Most people can easily recognize and define a dog trainer: someone who trains a dog to do certain skills on cue. These are usually discrete skills, such as sit, retrieve, or identify a controlled substance at the airport.
A behavior consultant has additional education and expertise, and targets the animal’s underlying emotions. While the dog may learn specific tasks in a behavior modification program, the skills and techniques are chosen for their ability to reduce emotions such as fear, frustration, aggression, and anxiety. These emotions are both normal and useful in some contexts, but negatively impact the animal’s quality of life when they appear in certain situations or at certain frequencies.
For example, if someone breaks into your home, you may appreciate your dog’s offensive reaction. However, when the neighbor stops over to say hi, the last thing you want is for your dog to be aggressive. And which scenario happens more often? In fact, many people mistakenly believe their dog is being a “good guard dog”, when instead the dog is fearful and does not have the tools to identify a safe situation from a truly scary situation. This behavior makes the dog a risk to the community, and to himself - a poor decision that results in a bite will have serious consequences for the dog. Behavior consultants work with these dogs to help them feel calm, relaxed, and to be physiologically prepared to behave as a good citizen.
For this reason, physical corrections and other punishments are not advised in training programs because they may build and strengthen unwanted emotions that then derail the training program.1 As you would expect, such methods must be absolutely avoided in a behavior modification program, as they are directly in opposition to the goal of the program: replacing maladaptive emotions with adaptive (in this case, positive) emotions.2,3,4
While using rewards in training often builds positive emotions, it is important to note that even then you can create undesirable emotions. For example, if your training is unclear, your animal may become very frustrated and upset. You can also facilitate too much arousal, resulting in an over-excited and unmanageable dog. While these issues are not uncommon in pet dogs, they generally carry less risk and are easier to overcome than problems associated with fear and aggression.
Great trainers consider emotions in their training plan, and you’ll notice that they encourage calm instead of frantic responses, give the animal time to relax during the training session, and are careful to avoid unnecessary stress. However, not all trainers consider emotions, and it is possible to train a desired skill while developing an undesirable emotional response.
As an example, a poorly run reactive dog class can train dogs to sit and give attention to their owners while another dog passes nearby. But if those dogs are still tense, yawning, and paws sweating, we’ll know that the class has done nothing to address the fear and anxiety that those dogs feel. It is very likely that those emotions will remain a problem, even if we have the discrete training skills that we wanted.
As a side note, I want to mention that we do teach sit and attention, as they are important management tools to have. However, they are not the primary goal of our behavior modification programs.
For quite some time, it was deemed unscientific to discuss animal emotions. We have a word for this - anthropomorphism - defined as the attribution of human emotions and traits to animals. It is true that we need to consider that our animal learner sees the world in a very different way, due to physiological and psychological differences in perception and processing. We know that dog vision is very different from ours with regard to color perception, visual acuity, and brightness discrimination, as simulated by the image at left. It's also thought that dogs can see UV light, which humans cannot, of course.5 And vision is just the tip of the iceberg - we know our dogs have incredibly rich olfactory worlds, with high performers even trained to reliably detect bacterial infections.6This image was created using the Dog Vision app built by András Péter. You can visit his website Dog Vision for more information, including citations.
It's also incredibly important to note that inappropriately attributing human states of mind and traits to dogs can be damaging to the training process and the human-animal relationship. Take for example the guilty-dog-look. Studies have found evidence that "guilt-like" behaviors are not correlated with an actual misdeed, and that owners were not able to determine if their dog had been disobedient based on "guilt-like" behaviors.7,8 There's still plenty of research to be done in this area, but imagine the ramifications of basing a training plan, especially one involving punishment, on an incorrect assumption of the state of mind of another.
So we do need to be careful when discussing cognitive perception and processing of other species. But even from a strictly scientific standpoint, we have incredibly strong evidence that many animals share well-conserved emotional circuitry with that of humans, and thus experience many basic emotions that humans do: anger, fear, desire, panic, joy, loss, frustration, and care.9 This is not to say that our dogs feel and process these emotions the exact same way as we do, but we should be aware that positive emotions are enjoyable for them, and negative emotions are painful. If you want to explore this further, a good starting point is researching the field of Affective Neuroscience and the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp.
Behavior consultants have extra training, education, and experience to understand and be able to work with issues such as aggression, fear, and anxiety. Because of their expertise, they are able to identify potential issues before they manifest as serious problems. An early treatment or alteration to a training plan can save thousands of dollars and unquantifiable heartbreak. Behavior problems represent the greatest risk factor for relinquishment to a shelter.10 Problem prevention should be a key focus for dog owners, veterinarians, and other canine professionals.
If you are already having an issue with your dog that involves fear, frustration, anxiety, or aggression, you need to work with a professional who understands how to create a behavior modification program that addresses the source of these emotions and rebuilds positive emotions in your dog. A great behavior consultant will work with you, your trainer, and veterinarian to provide integrated support for you dog during his or her behavior modification program. It is when our dogs are no longer stressed and nervous that they can truly focus on us and have the energy (and willpower!) to make good manners a lifelong habit.
- Katie Grillaert BS, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CBATI © 2016