they are unable to do with their own dog. It can be really tough at times.
Owning a reactive dog is similar to being the carer for a child with special needs, or a partner with social phobias, etc. Carers of humans who are prone to stress and over arousal know the challenges of trying to manage situations enough to keep the child/adult feeling safe and able to cope. Just like in these human examples the owner of a reactive dog has to start by recognising their dog reacts in this way because they are experiencing some sort of sensory, social or environmental overload. This is causing the stress response that then triggers the behaviour. It is a big undertaking for any owner to try and control and manage the dog’s social and environmental triggers whilst also trying to help the dog, over time, cope better in those situations. It must seem so overwhelming at times. So, the challenges and emotions attached to caring for a dog with issues are no different to those of any carer.
If we truly get this, then we should not be giving owners a hard time because of the methods they have used or any negative/difficult attitude they might have.
It is easy to judge owners who turn to aversives to address problematic behaviour. I have seen many a person get jumped on when talking on social media about the approaches they adopt. We should never judge an owner for using, often in desperation, aversive methods they genuinely believe might help their dog. They do so without knowing the reality of the issues their dogs have, having watched certain TV shows, read certain books etc. Culturally, especially in the West, we are brought up with the notion of dominance model training, of putting dogs in their place and using harsh punishments should the dog ‘misbehave’. I totally get why an owner would look for that quick fix, try something they’ve seen on the TV or follow the advice of someone because ‘it worked for them’. I can see why someone might feel overwhelmed with the process offered to them. I can also appreciate why some people feel so overwhelmed they might consider giving the dog up (worth remembering that people can give up on partners and family members as well).
If we recognise how truly hard being a caregiver is, how desperate and isolated that can make people feel, then we must show empathy and understanding and not try and guilt trip them into what has already happened. As science led, force free behavioural practitioners we are there to give that education, to provide a sound diagnosis and then offer and provide the support they desperately need. This is made more difficult if we start by making the owner feel more guilt about the methods they have tried before, or judge them harshly for decisions they might have made.
If a professional does not understand the stress of being a caregiver, or how that affects the behaviour of the owner, they are unlikely to be very tolerant of their attitude. If the owner is difficult, rude, dismissive, etc, there could be many reasons for this. Many of my clients are desperate, frustrated, isolated or angry by the time I meet them. They may have sought advice before and been given outdated information or found little support from the trainer. They may be suspicious, scared or unsure of the process. So many things can be behind their behaviour. I was surprised, and disappointed, to read an article by a leading dog trainer who was advising that the trainer should have a zero tolerance approach towards rude and difficult owners. I find this interesting, as if the professional knows about behaviour and how it is driven by emotional response, it seems crazy to recognise that in the dog and not be tolerant of the same process occurring for the owner. Obviously we have to draw the line at physical abuse, and yes, sometimes despite our best efforts we can find it hard to win some people over, but in my experience that is very rare. It is a crucial part of the professional’s skill set to have empathy and understanding of the owner’s emotional needs, and adapt to those in order to provide the right level of support. Gone are the days when it was enough that the professional was good with dogs but not with people. In my opinion you are unable to undertake behavioural work if you are not able to show that empathy and flexibility when supporting the owner.
In my mind we HAVE to care for the carer just as much as we want to help the dog. In order to do this properly we have to recognise the psychological dynamics of being a carer, the emotional, physical and mental stresses that brings. We have to always stay mindful to the emotional and physical needs, sensitivities and limitations of the owner, keeping them in their comfort zone and below their threshold, just as we try to do for the dog. We have to stay empathetic to their situation and not be so precious as to be affronted if they might be a bit difficult sometimes. We must, at all times, make sure we are fully caring for the carer as part of the process of helping the dog, as this is needed to achieve best outcomes.
NOTE: I totally have issues with professionals who advocate aversive methods. There are enough sources of information and educational opportunities for professionals to learn the science behind behaviour, so there is no excuse for peddling dominance-model, punishment led, outdated and often abusive methods.
I am very lucky to represent an organisation that puts the needs of the dog and the owner at the heart of everything we do. INTODogs professionals follow a Dog Centred Care approach, which has a huge emphasis on the emotional wellbeing of the dog and their human carers. By employing an INTODogs professional or an ICAN Certified Animal Behaviourist or ICAN Certified Animal Trainer you can be assured they will recognise your needs just as much as those of your dogs.
By Andrew Hale Bsc (Hons)
C.A.B (Certified Animal Behaviourist) ICAN
C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist)
Chair of Association of INTOdogs www.intodogs.org
Behaviour consultant RSPCA Little Valley
Team Member ISCP