Your Dog’s Behavior Needs More Than A Band-Aid Fix

By Lynn Stockwell —

Before I became a veterinary professional, I was pretty much convinced that the role of vets was to get to the bottom of the matter and treat the issue at hand.

A prime example of the dog that has vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Vomiting and diarrhea are not things to simply be treated. These are symptoms of a more underlying problem, and it is the vet’s job to find out why the dog is exhibiting these symptoms.

Sure, we can give Reglan, butorphanol, Cerenia, diphenoxalate, metronidazole and any other medication to make sure there won’t be anything coming out either end that isn’t supposed to. You’ll find this advice around the Internet, as people strive to stop something from happening that shouldn’t, and well-meaning advisors will simply state “Oh, give your dog [this medication].”

But wouldn’t we be further ahead to find out WHY the dog is vomiting and treat from there?

Has there been any dietary indiscretion? If not, has any significant change occurred in the dog’s routine or environment? Has the dog ingested something he was not supposed to ingest, something that might cause gastric blockage? What is the content of the vomitus? Is it true vomiting, or is the dog only regurgitating, which would indicate a completely different class of issues?

When it comes to behavior and training, a good professional will treat your dog’s issues with the same care that the veterinarian would with any medical issues.

A prime example is the common problem of pulling on the leash.

Sure, we can prescribe headcollars, no-pull harnesses, and any manner of anti-pulling devices out there to simply make the dog stop pulling on the leash.

But wouldn’t we be further ahead to find out what is wrong with the relationship between the dog and its owner, and treat from there?

Does the dog have any other behavioral problems? What are your goals in training—what is the end result you envision? Does your dog have any health problems? What training experience, if any, has it had already?

The final questions every trainer must silently ask themselves is “What would best fit the needs of the dog in front of me? Will we reach the owner’s goals, and will the owner be capable of attaining and maintaining those goals?”

A common problem is when people turn to the veterinarian to solve behavioral issues. This is not to say that vets have absolutely no experience solving them, but unfortunately few of them have the experience and training to really treat the cause of the problems the way they do medical issues.

A while ago, one lady came into the clinic to buy some flea preventative for her dog and cat. Since she brought in her dog for a weight check to see which weight class of medication was necessary, I was able to watch it pulling against the training collar she had it on. As she was paying her bill, the poor lady asked if we carried “Gentle” Leaders, which we did. However, since I was the one helping her, I asked her if she would like to learn how to properly use the collar on which she had already spent money, especially since the headcollars in question are not drops in the bucket in terms of cost.

She consented, and the lesson started.

Keep in mind that this was close to closing time on a Saturday, about early afternoon.

I spent about 45 minutes with detailing the proper (as well as improper) use of the training collar, ways to help with obedience around the house, activities to do with the dog, and how to use appropriate praise for her dog to set it up for success. We went over proper timing of praise and corrections, and removing rewards in addition to correction (see the jumping example in the Empowering Owner Through Balance series). A grand total of about 15 minutes scattered throughout the lesson was spent working hands-on with the dog, who gave amazing results through the clear communication I, and later her owner, gave her.

We were out significantly later than any of us techs wanted, but at least I left with the satisfaction that someone’s family was hopefully on the right track to a better relationship with their dog as well as proper tool use.

The lady was pleased, and upon return a month later to buy another months’ worth of flea preventative for her pets, told me that her dog was doing very well.

(Admittedly, I do not like doing this sort of work, as there is little to no follow-up, but in the specific circumstances, I felt a lesson at least in basic walking was necessary, as well as basic dog-owner relationship advice, and we could work on other issues later as needed.)

Contrast this to the 15-minute time slot allowed for a fitting of the advertised headcollar, and then the owner is set loose with their dog to figure out how to properly use it. Fifteen minutes is far from enough time to even get to the basics of training, much less how to stop pulling. Even back in the day, when someone asked me for help with training a dog, I spent a minimum of an hour with them for that first session, with a small portion of time dedicated to working the dog to get a “feel” for what was on the end of the leash and to demonstrate to clients that I could be trusted with their dog—no pain, intimidation or fear-based techniques here!

Another client came in not too long afterwards who had had one of these appointments a while ago. Her dog was still as nutty as it was before…but it no longer pulled on the leash.

I realize that, in the long run, that’s what most people want.

But I see it as akin to what one well-known trainer calls a “well-trained” puppy. I refuse to link to the actual page itself; rather, I encourage you to read it by way of Heather Houlahan’s excellent expose of what exactly constitutes real-world puppy-raising versus that which exists in the mind of an authority that, to anyone’s knowledge, has never bred a dog nor raised a litter.

Simply put, an 8-weeks old puppy following a lure is as “well-trained” as an otherwise ill-mannered, out-of-control dog that doesn’t pull on a leash because it is wearing a headcollar or no-pull harness. (And I just mean that the dog doesn’t pull. Rarely are these dogs walking at heel, or even anywhere close to what I would call Heel.)

A pair of Boxers came in for boarding over the holidays wearing no-pull harnesses, basically taking their owners for Nantucket sleigh rides down the hallway. They jumped on people and were generally out-of-control in the waiting area, which was forgiven by the fact that they were pretty nice-looking Boxers, even if the female was of the petite variety.

The owners reassured us that they were pullers and were on the harnesses so that they would learn to stop pulling.

Never mind the jumping and lack of self-control. Anyone want to guess what it was like living with these dogs at home? I certainly have a few ideas!

A good trainer will teach you how to mend your relationship with your dog and make it so much better, not just fix behaviors one at a time while leaving the root of the issue untouched. They refuse to put band-aids on a fractured relationship in the same way a veterinarian will refuse to simply prescribe anti-emetics for a dog with profuse vomiting.

Unfortunately, there are too many well-meaning vets and even trainerettes who are quick to prescribe such band-aids. A tool will not help a relationship, whether it’s a “Gentle” Leader or a pinch collar (let it be known now that I would consider it almost unethical to send someone out the door with a pinch collar after only a 5-10 minute consultation). A medication will not stop an issue without working toward the bottom line.

A band-aid does little to fix a fracture, but it might stop the bleeding if there are any other small abrasions or cuts that happened at the same time. And in the meanwhile, you’ll probably want something to treat the incredible PAIN.

Your relationship with your dog is what’s really at work, and through balance (and a healthy dose of effort, time and commitment), it can only get better. Take off the band-aid and focus on what needs fixed: not the behaviors, but the issues behind them.