Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Can't Fix It All... But You Do Need To Manage It

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.


True Dog said...

I was recently having a conversation with my friend who I'm helping start train her dog that is dog/dog reactive. She told me she wasn't as optimistic as me and had lost trust in her dog. The statement might be shocking to some, but from an owner of a reactive dog, I too don't trust my dog. I cherish my dog, just like Maisy, he has his own blog. My bond and relationship with my dog is so strong. I look in his eyes and see hope, courage and strength staring back at me. I admire my dog for his resilience in life, but it's true, I can't always trust him and what he may do if he feels panicked. But the truth is, it's okay that I don't always trust my dog in certain situations. I never put my dog in a situation that I can't trust him in. That doesn't mean there aren't situations that I can feel uncomfortable with. But as long as I feel that I can manage his behavior in the situation, then we can learn and move forward in our training. Trust begins with us as thinking, loving, dog owners. Our dogs have instilled their trust in us, we owe it to them to put them in situations we can trust.

LB said...

I covered my parents' chain link fence with tarps so their little dogs would not bark as much at passersby. Unfortunately, what does one do about people who actually let their dogs go up to the fence which only incites the dogs more? I do not live there and other than recommending that my mother stand out there and supervise her dogs (like I would) I don't know much else to do.

At my house I have a privacy fence, but nevertheless rotate my multiple dogs so that they all can't go out and bark. Some which are worse than others remain on leash with me in the back yard. Then they can go out by themselves loose to run around after my other dogs are in the house.

Crystal Thompson said...

Wouldn't it be great if you could manage other people?

LB- I have no idea if this would be practical, but if you could put a second fence in (on either side) that would provide a space bubble. I have a small dog, and would be able to get away with a small garden-edging type fence... but that wouldn't work with most dogs.

Is there room on the other side/outside of the fence to plant some flowers or bushes? That MIGHT stop some of the other people.

Ultimately, though, you just can't manage everything. I really do think that management needs to be done in conjunction with training, and this might be one of those times.

Crystal Thompson said...

True Dog-

I don't think it's weird that you can't trust your dog in certain situations. In fact, I wish more people felt that way! I don't trust my dog around children- I carefully manage (or avoid) those situations. Do I think she's going to bite? No. But I know she's not comfortable, so my job is to protect her from making a stupid decision.

Ninso said...

OMG, I feel like 90% of my life is managing my dogs! I have a fenced yard, but 2 dogs have to go out on leash--Lok because he won't potty otherwise, and Jun because she runs an OCD pattern in the yard that I'd prefer she not practice. Elo has to be supervised so he's not barking at everything under the sun. I have to check the yard before I let any of them out for people or dogs in the vicinity. In the house, it's constantly monitoring space and resources to make sure there is no fighting. Of course, the only way to avoid it completely is to keep them all separate all the time, but I won't do that. So last night Lok got bit about (by Jun, for walking into his space--she doesn't injure, thank god) and this morning Elo and Jun got into a fight. Don't even get me started on what it's like taking any of them out in public. It takes ninja-like management skills to get them from point A to point B. One of these days I hope my training will pay off so we can live a little more relaxed life.

Anonymous said...

I think management is wonderful and necessary. I use it both to reduce my stress, and to reduce my dog's stress. We use simple things to reduce the likelihood of Shanoa having a reactive episode, because that level of stress is hard on her. We leave the blinds shut in the living room window that faces the street, so she can't see the activity. We use gates to block access to the front door, so that she doesn't need to interact with people immediately (and they are safe from her).

I may not trust her completely in all situations, but I do find her to be very, very predictable, so I'm able to manage her more easily.

For us, using management techniques makes everyone's life less stressful, and that's good for all of us.


Sam said...

When people's dogs misbehave, I absolutely HATE when people say that it's "just the way their dog is" or something to that effect as an excuse for not managing an existing condition that is either being worked on or simply cannot be fully fixed. Management and prevention together, in different doses depending on the dog and the situation at hand, is essential to keep every one safe, just like you say.

The biggest thing I've had to manage is, undoubtedly, my dog's response to my dad. She will never be 100% comfortable with him and I'm afraid that for as long as she's living in this house, I'll have to feed her treats any time he comes in the door. It's just not something that's going to be cured. She's made a lot of improvement, yes, but then a situation will come along and she will show me that she's still afraid of him (and honestly, his behavior doesn't make it better -- and yes, I've tried changing his ways but it just doesn't work). It's something I always have to be on top of.

Crystal Thompson said...

Nicky and Ninso- I can't tell you how happy it makes me that people *get* how important management is, and that they follow through on it. :)

Sam- Agreed. I get that sometimes we can't change our dog's bad behavior. And that's fine, as long as we can take steps to prevent the dog from hurting others. I hope more people understand that they can help their dogs stay safe- like you're helping Marge- even if they can't fix/change it permanently.

Kristen said...

Wonderful job!

It's interesting that you described management as "passive", to me it seems like a very active measure, (though different from training), as it's often the alternative to just "letting things happen."

Over time, I find myself talking more and more about management. Training is definitely important, but we only have so much time.

We have heavy management in our home and we would be in trouble without it.

Crystal Thompson said...

Hmm, interesting Kristen. Yes, I think in the sense that you must do something, management is active, especially in comparison to doing nothing. But I think of management as a passive thing since it generally requires very little effort. Putting a dog in a crate isn't usually a difficult think. That seems passive to me.

Sam said...

I'm going to disagree with you on the passive vs. active thing - management can be something like having to cross a street when you see another dog or person coming, because no matter what you've done, that dog/person is still a huge trigger for your dog and always will be. That's pretty active to me, especially since it involves scanning the environment what may be pretty much always.

So I don't think it's passive or active; it's just different from regular training.

Crystal Thompson said...

Okay. I'm not really invested in defining it as active or passive. Like I said before, since it requires very little effort or time (as compared to training), I think of it as a passive thing. But either way, the point remains: management is the stuff you do that is not training and that prevents a behavior from happening. And it is important.

Sam said...

Yes, it definitely is important.. in some cases, more important or just as important as training!

Catalina said...

Did you read this post on Magica Goldens? I thought you might like it :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Catalina- I saw that linked on your blog today and I DID really enjoy it! :)