Part of my work involves doing a fair Sherlock Holmes impersonation.
No, not the squeaky violin, or the other thing. I’m talking about detective work.
In order to figure out why a dog is behaving in a certain way, it’s almost essential to understand the root cause.
This is not always easy. The behaviour my pup was exhibiting suggested a great deal of frustration, but as a result of 2 quite bizarre and hard to discover causes:
1. Feeding the wrong food.
Her puppy kibble is very hard. It is also tiny. I presume “normal” puppies just hoover it up without the individual pieces even touching the sides. My pup crunches each single kibble, and has done from day one. Somewhere along the line, this must have been uncomfortable for her (probably when she was teething) and she stopped eating it when it was presented dry. The value of her wet food, or anything else she would / could eat, therefore increased dramatically. She was getting stressed before each mealtime as she would not know in advance whether she would be able to eat everything or not. I just assumed she wasn’t too bothered about the kibble, so if she didn’t eat it, I removed it. Not a happy puppy! I only confirmed this when I removed all other kinds of food and she still wouldn’t eat the puppy kibbles. I tried a different type and she hoovered it up.
2. Lack of consistency.
My husband has been feeding her a piece of food when he finishes his own dinner. But only when I’m not here. Not human food you understand, but not her food either. Instead, he was feeding her a piece of our other dog’s specialist food, which, I can only assume, was so filthy (being composed mainly of soy and feathers. Yes, actual feathers…) that it was coated in some kind of Pringles-esque paletant. Doggie-crack as we called it. Suffice to say she LOVED it. So, on the days when we were both here, she knew she wasn’t going to get this tidbit and this led to a great deal of unpleasant frustration-driven hysterics at dinner time. But not lunchtime, or breakfast, and not when either of us was here alone. Mystifying indeed, until I quizzed my other half to discover this little habit they had established…
Predictability reduces frustration.
If you know what you’re getting, there is no stress, no disappointment and therefore no frustration. She is now eating a different kibble (which she can easily crunch), fed by hand, dry and earned (any kind of training will get her a piece, from a simple sit to balancing on a log in the park). She therefore has as many training opportunities in a day as there are pieces of kibble, which is a lot! This is a multi-functional form of training your dog: as well as establishing predictability, it also increases attention, gives the dog choices (earn or don’t earn, up to you), increases the value of the food and ultimately improves the dog-owner bond through massively upping the number of positive interactions per day. It’s the ultimate win-win.
Change the emotion, change the behaviour
You see, behaviourists don’t just change behaviour. They also look at the emotion driving the behaviour, because without that, you actually don’t know what you’re dealing with. Is it frustration, anxiety, full-blown fear or over-excitement. In some circumstances, the behaviours exhibited can look very similar, but the treatment program is likely to be very different for each emotional driver. This is why a dog behaviourist spends years studying, learning, refining and growing their knowledge base. Because you can never say “oh yes, I’ve seen this a thousand times before”. Because you haven’t. Each dog is unique, living in a unique situation, with a unique set of circumstances that have led up to this point. Sure, changing the behaviour CAN change the emotion, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to address the emotional issue from the outset, and watch the behaviour change along with it, assisted by some reasonably simple training techniques.
Getting things in order will make the owners life so much easier. And that’s why getting to the bottom of things is not “just one approach”, it’s essential.