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 when asked, 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. All of these emotions are both normal and useful, 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 appreciate your dog’s aggressive 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 think that their dog is being a “good guard dog” when, in actuality, the dog is fearful and does not have the tools to identify a safe situation from a truly scary situation. These dogs are a risk to the community, and ultimately a risk to themselves. If they make a poor choice, and bite a human, their life is at risk. Among other things, behavior consultants work with dogs like this to help them feel calm, relaxed, and to be physiologically prepared to behave as a good citizen.
Fear is useful when you run away from a pile of boxes tumbling and booming down the stairs. Fear is not useful when you are cowering in the basement during a seasonal storm.
When you’re training any skill, you’re also training an emotion along with it, whether you realize it or not. 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. (As you would expect, such methods must be absolutely avoided in a behavior modification program!)
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, you can create a very frustrated animal. 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 work with than are fear and aggression.
Great trainers consider emotions in their training plan, and you’ll notice that they encourage calm responses 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 become a problem again in the future, even if we temporarily have the discrete training skills that we wanted.
If you are 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. Once this piece is conquered, the world is your dog’s oyster… or perfectly gross tennis ball.