By Dr. Jeannine Berger
Welcome to the San Francisco SPCA’s new monthly column, Tips and Tales! I’m Dr. Jeannine Berger and I lead the SF SPCA’s Rescue and Animal Welfare. As a veterinary behaviorist, my expertise is in veterinary medicine, animal behavior and animal welfare. In this monthly column I’ll share insights to help you better understand your pets, and also share the SF SPCA’s best rescue stories. I’m also here for you! Email me your pet’s puzzling behavior or medical issues at email@example.com and I’ll share some of the best questions and answers here.
In the last few weeks, many of us witnessed the disturbing video of the Vacaville policeman beating his K-9 partner during a training session when the dog would not give up his toy reward and lunged at the officer. It is never OK to abuse or physically punish an animal, for any reason, regardless of its behavior. Science has shown dominance theory, or the “alpha-male” approach, isn’t relevant or necessary with dogs, despite its popularity. Training should be based on motivation and learning, not dominance. In today’s column we will talk about how to provide training and socialization to dogs challenged by unwanted behavior.
In fact, January is Train Your Dog Month, and behavior issues are the No. 1 reason why dogs are relinquished to shelters. Furthermore, punishing animals for unwanted behaviors has been shown to put them at higher risk for surrender. Preventing the development of bad behaviors and using the right training methods directly impacts the number of homeless dogs. Now, while we’re sheltering in place, is a great time to focus on your dog’s education and build your relationship with him.
I often get asked about the behavior consultation process, and while no two cases are alike, I’ll tell you about a recent patient, Daisy, who visited our SF SPCA Behavior Specialty Clinic because she was reactive toward other dogs — one of the most common behavioral issues. Growling and lunging was the typical reaction from Daisy when she saw a dog down the street. Walks had become so stressful for her owner, Stacey, that she would often cut them short. After trying a couple trainers who each offered different advice, she was at wit’s end. Stacey needed to exercise Daisy, a 70-pound ridgeback mix, but it seemed impossible. Taking advice from her vet, she called our Behavior Specialty Clinic.
Sitting down with our veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Wailani Sung, Stacey explained that her first trainer recommended a prong collar and strong leash pressure every time Daisy started reacting. Stacey was told she needed to be the “alpha” and show Daisy “who was boss.” Stacey tried this method for weeks, but the process didn’t change Daisy’s behavior. Even worse, a couple of times after Stacey jerked the leash Daisy became even more reactive, growling at first sight of another dog.
Prong collars, which are often used in dominance training, are actually a form of punishment, the idea being that when a hard jerk is applied while the dog is engaging in the unwanted behavior, the unwanted behavior will cease. Pressure and pain is applied with the bad behavior. In Daisy’s case it caused her aggression to be worse.
For some dogs, pain can be a way to suppress a reactive behavior, like lunging when they see another dog; however, it doesn’t change the dog’s emotional response and will often increase anxiety as it did in Daisy’s case. Sometimes, dogs may begin to associate the pain with something unrelated, like the sound of cars passing by, which can cause even more problems.
Dr. Sung developed a detailed treatment plan for Daisy, including tools to manage and modify her behavior. She also helped Stacey teach Daisy some new training cues like “180 turn” and “look at me” to redirect Daisy’s attention when she encounters other dogs. Working on behavior modification, the goal was to keep Daisy in a calm state, so she could learn and respond. Daisy lunges at dogs while on walks, but can stay calm when she hears a dog bark far away. So we start by redirecting Daisy’s attention with a “look at me” cue when she hears a dog bark, followed by a reward. Slowly we increase the exposure to dogs, until Daisy redirects her attention toward Stacey whenever she encounters another dog, instead of being reactive toward that dog.
With a better understanding of Daisy’s behavior, a clear treatment plan, and two months of follow-up support, Stacey was able to turn their walks from being a stressful chore to something they both enjoyed. Best of all, Stacey said her bond with Daisy improved immensely.
Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, is senior vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. Want to learn more about training techniques? Check out sfspca.org/prong. Email your behavior and medical questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.