Sunday, August 4, 2013

THE BLAME GAME




          
One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game.  As a society, we love this game.  If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog.  Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs.  Blame is lots of fun.


I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour.  Blaming people for the problem just isn't helpful.  Blame doesn't change the behaviour.  Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed.  Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo



As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game.  It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems.  It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information.  The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed.  As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour. 

It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame.  If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem.  If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu.  How many pups were in her litter?  At what age did she come home from the breeder’s?  Did she go to puppy class?  What have Larry and Lucy tried already?  When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy?  In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work.  If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues.  That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises.  If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control.  If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately.  Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that.  If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly.  If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.

Dogs who are ill often don't make great behavioural decisions.  Getting sick is no one's fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn't help.  Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours.  Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo


The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour.  Why does this behaviour keep happening?  Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door.  She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people.  Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour.  She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “They do it to get attention” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.
Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts.  The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour.  With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor.  I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting.  We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do.  Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand.  I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour.  When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up.  I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately.  Still...no blame.



Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting.  If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance.  Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn.  There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again.  I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.

Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age.  Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection.  None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.

Prevention is always the best cure.  We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients.  As we learn more, we do better.  We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us.  When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help.  They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help.  As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn't be a part of the program; it just isn't going to help.  Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame.  I need information, but not so that I can assign blame.  I need to know things in order to formulate a solution.  People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn't taking responsibility when they ought to.  If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn't belong there as a part of the process.


2 comments:

  1. This is a nice positive attitude that's comforting to me as a new dog owner (who's hoping to do your classes in the fall). One month into life with our new family member, I sometimes feel like I'm not doing things right. I absolutely would like to prevent problems, but in the case that we do have any issues I'd like a supportive trainer who can help me to resolve them.

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  2. We are looking forward to meeting you!

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