Written by Laure-Anne Visele, 19 May 2020. Photo credits at the end of the post.
It’s early in the morning and my coffee hasn’t kicked in. I try to unfog my brains as I wait at my client’s front door. This should go smoothly. I have left safety instructions and I have SMS’ed in advance so the dog doesn’t get all wound up by the doorbell.
The door opens and my brains kick-start with a jolt: “Hello, snarling, growling, lunging dog. A fine morning to you too”. “We wanted you to see the problem behaviour,” they say, as the dog digs his teeth in my leg. On the plus side, I am now fully awake.
I understand the sentiment: “Sure a behaviourist will want to see the problem with their own eyes.” Actually, that’s not really how we work. Just like a child psychologist, we neither need nor want to see a tantrum.
Here’s why dog behaviourists don’t always need to see the dog’s behaviour
The ‘helpdesk effect’, aka the ‘world’s most expensive walk’
Your dog can lunge and bark and growl every second of every day but I can pretty much guarantee that, as soon as we need to see it, he won’t do it. It’s like magic. I call it “the helpdesk effect”, better known as “sod’s law”. You know how, whenever you call the helpdesk, your computer magically works again, only to go on the fritz as soon as you’ve hung up? Same with dog behaviour problems. It’s as if the dog sensed it was a test.
So there we are, taking the world’s most awkward (and expensive) stroll together.
Dog behaviourists also bleed
Not to make too fine a point of it but I also hurt when I get bitten by a dog. Sometimes, my clients assume I have an easy out of an aggression situation but no one does. Just to be entirely clear: given a choice and all things duly considered, I have a clear preference for not getting bitten.
It gets my relation with your dog off to a (very) iffy start
If I need to see your dog again and he got riled up and stressed out the first time he met me, it doesn’t exactly bode well for follow-up training sessions – the aim of which is to… teach the dog to relax in the presence of the trigger. Provoking the aggression at our first meeting would only work to exacerbating the issue next time the dog sees me.
Problem behaviour = animal suffering
If your dog was going to lunge and growl at other dogs on a walk anyway, fine. Film it when it happens. This information is absolutely precious.
But for me to actually encourage you to put the dog in that situation just so I can gather information flirts with an invisible ethical boundary.
Problem behaviour is, in 99% of the cases, your dog’s suffering bubbling up to the surface. I am not comfortable with deliberately putting your dog in a horrible situation for the sake of data quality; especially knowing that these walks inevitably escalate to: “He normally reacts much more strongly. Let’s get him closer so you can see it at its full intensity.” because of the Helpdesk effect.
Behaviourists can unlock new behaviour
I, like all dog behaviourists, am trained to give off reassuring body language. It is second nature to ooze out reassurance by the bucketload if a dog is scared/tense. This can hugely skew your dog’s reaction, thereby:
- The dog does not get aggressive in a situation where he normally would have been (most common scenario)
- My reassuring body language makes the dog bolder in his aggressive displays and you end up having to say words you’d wished you’d never had to say: “He’s never done this before. I don’t understand. Are you OK?”
Behaviourists don’t have a doggie ‘off’ button
So imagine that, despite all these arguments, we still riled up the dog so I get to see the behaviour. What do we do now? Unfortunately, I can’t press a doggie ‘off’ button to calm him down once I have the information. Result? You spend the rest of our – frequently interrupted – consultation managing the dog’s behaviour rather than getting to listen to the advice you were hoping to get.
Because behaviourist can’t stretch time
Don’t get me wrong: observing the dog’s problem behaviour in real-life WOULD give me incredibly good information. I would love to happen to walk by and get to observe it without any of the problems I mention above.
But planning for this would cut a significant chunk of our already very limited consultation time – all the more so if we have to walk on the street to see the behaviour. This comes at the cost of gathering equally important information like a solid diagnostic interview and reviewing frame-by-frame video’s of the behaviour together.
It is challenging to cram all that needs to be done within one behaviourist appointment and keep the service affordable. Factoring in an indefinite amount of extra time for live observation is often just not realistic.
So how do I make my assessment?
- I take a solid diagnostic interview: I ask pointed questions that unearth patterns behind your dog’s behaviour.
- Before we see each other, I ask you to gather up footage of the problem behaviour for a few days (asking you to film specific body parts so we don’t miss any body language clues). We then review this together frame-by-frame.
- I might want to trigger a safer and less stressful proxy of the problem behaviour as a test, in a controlled way, to establish the problem’s provocation threshold.
I know it sounds surprising and but I honestly don’t always need to see the dog’s problem behaviour to help you, particularly if seeing it means an upset dog, risk of injury, or disturbing the consultation process. It is kind of like a doctor does not need to see you sneeze to know you have a cold.
How to make an appointment?
If you are experiencing a problem with your dog’s behaviour and you have tried just about every tip on the internet, you can book an appointment for evidence-based and animal-friendly dog behaviour advice from wherever you are in the world: