Have you done everything in your power to help your animal?

While delivering one of my free mini-courses recently, I answered a lot of questions about specific problem behaviour in the comments’ section of the course site, in private messages and in emails.

And in one of those conversations, the issue of getting professional help came up.

One person said: “I’ve spent a lot of money on two trainers, and still have the problem”.

After asking what the two trainers had attempted to do, I realized that they had probably made matters worse, due to incompetence. One of them had used aversive techniques that frightened the animal, and the other had advised against using treats in a situation that demanded it – screamed for it.

And so, I had a really uncomfortable insight.

Trainers’ competence is highly variable, and many pet owners and animal guardians have no way of assessing whether the people they hire to help them solve a behavioural problem actually know what they’re doing.

And so they give up. Thinking it’s their fault. Or the animal’s fault.

That they’ve done everything in their power to help their animal – and failed.

And I got really frustrated: if the choice of professional help is unfortunate, “everything” hasn’t been done! Not by a long shot!

Hence this blog post.

The next time you need to seek professional help to address problem behaviour in the animals in your care, make sure you ask the right questions.

Four questions to ask your prospective behaviour consultant.

  • Where and how were they trained? Check their credentials. Do they have any formal education, are they members of any professional associations? Though this is no guarantee, a behaviour consultant should be trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is crucial to understanding and solving the most difficult behavioural problems. Most will also collaborate with a veterinarian, given that in some cases medical conditions may explain the problem behaviour.
  • Ask them whether they use corrections as part of their techniques (if they say “yes” without hesitation, move on)
  • Ask them whether they are familiar with systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (if they say “no”, move on)
  • Try to find out if they keep learning. Science marches on – a lot of what was taught 20 years ago is now completely outdated!

If it were me asking those questions, I would prefer if the prospective behaviour consultant followed an ethical guideline similar to the Humane List, or the LIEBI approach, to solving the problem.

An ethical guideline: the Humane List or LIEBI / LIMA (brought to the world of animal training by Susan Friedman). Solving behavioural problems is analogous to choosing which exit to take when driving. Each exit should be tried before moving on to the next. The latter choices involve speed bumps, giving way, stopping altogether and consulting the map – meaning thinking it through and consulting others before going down those roads.

Here’s how a skilled behaviour consultant may work through your animal’s behavioural problem using the Humane Hierarchy:

  • First they’ll assess whether any health or nutrition issues may be causing the problem.
  • Then they’ll address the problem by making changes to the environment that’s currently triggering the response (nerd term: antecedent arrangements).
  • If that doesn’t work, they’ll try reinforcing some other behaviour – still doing nothing specific about the unwanted behaviour.
  • If that’s not helpful, they’ll remove reinforcers for the unwanted behaviour while reinforcing alternative behaviour.
  • If the problem persists, they will try extinction, negative punishment or negative reinforcement – these are all potentially aversive to the animal and some of the side effects mentioned here may result.
  • Finally, if all these fail and consulting with others have given no new insights, they may try using positive punishment as a last resort. They will attempt to mitigate the potential side effects, and ensure that the animal is empowered to recover quickly.

This approach assumes that the behaviour consultant has mastered the different techniques on each stage, and that they perform a functional assessment to ensure that they’ve understood what is maintaining the unwanted behaviour.

So, expect a good behaviour consultant to ask many questions in turn, and offer an answer tailored to your specific situation – and perhaps try different solutions. They may be unfamiliar with the specific terms presented here, but you should have a good gut feeling about their ethical standpoint.

If it were me, I wouldn’t just want the behaviour consultant to fix my problem, but also help the animal solve his problem – in a respectful way.

When sharing some of these thoughts with my students, I had some interesting – and disconcerting – feedback.

It turns out that in many places around the world, good behavior consultants are hard to find – they’re lost in a minefield of “traditional” trainers that may do more harm than good in some cases.

Many of my students could attest to stepping on one of those mines and getting bad advice that did nothing to improve the situation – or even made it worse.

So, it’s clear that people are struggling to find help, and that many don’t know what they’re looking for. Or, even if they do know what they’re looking for, it’s hard to find.

What’s your experience? In your area, are competent behaviour consultants easy to find? Have you successfully received the help you needed to solve your behavioural problem? What questions did you ask before you decided to hire them?

In addition to getting external help, you can also educate yourself.

Watch TV? Well… Although one purpose of public media is to educate, it goes without saying that TV shows showing animal training and addressing problematic pet behaviour should not propagate potentially harmful, outdated techniques but be ethical and educational, not simply entertaining – but that’s not always the case.

Browse the internet? Well… We’re back to that minefield: the sound advice is lost in an avalanche of well-meaning suggestions that don’t work.

Many behavioural problems do not have quick fixes – you need to understand behaviour on a deeper level, in order to solve them – or nip them in the bud before the situation escalates!

  • Learn more about how animals learn – and how to go about teaching them what they need to know to thrive with humans.
  • Learn how emotions impact behaviour and wellbeing.

Incidentally, these are the topics that I teach in my online courses, and last weeks’ free mini-course was one such opportunity. If you want to be notified the next time I’m releasing a blog post, free training or course that will help you get happier animals that are reasonably well behaved and thrive with people, just sign up below and I’ll keep you posted.

7 Replies to “Have you done everything in your power to help your animal?”

  1. Hi,I am Kristine …I am a daycare worker….I get children’s psychology …
    I have grown up with dogs around all my life….
    I now have a three year old ,king Shepard,Boxer and staffy mix.
    I have worked with two trainers….
    First one …was all positive and after a 1year and half … advised us to put the dog down….after feeling like if our dog understood our boundaries and when we told him No …things would be a lot better….we have moved on to a trainer who has taught us more aversive methods…
    Our now understands he has to stop blowing up…so every one is safe….
    I do understand aversive training doesn’t fix the problem…but if we stop he will revert to previous behaviours…
    I am looking to get away from aversive ,but …I can’t seem to help him resolve his issues in order to be safe…he does have a bite history….my problem is….I feel like trainers in this area ….are either one way or the other…

    1. I see – quite a difficult situation to be in! “Positive” doesn’t have to mean “permissive” – but it all boils down to the training and experience of the trainer what types of solutions they offer.

  2. I have been through a number of trainers. Have 3 females and the youngest started fighting with the oldest who was going through some health issues. Started with my vet then a neurologist—even a psychic. First trainer was positive but no results then I found a veterinary behaviorist who was positive but gave the complete opposite advice from the first trainer and wanted to put her on meds. I resisted at first then gave in but they seemed to make her worse. She wanted to change to a different medication and that’s when I went looking for someone else. Next guy said we had to treat her like she would be treated in the wild—had to scare her when she went near the older dog. Much as I hated doing it, I was desperate—had already had trips to the vet for the older one with puncture wounds. Tried it but was unable to continue doing that and continued my search. By now I had invested thousands in fees and still had no results except one dog that was starting to get frightened of me. I kept searching and have finally found a positive training who is also an advanced practitioner in T-touch and she incorporates it in her training. Have only had 2 sessions but what a difference already—the house is so much calmer and my little fighter is learning to calm down using T-touch and other calming methods. So if a trainer does not work, keep searching and researching!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. It can be really confusing if trainers contradict each other! Glad to hear you found an approach that worked!

  3. I can’t remmeber if I told you about this experience I had during the course.
    I was the Lure Course Operator for a demo course at a family pet fair and I spent a good part of each day telling people that they had to take the aversive collars off the dogs to run the course . On the last day, while I was waiting for a girl to take off the prong collar she had on a puppy, some lady on line yelled out “ some trainers say you should leave them on when they run. “ Tired and fed up with the insensitivity of people for what they do to their animals , I still maintained my composure and replied “ in this sport and on my course it is forbidden. You can not expect any animal to enjoy an activity with prongs or shocks in their neck”. She yelled back “well I paid a lot of money to get this advice.”” I was done . I stopped what I was doing, stood up turned , and yelled back “ well I get paid even more money to fix the damage that these thing do to everyone’s dogs .” Everyone there started cheering .She got her money back and left.
    And my heart broke for her dog.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story – I can understand that you flipped..! She was obviously not in a position to be receptive to new ideas. Focus on the ones that are!

    2. Oh Margo, I feel you!

      I was called to help a horse with trailer training this summer. The owner was desperate, she said, having already used several instructors incl. a Monty Roberts instructor just a few days prior that made it much worse, she had heard of me and wanted to try. The horse had reared, backed away frantically, and was hard to hold onto.

      On the phone I told her that I only use +R, take as much time, as the horse needs (which generally mean more sessions coz they are short), and that she would have to be willing to not use pressure at all. She agreed and our first session was great.

      Using nothing but a target frisbee, coaching the owner to let go of any worry og neg. thoughts and feelings (to prevent any worry about not dealing with what made her worry (work stuff), I coached her to put it all on a haybale that she could come back to afterwards).

      I had the lead rope hanging over my elbow (unfortunately they didn’t have an enclosure we could put the trailer in so I could have her be free), but she never once pulled on the rope! She was so sweet and quick to get the idea of the target, she remained curious and relaxed as I not only rewarded steps forward, or envestigating, but also steps backwards because I rewarded her for her mental state which was just awesome. Within 10 minutes she was in the trailer curiously sniffing the inside and eating apple bites.

      I then spent an hour talking to the owner agreeing on payment (very cheap) because I just want to help and unfortunately don’t do this for a living and talking about how to be grateful for simply being with our animals, and I tried to teach her a little about how they reflect our emotions.

      A few days later we agreed on yet another visit where she was to try. With me the horse was soft, relaxed and willing to go in. Not so much with the owner. She trotted around her, not able to focus or understand, so again I spent a long time just coaching the owner.

      She called me and said that they could now walk in and back out several times, that she could send the horse in and be with her in the trailer. All good, or so I thought…

      She all of a sudden only wanted to pay 2/3, and I had to say, that maybe I wasn’t the right match for her. However, she had never had the horse be so relaxed and interested?

      Two weeks later she wrote me that she was so frustrated with the horse, that the horse was completely out of reach, that she was rearing and jumping, spooking and she was fed up with her. When I replied that something obviously was wrong and that she should get a vet or physician to check her, she never wrote me back. I feel so sad for this horse, too.

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