Changing Behaviour

Published: Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Mar 23, 2015, 08.26 PM IST

What is often perceived as “behavioural issues” with dog is just the tip of an iceberg. “Training” away such behaviours is like chipping away just the tip.

What’s under it and how it all will manifest might then come as a shock. It’s important to first assess what is causing the behaviour. But getting a full idea of what is going on is the challenge.

Look at the whole issue like layers of the soil and some toxic leak under the layers. If the leak is close to the surface, then it spreads intensely and in a small radius. It is easy to spot, to quickly get to the bottom of it all and eradicate the problem. But if the leak is deep down, then the spread is very wide, like a large cone, it’s sparsely distributed. It will give rise to small, seemingly unrelated problems in such vastly different areas that seeing the link between them all and tracing the source is extremely difficult.

It’s the same with behavioural issues. There are at least three layers to consider – environmental stressors, entrenched habits and health. Close to the surface are occasional stressors in the environment. Repeated stressors of this kind could manifest in some “behavioural issue”. If identified early, the stressors can be removed or avoided and the problems just go away. Eg: Escape the Diwali stress and your dog is very unlikely to show odd behaviour during or after the festivities. Finding alternative walk paths can make walks a lot more pleasant. Putting a sign outside that says “Please don’t ring the doorbell” and asking guests to call you instead takes away the loud-shrill-doorbell-stressor.

If you are struggling with identifying the stressor or having removed the stressor did not have the expected results, it’s perhaps a problem at a layer deeper – habits. These have wide consequences. Removing the stressor does not work because that’s no more the root cause. The root cause is now a habit that has been cultivated by repeated exposure to the stressor. It has moved further into the dog’s mind and has consequences beyond the presence of a stressor.

Eg: Repeated exposure to stressful walks could have resulted in erratic walking habits. Habits are broken by taking away the opportunity to engage in the habit for three weeks. It’s not about training. It’s about an alternative lifestyle for a month where the dog does not get an opportunity to engage in the habit. You know your lifestyle best. So grab a pen and paper and start writing – list down all situations where your dog displays the habit. Identify ways to modify or avoid each situation. Behaviourists often have a collection of ideas that they can share. But eventually, the solution will be uniquely yours and owned by you.

The trickiest is the deepest layer – health. If a dog is in constant pain or in poor mental condition, then all bets are off. No training or management can ensure predictable behaviour. Understanding the link between the ailment and behavioural issues is difficult. But if you are seeing several seemingly unrelated behavioural issues despite having made an entire lifestyle change to remove all the identified stressors, then you can bet that this has something to do with physical or mental health. Both most likely fixable if identified precisely and in time. But by the time we get there, it can do so much damage to the dog, the family, relationships and life in general that sometimes it seems irreparable. That’s only because we have not had a handle on what is the root cause. But trust me when I say that as a behaviourist, all I do is to help clients identify the source of the problem. Clients are surprisingly capable of handling the situation entirely on their own and my services immediately become unnecessary to them. It’s doable. 

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