Blog post by The Hague dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele about the profession of Hondengedragstherapeut
Photo credits at the end of the post
My grandmother was born in 1919. She grew up on a farm just after World War One with pigs and cows and… dogs.
Her mother’s reaction? Slap her 4-year-old daughter for being so stupid.
One of them bit her dad (as he was being beaten up). “It was a bad dog,” my grandma explained, “so we chained him in the yard.” When she was little, that dog also bit her (while she petted him as the dog was eating). Her mother’s reaction? Slap her 4-year-old daughter for being so stupid. Working on a dog’s behaviour problem was unthinkable back then.
Nowadays fewer and fewer ‘misbehaving’ dogs need to be chained, beaten, abandonned or put down thanks to the rise of a new profession: dog behaviourists.
But how much has changed? Is working on a dog’s behaviour problem as unthinkable now as it was back then? Fast forward 100 years and…
… I was on holiday in Germany last week (in 2019!) and got chatting to a dog owner. He told me that his dog couldn’t stay home alone for even one minute without trashing everything. This had been a problem for 9 years and it had never crossed his mind to seek help. I told him that this was a classic problem that dog behaviourists are trained to help with, he found the idea ridiculous!
So why this resistance? It comes down to assumptions about the profession. We behaviourists haven’t done a great job at communicating to the public what it is we do.
Here’s my attempt at redressing the situation.
Myth #1: Dog behaviour problems are always the dog owner’s fault
I get cranky when I hear that because it is insulting to the dog owners who get in touch with us. There is nothing wrong with the way they raise their dog. As luck (and genetics, and early environment) would have it, they ended up with a dog that came with a set of special instructions.
It is no more the owner’s fault than it is a parent’s fault if their kid has autism (or, in the case of dogs, fights with other dogs). Sure some dogs (and kids) are hopelessly spoilt. But people who come to us have already tried the commonsense stuff.
It is no more the owner’s fault than it is a parent’s fault if their kid has autism
Try as you might, if your dog has had a terrible start in life (e.g. imported from Romania) and is constantly scared on the street, obedience training won’t do the trick. Same story if your Labradoodle won’t leave your guests alone for one second and keeps jumping up against them for the entire visit. That Labradoodle is so sensitive to the smallest stimulation that you won’t get anywhere shouting at it to sit.
Many dog behaviour problems (through a mix of genetics and environment) go beyond what commonsense or obedience training can achieve. Long gone are the days when we would beat up (human) mental health patients or chalk it down to incompetent parents. The treatment of dogs’ behaviour problems is following in the same tracks.
Nowadays, we know that many dogs’ behaviour problems are absolutely not your fault, and specialist help is available.
Myth #2: Dog behaviour therapy is pseudoscience
To be a (qualified) dog behaviourist, one that is allowed to join professional organisations, you need a recognized (BSc level) certification. Some like myself overshoot the mark and get a relevant university degree first (in my case, Zoology), and then a postgraduate specialism (mine was in companion animal behaviour). You can read more about my credentials here.
A dog behaviourist certification teaches you to look at dog behaviour through a scientific lens. We learn, among other things, about:
- Behaviour pathologies: how to recognize and treat them;
- Dog ethology: the ‘natural’, species-typical and age-typical behaviour and needs of dogs;
- The effect of food and exercise on behaviour, and what is fact versus fiction on that topic;
- The behavioural signs of an underlying medical problem.
Having had dogs all your life or being ‘good with dogs’ does not qualify you to give dog behaviour advice. To do this responsibly, you need a solid education in dog behaviour. You need to know the best practices and the latest developments in the field.
Myth #3: A behaviourist session is uncomfortable or embarrassing
The sessions are run in an informal, fun, understanding atmosphere. Zero judgement.
The way we see it? You are doing the right thing by getting professional help and we are your biggest fan for it.
Myth #4: A dog behaviourist is expensive
It’s not free, I’ll give you that. You pay for the years of studies and for the fact that we do this full-time (with the experience that goes with it). You pay for the one-on-one attention and the convenience of an in-house appointment. And you pay for 2+ hours of a specialist’s time.
If you think it costs a lot of money to hire a professional, try hire an amateur.
But it’s also not going to break the bank for most working families. For about 200 euros, you can get a two-hour-long in-house session, a written summary, detailed practical instructions and 6 weeks of follow-up help.
If the behaviourist is approved by the University of Utrecht (we are), this is even reimbursed by most pet insurance companies (check your policy).
And then, try to think of it that way: If you think it costs a lot of money to hire a professional, try hire an amateur. If you’re going to get specialist help, it’s nice to know that the advice is evidence-based and not just one voice out of many conflicting opinions.
Myth #5: It’s silly to contact a behaviourist for x or y
The general rule of thumb is: the earlier you call, the less work you’ll have in fixing it.
If you are not sure whether behaviour therapy is the way to go, drop us a line. If we think a behaviour advice session is overshoot, we’ll tell you honestly (and we’ll give you free basic advice to try independently first). But whatever you do, do not let a problem drag on.
If you are experiencing one of the following situations, it’s definitely time to get in touch. Your dog’s behaviour…
- Is not getting better, and you feel you’ve tried the commonsense stuff,
- Is stressing you out/worrying you/ embarrassing you;
- Is constraining your life – e.g. you are no longer carefree when you have guests over, when you walk the dog, or when you leave the house; or
- Is scaring people (other dogs or their owners, yourself, or a family member) or making them nervous.
These are typical problems for which people call us: “My dog cries when he’s home alone,” or “He growls when you approach his food/the couch,” or “He is aggressive to other dogs when on the leash.” or “He is constantly scared.”
It takes the average person SIX MONTHS to get in touch. This is six months’ worth of unnecessary suffering and worsening of the problem.
How it works
Just drop us a quick mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) saying what you’d like help with. We’ll send you a quick form to fill in so we get a good idea of the dog’s behaviour.
We then come to your house to observe the dog and ask you more questions about the problems. After about an hour of that, we’ll explain the issue, what causes it, and what the options are. We’ll tell you what we recommend and explain why.
We’ll also send you a summary with detailed instructions on the exercises on the spot, so that you do not have to wait for weeks to know what to do. There’s no such thing as a quick fix so we might recommend some changes to your routine, but we adapt this to your circumstances and keep it to an absolute minimum.
After the session, you can choose for follow-up practical sessions (one-on-one training/praktijksessie aan huis) to put you on the right track and give you confidence with practice. We keep this short (1x 45-min. session per week) and limited in time (max. 4 weeks).
After that, we don’t just walk away. We keep supporting you for 6 weeks through progress cards. You fill it in once per week and we give you follow-up advice. This should take you no more than 5 minutes / week.
Photo and text credits
- Dog on a chain: Courtesy of Vicart26. Downloaded on 26 April 2019 from Pixabay. License: Pixabay.
- Animal magnetism print: Taken from E. Sibly, A Key To Physic and the Occult Sciences, 1814. – Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James, Princeton University Press, 1999. License: CC0.
- “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur” by Red Adair