Behaviour Modification

Obedience or Behaviour Modification?

When you have a problem with your dog’s behaviour, for example aggression, separation issues, reactive or nervous behaviours then most experienced behaviourists will carry out a behaviour modification program; but to carry this program out effectively, there are often elements of obedience training that also need to be taught and trained.

Very often I see clients that have a solid behaviour modification plan but no understanding of what obedience components are needed or how to train them effectively so they can carry out the behaviour modification program.

This can often be because the behaviourist may not be experienced or qualified in training dogs, only behaviour modification.

So, the answer to the question “obedience or Behaviour Modification?” is, both!

Which order are they trained?

Well that largely depends on a number of factors, many dogs we are presented with in our consults or board and rehab facility are highly aggressive towards people. They cannot function without aggression when we are near them.

So these dogs will go through a desensitisation program first so that they can learn to relax around my trainers and I.

Other dogs have no problem around people and they can begin learning functional obedience at the foundation level.

Some dogs are not aggressive but nervous so they may need to learn a reward system first so we can actually reinforce behaviours.

There are some rehabilitation programs which make use of an element of behaviour modification known as flooding. This is where a dog is exposed to a very high level of stimulus at close proximity until the dog finds comfort.

Many dogs will shut down in this process and recover some minutes, hours or days later.

Often there may be fights and scuffles whilst they all adjust to each other’s presence. The other dogs used in this flooding process of course are at risk too.

If this does help the dog in question become more comfortable around other dogs, then there is no secondary benefit of obedience as it has not been trained.

I personally avoid using high levels of flooded pressure with dogs that I rehab. There is no question that in some cases it does provide results, but I personally choose to avoid high stress / high risk elements of behaviour modification.

Obedience benefits

I may start off with a specially designed (by me) functional skills program that will focus on teaching skills that will then develop impulse control and teach the dog the ability to regulate his or her emotions.

Perhaps how walk on a loose leash, or sit under distraction or down stay under distraction.

This is a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – giving the dog the ability to change unhealthy habits or thinking and doing.

This is commonly used on humans when they suffer psychological problems as well, and is backed by scientific evidence.

The dogs learn what they “should” do in the presence of stimulus they would previously react poorly too.

After the behaviour modification process has taken place the skills learned, such as Loose Leash Walking, Place Training, holding positions under distraction for a duration and many others are very helpful.

Behaviour Modification
Place training helps dogs develop calm behaviour around distraction

The training must be effective though and I find myself using the term “effective” quite a lot in the last few years. I feel this is because there are many that are training dogs but the training is not effective.

Meaning, the dog knows the cue (perhaps) but may not offer the behaviour unless many criteria are met. Some may be: –

  • Food is shown to the dog and the cue (sit) given
  • The dog is in the mindset where he or she will take the food and wants it
  • The dog is in his or her comfort zone
  • The dog is on leash

And if all of these and sometimes more are not met, the sit will not happen. This is what I call “ineffective training”.

To be “obedient” means that you follow the direction given whether you feel like it nor not.

Training that will be used in successful behaviour modification will need to be effective or you will have little to no success.

The trainer teaching and or training this must be skilled as this obedience will not be used to gain points, passes or titles, but quite frankly, save the dogs life in many cases.

The Process

I truly wish I was brilliant enough to have a one size fits all system that I use to help every dog I meet, but the fact is that behaviour modification problems are like a knot tied via so many varying experiences, traumas, frights, successes and questions you do not untie any two knots the same way.

The very first thing I will do in a Behaviour Consult or when a dog is boarded with us for rehab, is an assessment. This cannot be done online, of by reading a book or watching ANY video.

This is highly based on my experience and ability to read the dogs behaviour in a given situation. That assessment will determine where we are going to start.

You can see in this video I started with what many would call an unorthodox approach by teaching this dog to turn away from my hand rather than bite it.

There was no point in which he would take food, even food left in a bowl was ignored by him until kennel was vacated and he would then eat early hours of the morning.

We could not attach a leash or go within metres of him without him becoming aggressive and attempting to bite. So for THIS dog, this was the necessary first step.

Behaviour Modification

Here he is after a week or so of training / behaviour modification.

Whilst with other dogs we may start with obedience or a reward system but at some point, functional obedience is effectively taught, trained and proofed.

Many times when a client has an initial Behaviour Consult with me they will come for follow ups with one of my trainers who will then coach the owner on the obedience components of the program which can be then used for behaviour modification.

Behaviour modification, what is it?

Well of course it is when the dog behaves in a different manner in reaction to something than it did before, but in terms of how it is done, again there are quite a few different ways this can be done.

The over all problem usually is that the dog is stimulated by something or someone in a way that is not desirable.

An example would be:

Your dog sees another dog siting outside a shop and this stimulates your dog to display an aggressive behaviour.

There is no logical reason for the dog to display this behaviour but your dog is perhaps fearful of a dog even when it is just sitting.

Behaviour Modification may have a number of steps, from desensitising your dog to other dogs and then changing the value of other dogs from frightening, threatening etc to something more optimistic.

In my programs I don’t try and take the dog from a frightened mess to thinking other dogs will increase his chances of getting food in one step.

Although that many be the overall goal (counter conditioning), most serious aggression cases cannot make these leaps and bounds.

Behaviour Modification
Both of these dogs (from different homes) were brought to us for aggression issues. Pictured here at a Cafe in town after training witnh us.

I find when a dog trainer, behaviourist or specialist tries to jump too far, too fast, the dog and handler fail and in turn come to feel like they cannot succeed.

I feel that more success is acheiveable when I compartmentalise the steps and only focus on that step until solid then add the next step.

The process becomes clear to the dog what we are working on now, how to gain success and move forward in this element.

Do dogs really change?

This is a question we get often and the answer is “they can if you can”.

A dog that may stay with us for rehab will leave here being able to cope with things he or she couldn’t before. We demonstrate this to the owners on video and live during the handover at the end of the process.

I really enjoyed working with Hunter, he was a challenge but a very rewarding dog to work

We then go into phase two in which we train the owner how to train, handle and maintain their newly rehabilitated dog.

Owners need to learn to handle and “drive” their special needs dog until the dog can totally cope on their own. This is not always easy but it is possible when the owner is dedicated.

People change habits all of the time, anything from poor eating habits to smoking, they all can be changed when dedication is applied consistently to the common goal.

Owners of dogs that are fighting, displaying aggression, are reactive or less dangerous behaviours like perhaps pulling on leash, ignoring the recall etc should know that, with effective training and behaviour modification, any dog of any breed can learn to act differently.

In fact training is really to help a dog learn to over ride his or her instincts and behave as instructed, when instructed. This in turn opens a world of freedom up to the dog and the owners.

As always love to hear your comments and feel free to share this article freely.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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One comment

  1. Thx, very good info.

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