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Teacher's Pet: Can my pet's behavior be 'fixed'?

Teacher's Pet: Can my pet's behavior be 'fixed'?

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If you live with an animal that soils in your home, destroys your property, fights with others, keeps you up at night or causes other forms of stress or strain, you may be sympathetic to the questions I so often hear from pet owners: Can this behavior problem be fixed?

Some frame it even more directly by asking, “Can you fix my dog?”

These questions remind me of those one might ask when entering a repair shop, for example, to have their car looked at or their clock repaired. We want to bring in an item we can’t fix on our own, have a professional assess the situation and repair the problem, and be on our way. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which our pets are not like cars or clocks, and the dynamic nature of their behavior is one.

Behavior is complex, ever-changing and affected by variables both inside and outside the animal. At the start, behavior is determined in large part by genetic influences, passed on from parents, and in the case of dogs and cats, reflecting breed tendencies and selective pressures on the breed over generations.

From the moment of conception, behavior is also determined by interactions with the environment, including the prenatal environment (for example, stressors on the mother during pregnancy can lead to behavioral changes in the offspring) and the early postnatal environment (the first weeks with mother and littermates).

By the time a young animal comes into your home, some behavioral tendencies or dispositions have already shown themselves while many remain open and flexible, waiting to be shaped by the animal’s interactions with its environment in your home and community. If you’re adopting an older animal, you have to account for an even greater array of often unknown past interactions that have shaped how the animal responds to its world.

Furthermore, the animal’s behavior continues to evolve almost daily while in your care. We are all interacting with and learning from our world every day, and nonhuman animals are no different. So how and when you choose to respond to your pet (for example, with attention, punishment, crating, treats or play) has an ongoing impact on your pet’s behavior over time. We must remind ourselves that this fluidity of behavior — its ebbing and flowing in response to the environment — is not eliminated by training or behavior therapy. We can’t just hand our pets over to a professional and have them come back “fixed” and immutable to further change or regression.

Such an understanding of animal behavior is not helped by dog training companies that “guarantee” results. I have spoken on this before, and it’s an important note worth repeating. One should be skeptical of any company that claims to guarantee results for precisely the reasons I describe above: A pet is not a fixed object with gears that occasionally break or batteries that run dry. These are living beings whose behavior, like our own, is changing and evolving over the course of their lifetime.

A responsible dog training company will highlight these points and emphasize their role in providing pet owners with humane, effective and individualized training plans for their clients, not in graduating a dog who is “fixed” with the implication that the training has fundamentally changed or repaired something inside the dog or that the dog’s behavior will always look the way it does on graduation day.

When it comes to behavior problems already in place, prognosis for success in any case is a matter of first defining what success means to the owner. I’ve talked before about cases where there is a mismatch between owners’ expectations and pets’ behavioral limits.

In some cases, the pet’s behavior cannot or should not be changed to the extent expected or desired by the owners, in which case owner education and support become key elements of the animal behaviorist’s job. Sometimes when you can’t be with the one you love, you’ve got to love the one you’re with!

Even when owner expectations are realistic and well-guided, however, a pet’s response to behavioral intervention is a function of the motivation for the behavior to be changed, the owners’ skill, inclination and persistence in implementing sound behavioral practices in the home, their ability to control triggering events and relevant consequences, and other factors.

With this complexity, inherent to pet behavior management and training, I find myself sadly disheartened to see training companies advertise the “guaranteed fix” approach. Our dogs and cats truly are not cars or clocks, and if they could remind us of this themselves, I’m sure they’d howl it from the rooftops!

Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.

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