Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
It’s a truism among people who do what I do that “it’s not the dogs, it’s the people.” In fact, there’s even a good book by that title about running a behavior consulting business. (The author is Nicole Wilde, CPDT). The truism reflects that it’s generally pretty easy to get the dogs to do what we want… but getting the people to change their behavior, or beliefs, can be a real bear.
Of course, we see many wonderful clients. We see clients who are already well up-to-date on modern behavioral methods, who are already able (or ready to learn) how to use a clicker effectively, and who actually do what we recommend. We have clients who are funny, wise, charming, earnest. Some clients become friends.
No doubt, though… some clients do not make things so easy. Some have elaborate, and unuseful-to-dangerous, belief systems about what their dogs are thinking and why they are doing whatever it is that they are doing. I’m willing to grant that dogs may be jealous or angry. I do not think, however, that dogs “think” they are “big dogs.” I don’t think dogs behave spitefully or vengefully, choosing to pee on the floor to punish us for leaving them alone for for yelling at them the day before. I do not think that dogs see us as their wolf-parent and I do not think that peeing over your dog’s spot in the yard is going to prove anything useful to your dog.
There are two types of client I find particularly challenging. One type are the “yes-butters.” Now, I myself can be a champion at the “yeahbut” game, and I know how genuine all those “buts” can feel when you are the one offering them. But I also know that if you can’t make some kind of change, I probably can’t help you.
Some people have a lot more real barriers than others. A recent client couple was in an unenviable double bind. They had adopted a female dog of their accustomed breed, and she turned out to be terrified of the husband. He adopted a male of the same breed for his companion… who turned out to have separation anxiety and confinement phobia. The husband made one dog miserable if he stayed home, and the other miserable if he left, and to top it off, he had a degenerative illness that made it truly very difficult to do the intensive type of behavior modification protocols needed for both dogs’ issues. These clients did step up to the plate, but trying to find solutions that could actually work really stretched my brain.
Clients like this tend to make me feel more frustrated with the people whose barriers to change are more chosen and less imposed. For example, if the dog is barking in the front yard, and lunging at all the dogs and people who pass by, but if the client refuses to put the dog in the house (he will get on the furniture), or in a crate (we don’t have room/I don’t like the way it looks) or fence the backyard (we like to share the yard with our neighbor), my ability to help is very limited.
And then there is the second challenging category: cases where I am expected to be the arbiter in a family dispute. Again, I see degrees. The common case where Spouse A thinks the dog is afraid, Spouse B thinks the dog is just being manipulative, and the couple have agreed to go with my assessment, rarely causes much stress. Usually we can set up the situation and have the spouses observe body language closely; fear (usually what’s going on here) is generally quite visible once you know what you are looking at. We occasionally see cases where one spouse really has a pretty good idea what to do, but the other doesn’t take that spouse seriously; hearing it from a paid professional often obtains compliance and clarity and puts an end to conflict.
Sometimes it’s a little less pleasant. In that last case, for example, perhaps the noncomplying spouse is going to continue not to comply, but the spouse who knows what to do is going to use my assessment to bully the noncomplying spouse (who is probably noncomplying because he or she is sick of being bullied….). I can’t fix that, and it’s not my job to try, but in the end, my concern is that the dog suffers.
Sometimes, it is really ugly. When a wife’s dog is resource guarding her when she goes to bed, and refuses to allow the husband in the bedroom or on the bed, there is a problem. If one spouse would rather have the dog bite the other spouse than simply putting the dog into a crate (not to mention doing some training), the marriage is in deep trouble and I am certainly not qualified (and have no desire) to counsel this couple. And yet, the wife (or worse, both spouses) may see this as a “dog problem” and blame the consultant for failing to fix it post-haste! Likewise, we sometimes see very rough or very fearful dogs who have bitten, or certainly will bite, the kids, being maintained in the home with access to the children. How this could not lead to years of therapy for those poor kids is beyond me.
This isn’t to say that every case of a dog resource guarding the owner on the bed, or a dog living with kids he has bitten, involves troubled owners — far from it! Sometimes the owners truly don’t grasp the risk, or haven’t figured out what to do about it yet. Many owners are struggling with balancing the real needs of their family members and the real needs of the dog. For example, if the dog is threatening the husband from the bed because the husband has tried to “alpha roll” the dog for growling in this context, it seems less likely that the dog is being used as a pawn in a struggle and more likely that understanding the dog and knowing what to do (and not to do) will actually resolve the problem for all concerned.
I’d like to think that sometimes, my intervention on behalf of the dog actually does help mend relationships sometimes. It always feels good to say, “well, she’s right about this, but he’s right about that. And here’s what we’re going to do next.” Sometimes, even if one spouse has been resistant (and annoying to the other spouse), my recommendations work for the resistant spouse. If that resistance diminishes, the couple can work together to help the dog get better – a win/win/win situation. Sometimes, just “giving permission” for one spouse to drop out of training the dog altogether relieves a great deal of stress. (“Bob can use the front-hook harness to walk Fluffy. You can practice loose leash walking when it’s your turn. Fluffy stops practicing pulling on her collar, and at least she’ll learn to walk nicely with you.” And the couple can stop arguing over Bob’s abysmal failure to avoid letting Fluffy haul him around on the leash.)
I know none of my readers would ever embroil me in a marital dispute, of course!