Learning to ‘think dog’

Helen Goodall, dog behaviourist

Helen Goodall, dog behaviourist - Credit: Archant

Helen Goodall, of Dogs Behaving Badly, examines the all-important bond between dogs and owners

The bond we share with our dogs is unique. The relationship and connection they make with us is a vital part of their wellbeing.

Part of my job as a behaviourist is to enhance bonding through greater understanding, helping owners to ‘think dog’ and to be confident in guiding their dog to better behaviour. Another part is listening to the owner’s experiences as they know the patterns of their dog’s behaviour in-depth. To help an owner with what is sometimes very challenging behaviour and to support them through the process is essential.

When presented with difficult behaviour, it is important to understand a dog’s instinct and the behaviour he or she displays. It is common for an owner to feel their dog is being deliberately difficult, or that they react to and show unnecessary fear of things that make sense to us.

Common fears such as being fearful at the vets, are understandable but more subtle fear reactions can cause misunderstanding. For example, some dogs are seemingly happy to interact and play with others off lead, but then become aggressive while on a lead. Others react to a passing car, but are perfectly happy to travel in one. My labrador is unfazed by gunshot, but hides in his bed if I drop a saucepan.

How we interpret these fears and our own reaction to them, can cause confusion for the dog or actually reinforce the reaction itself.

When the reaction is minor, a simple remedy can be practised in the form of distraction and a learnt calming aid. For example, the simple obedience command of ‘sit and stay’ can help a dog relax. With practice, the dog improves its ability to focus and listen to the owner’s guidance and gradually learning self-control.

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Rewarding correct behaviour with verbal praise or a food reward can help maintain a good response. Praise is also positive, helping him readily want to repeat what you ask. With repetition, when he is presented with the fear trigger, he starts to look to the owner for guidance and the positive marker.

Once I have worked with the owner and their dog on implementing a therapy programme, the owner is the main influence in the behaviour modification. It takes patience and dedication – there is hardly ever a reliable quick fix. But once positive experiences between the two start to build, the dog learns to rely on the owner for comfort and guidance, trusting they can help in times of fear or threat.

The dog can become more willing to make eye contact with the owner, and enjoy responding to the owner’s requests, such as recall when off lead. Seeing an owner gain confidence in dealing with challenging situations, is incredibly rewarding. It is empowering for the owner and allows the dog to learn in a new way, using the very important tool of trust, instead of simply reacting.


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