Book Excerpt | The Total Dog Approach

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The Total Dog Approach

Remember the second tier of motivation? Reward/Punishment? Most dogs have to start in this zone for training, mainly because if the dog already had a higher social drive they wouldn’t require training and would be much more willing to cooperate with the humans. We also talked about how pressure/release is a part of all behaviour issues and before I ever learned about pressure/release there was another concept I had read about. I’ve come to call this The Total Dog Approach.

Problem behaviours, much like training methods, often exist in the reward/punishment area of motivation as well, which means every behaviour issue either has a move towards something pleasurable or a move away from something unpleasant. There are of course exceptions to this rule such as intrinsically driven behaviour issues like predatory-based aggression though an argument can be made that you’re accessing a very enjoyable part of the brain for the dog in that behaviour. The Total Dog Approach looks beyond just the behaviour and seeks to find the why behind it. In other words, finding the right punishment may not be enough to stop bad behaviour. In some cases, a punishment might stop THAT behaviour, but if the reason for the behaviour occurring is the dog’s attempt at spiking adrenaline levels up because he lives a boring life and is under stimulated than bad behaviour will eventually manifest in a different way after the first one was punished away.

Punishing any given behaviour is kind of like taking pain killers for a broken leg. Sure, it might work in the moment and provide you with temporary relief of pain or unease but eventually the pain killers will wear off and you’ll be left with a nagging pain that won’t go away until properly addressed. In some cases a punishment is necessary, but to be effective at solving behaviour issues I’ve found it behooves you to examine all the elements at play with any given behaviour. Even if the end result is it must be punished, if you’ve laid the appropriate foundation work and examined all sides of the issue you’ll likely to encounter less resistance and need to use less pressure when the punishment is applied.

My Very First Client—Digby the Door Dashing Shih Tzu

I got my very first client in 2012. Stick—a nickname he earned in the military—was my supervisor at work and he had a little 2 year old shih Tzu named Digby. According to Stick, Digby was a good dog but had the bad habit of bolting through open doors. Once out, he would take a spin around the neighbourhood and ignore every recall command issued to him. Most trainers—like myself—would approach the bolt issue first. The difference between this and the Total Dog Approach is after I handled the door issue we discussed Digby’s fulfillment level. You see most people stop at the issue. I’ve now taught the dog to not bolt through open doors, clean your hands, job well done. The problem is, there’s a reason for that behaviour.

After asking a series of questions, it was discovered that Digby didn’t get walked very much due to Stick and his wife’s advancing age and they thought a backyard romp was enough to satiate Digby’s exercise needs. The problem becomes that dogs—especially young dogs—have a desire to get out and explore the world. This is good because it makes the world a less novel and less stressful place.

After I taught Stick and his wife how to handle the door dashing problem with some obedience and deference work, we discussed making the need for Digby bolting out the door irrelevant by fulfilling the desires he got out of that behaviour.

Meeka the German shepherd

In the summer of 2015 I had the privilege of being brought out to work at Paws in Paradise, a training facility owned and operated by a trainer named Monika Stuhler. Monika had a great little set up and offered to have me come out and work with her for a few weeks as a trial to see if moving to Alberta and working for her would be something I was interested in. She also got some weight taken off her shoulders because she had a trainer who could work some of her clients and board and train dogs while she focused on some things that required her attention. One of the Board and Train dogs I had the pleasure of working was Meeka, a young female GSD with a ton of drive and some big time adrenaline management issues.

One of the issues that was brought to my attention right off the bat was her behaviour with the leash. As soon as it went on she would start barking as if she was telling you a story, then start tugging like crazy on the leash. I didn’t correct her yet for this behaviour—instead the next day I bought a nice strong tug and as soon as I brought her out of her kennel I presented the tug. She put it in her mouth right away and started ripping on it. I walked her outside being tugged the whole way and when we were finally clear of the door we proceeded to play a nice, rough game of tug. This was a dog that got her rocks off on conflict. The problem with dogs like this is people think playing tug will make it worse when in reality it gives the dog an outlet for that desire so they’re less likely to do it outside of the game.

This dog gave me a great baseline for testing a theory that I had. The theory was if I fulfilled a desire instead of punishing it, would it go away on its own? I understand one dog is not a big sample group, but what I found with Meeka has been found in other client dogs and my own dogs as well. In fact the fulfill-before-punishment mentality is something that is a cornerstone of most of my rehabilitation programs.

After only 2 days of playing tug with Meeka to start our training sessions, she had stopped ripping at the leash when she was excitement and also didn’t require the tug anymore to walk calmly out of her kennel and exit the building with me, though, she still vocalized. She loved telling stories. Even when I waved the leash in front of her face to entice her, she didn’t engage and if she got excited and went for it all I had to say was “no” and she would stop. Meeka was about 1 week into her board and train when I decided to see how long it would take for that behaviour to come back after I stopped playing tug with her. All it took was 24 hours without tug for Meeka to regress to ripping on the leash. Even a “no” didn’t have the impact it did before.

The Total Dog Explained

You see in this instance, the root cause of “leash biting” was the desire to play a game involving conflict. This is also the case with dogs who nip and play bite a lot of times. They’re looking to put their teeth on something in a playful way and by showing them “put your teeth on this” they’ll likely stop doing it outside of that realm. If they don’t stop, you have all the right in the world to correct them for it. The deal is we fulfill that need with this game, you’re not longer allowed to do that anywhere else. The contrast is normally not required, but when it is it doesn’t take much.

The Total Dog Approach is something I apply to virtually every behaviour issue. The breakdown is simple:

  1. What is the behaviour issue in question?
  2. What is the dog getting out of the behaviour?
  3. Is it possible for me to be responsible for the fulfillment of this desire or to be responsible for the reward?
  4. After the desire is fulfilled, is the behaviour still occurring? If yes, draw a clear line for the dog to understand he can’t engage in that behaviour anymore outside the realm of the “fulfillment activity” This can be teaching incompatible behaviours, punishment or whatever you default to in order to remove bad behaviour. If no, maintain that activity! It’s something that dog really needs and you likely won’t have to address the behaviour at all.

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