I recently wrote a post asserting that you can’t fix everything that is “wrong” with your dog. In it, I said that sometimes, the expectations people have for their dogs are unfair, and I urged readers to accept their dogs as they are. I encouraged them not to worry about what others think.
Except sometimes, we need to. When a dog displays behaviors that might be dangerous, we need to protect everyone involved: other people from injury, the owner from a lawsuit, and the dog from himself. We can’t just sit idly by, thinking to ourselves that his behavior is okay because he’s an individual. We must implement a behavior modification plan.
Unfortunately, we can’t always fix it all. Even the best-designed behavior modification plans sometimes fail. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but the truth is that there are dogs who, due to genetics or past experiences or both, simply cannot be safe in all situations. No matter how much we love them, or how much training and socialization we give them, there are some dogs who will always have issues.
What’s more, even dogs who have recovered or been rehabilitated are at risk. While I don’t believe my own dog, Maisy, is dangerous, I know that there are no guarantees in training- nor in the use of medication, for that matter. Neither have made her forget how to lunge and growl and bark. Those coping mechanisms will always be a part of her, and there is always the risk that she might fall back on them.
I don’t say this to be depressing or discouraging, because I believe that all dogs can make a great deal of progress. Many can even live quite normal lives, and we won’t know if a particular dog is one of them until we try. But anyone who lives with a dog with behavior problems, past or present, needs to be skilled at management.
Management is the act of passively preventing a dog from engaging in a behavior, and it is a critical component to keeping everyone safe. Since it doesn’t require the dog’s owner to actively work with the dog, it is one of the quickest and easiest ways to address problem behaviors. Management is also highly individual; the specifics of what is done to prevent a dog’s behavior will depend on the dog and the behavior itself. Still, there are some general categories for management.
One method is to manipulate or set up the environment in ways that make the behavior unlikely. This is done often with puppies. We use crates to prevent house training mistakes, we pick our clothes up off the floor to prevent holes in our socks, and sometimes, we put the garbage can in a cupboard to prevent puppy from knocking it over.
For dogs with behavior problems, we can do a lot with his environment to set him up for success. Baby gates and crates can keep visitors to the home safe. Blocking a dog’s access to windows- or covering them with cardboard- can prevent a dog from barking all day at passing people or cars. Draping tarps over fences can reduce barrier frustration and fence fighting.
Avoidance is another way to stop behavior problems before they start. If we simply avoid going somewhere or doing something that we know will cause the problem, it won’t happen. For example, if we know our dog will lunge and bark at horses, we can avoid going to farms. If we know that our dog will bite when we pat him on the head, we can stop touching him there.
Obviously, avoidance isn’t always possible. It really only works when a dog has a very specific triggers; if he has more generalized fears, it can be hard to figure out what we can and cannot do. It’s also tricky because we can’t always predict where a horse might show up, and strangers don’t always listen when we say they can’t pet our dogs. Still, there’s no point in tempting fate, and so the wise owner will avoid as many of the triggers as is possible.
Finally, there are many safety items we can use that will help prevent more dangerous behaviors. Muzzles are an obvious choice for dogs with a bite history, especially during stressful situations like vet visits. Dogs who lunge or pull on leash might benefit from an anti-pull body or head harness, and clipping it to the dog’s leash with a coupler will provide for some extra security in case the harness breaks or the dog slips out of it. A waist leash can help prevent owners from dropping the leash.
As you can see, management is a great way to prevent behavior with very little effort on our part. That said, it isn’t foolproof. As I already noted, it’s not always possible to manage everything, and even when something can be managed, it can impose some pretty big restrictions on the lives of the dog and person alike. It also has the potential to fail. The crate door may not get latched correctly, or the muzzle might break.
Therefore, a wise owner will use management in conjunction with a good behavior modification plan. If no further progress with training is possible, or if the risks of the dog falling back on old ways are too great, multiple forms of management should be used.
Management does require us to be creative since it often needs to be designed in a way that works for the dog, the owner, and their environment. Still, it’s worth it. In cases where we can’t fix something, it can mean the difference between giving up the dog or euthanizing him or keeping him in his home.
I'd love to hear about your situation: what problems have you faced, and how have you used management in order to prevent them? Are you currently stumped on how to prevent something from happening? Ask away. Maybe if we put our heads together, we can come up with a great solution.