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Canine Behavior Modification: Taking the Long View

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Dog seen from back looking down the road

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to live with dogs with behavior issues. I’ve had dogs with fear issues, aggression issues, resource guarding issues, separation anxiety…the list goes on. I always wonder if the Universe somehow arranges it so these dogs end up with those who can/will deal with them, especially when the dogs might otherwise end up homeless or euthanized. And of course, it makes us better trainers in the process.

I was commenting online the other day about how far Bodhi has come in the year-plus that we’ve had him. My friend Angela Wong in Malaysia responded, “Another testimony that patience, perseverance and consistency are some of they key factors in rewards-based training. Fear issues don’t just disappear overnight, just as how it didn’t develop overnight in the first place!” And you know, she’s right. It can be so difficult to see significant changes when you live with a dog every day, especially since big changes are normally made of a string of small, subtle changes that connect and build upon themselves. It’s easy to feel that nothing you’re doing is having an effect, especially when we live in a culture of instant gratification. But taking the long view, things do change.

It’s easy to forget that when Sierra first came to live with us after having been in the shelter four times, although she was sweet and friendly, she was also shut down in certain ways. If I gave the hand signal for stay, she’d cringe and look as though I was going to strike her. She was afraid or somehow unwilling to try to excavate a Kong, and I kept making things easier and easier for her (peanut butter smeared on a bully stick, for example), until she felt it was okay to try. She’s still a sensitive dog, but nowadays she knows a bunch of tricks, is a willing and enthusiastic participant in training sessions, and can get anything you can put into a Kong—frozen or not—out in no time flat.

My husband and I both suspect that Bodhi was abused. I’m the first to say that people jump to that conclusion all too easily when adopting a dog, but the way he’d flinch whenever my husband would move his foot just a bit spoke volumes. Bodhi was afraid of my husband for the first couple of months, but slowly warmed up to the point that now, he and Sierra good-naturedly battle it out for my husband’s attention each night when he gets home from work.

While on leash, Bodhi used to lunge and bark at other dogs. It seemed as though behavior modification took forever, and I changed tactics a bunch of times along the way, always striving to match the technique to what was needed at the time. The worst was when we’d walk both dogs together, as not only was Bodhi reactive, but Sierra would actually resource guard dogs who were at a distance, and would begin snapping and snarling at Bodhi. So whenever we see a dog coming, we create some distance between ourselves so as not to pass the dog at the same time.

Over time, we’ve been able to close this gap a bit, although the behavior is still not to where I’d like it to be. I have to say, though, that Bodhi has come a long way in being able to pass by other dogs, and thanks to a few different men we see on our regular morning park visits who give him treats, Bodhi has now taken to going up to strange men to solicit food and attention. And many times these men have dogs—who Bodhi totally ignores! Okay, so the mugging for treats is not the best manners (and I do ask that they tell him to sit first), but coming from a dog who was deathly afraid of men, I’ll take it. And Bodhi can usually walk past smaller dogs fairly calmly now, although large dogs are still a bit of a challenge and take more wrangling.

Although I don’t walk around thinking about how far the dogs have come, maybe I should sometimes. If you’ve been working on a long-term behavior issue with your own dogs, maybe you should, too. It’s true that patience, perseverance, and consistency are key. And taking the long view now and then helps to keep you motivated, and grateful for the progress you’ve made.


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