Ian’s message on Friday was simple: you can predict puppy problems, and if you start young enough, you can prevent them, too. Ian believes that after 12 weeks of age, it becomes much, much more difficult, and once a dog reaches adolescence at roughly 18 weeks, it’s almost impossible. Despite this focus on preventing problems, he did talk a bit about problems adult dogs have, and gave a very brief overview on working with those issues.
One of the most interesting things was that he categorized dog problems in two categories: behavior problems, and temperament problems. Behavior problems are things that the dogs do, and include house soiling, chewing on inappropriate items, digging, and barking excessively. Temperament problems are things the dogs have, and include fear, aggression, hyperactivity and shyness. Ian says that even though behavior problems are far easier to fix through training, people are far more likely to surrender these dogs. Conversely, despite the fact that temperament problems are incredibly difficult to change, people are far more willing to live with dogs that have them.
Although I was intrigued by this distinction, I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, I agree that many behavior problems are due to a simple lack of training. On the other, it seems difficult to parse out which category a dog fits in, especially since temperament problems must be expressed through behavior. While Ian acknowledged that temperament may affect a dog’s behavior, a focus on behavior alone seems to oversimplify what could be a complex issue.
For example, Ian believes that separation anxiety is more likely to be an owner-absent problem instead of true anxiety. He explained that owner-absent problems happen because of excessive punishment for naughty-but-fun behaviors like barking a lot or chewing on things without instructing the dog what he ought to do instead. Since dogs are smart and want to avoid punishment, they wait to have fun until after their owner leaves, which leads the owner to believe that the problem is separation anxiety.
It does seem like people throw the term “separation anxiety” around pretty casually, and I’ve certainly run across people attributing anxiety to a dog that simply doesn’t know what is expected of him. Even so, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are dogs who are truly anxious, and I felt like Ian minimized this.
I had a similar reaction when he discussed compulsivity and hyperactivity in dogs. Ian said that he thinks that true OCDs or ADHDs are extremely rare in dogs, and that people use these terms to label their dogs as an excuse not to train them. He made treatment sound very simple by recommending that people reward the cessation of the unwanted behavior. The dog will then choose to disengage from the obsessive or hyper behavior in order to receive the reward, and the duration will reduce as a result.
I cannot agree with this. Maisy has some obsessive tendencies, and I do not believe it is possible for her to disengage from light-chasing behavior unless the stimulus is removed. For example, even though Maisy hates swimming, I once saw her jump off a dock to chase the light glinting on the lake’s waves. I very much had the impression that she wasn’t thinking: her entire demeanor changed before she jumped. She became frantic and seemed out of control. I don’t think she chose to jump. I think her brain forced her to.
Ian also recommended redirecting obsessive behaviors to more acceptable behaviors, such as repetitively licking or chewing on a Kong. He said this not only reinforces lying down quietly, but that it also allows the dog to engage in a more appropriate behavior while still getting the endorphin release that comes with compulsive behaviors. But I don’t see how this solves the problem. An obsessive behavior is a problem because it interferes with the dog’s ability to engage in normal life activities. Redirecting the focus of the obsessive behavior does not change this.
And then, there’s the topic of aggression. Ian actually said quite a bit about aggression, so I’ll cover it in more depth another day, but basically, he said there’s absolutely no excuse for fear-based aggression or dog-to-human aggression, with the implication that it is due to a lack of socialization in puppyhood. He acknowledged that there may be an excuse for dog-dog aggression, and I assume he meant that it may be genetic.
I’m mostly okay with this, but I became concerned when he talked about treatment. He said that he can jump start the process by doing “a bit of flooding” in a growl class. I’m not sure what he meant by flooding, but that statement set off alarm bells for me. He went on to say that most of the time he can have dogs off-leash and interacting in a growl class within 45 minutes! While I understand that leashes can contribute to the problem, he made it sound like it’s much easier to fix than it really is. I also have to wonder if the “bit of flooding” resulted in shut down dogs, which is why he was able to get them off leash so easily.
All of this is really captures the problems I had with the seminar as a whole. Ian’s clearly a very smart man, has had a great deal of experience, and has lots to offer dog owners. I respect him a great deal, and think he’s done a lot for the field of dog training. Despite that, his way of lecturing utilized stories and examples that, while engaging, resulted in gross oversimplifications and even seeming contradictions. For example, later on, in order to prove his point that it’s better to spend the time socializing puppies, he said that rehabbing an aggressive dog takes a very long time. This seems to be at odds with the idea that he can have dogs off-leash so quickly in his growl classes.
I know that his focus is the average pet owner, and as a result, he speaks simply in order to reach them. Even so, I would have greatly preferred more a more in-depth and critical analysis of the issues he brought up, especially since I think he had a lot of very good, valid points to make. Unfortunately, he made them so simply that I’m afraid he undermined his own message.