Too Good To Be True?
You know what they say, if it sounds too good to be true… it probably is. And in our culture of instant gratification, the expectation for change to happen quickly (quick fixes) is often completely unrealistic. Behavior change takes time, repetition, skill and patience. (Read more about that here.) It can often feel like watching paint dry. This can be particularly true with fear.
That said, there are often changes we can make to the environment that get us nearly immediate results in reducing the problem behavior. Trainers call this environmental management. In a nutshell, we set things up to prevent the problem situation from happening (or make it less likely to happen) and make it more likely for a desired behavior to occur.
Sometimes, environmental management can be the entire solution, or a big part of it. Often, though, management is just one part of a larger overall plan that also includes training, education, exercise and mental enrichment, as well as veterinary care for potential medical concerns or medications.
I want to share a personal story from before I was a trainer, in which management was truly a quick fix and the entire solution.
I say quick fix. In fact, it took me longer than I care to admit to finally embrace the management solution.
Griffin was a lab mix who had a passion for food and was a masterful scavenger. It seemed that no food-related item was ever safe! This top-notch scavenger consumed many a loaf of bread, carelessly left on the countertop. Griffin graduated from scarfing up items found in an uncovered trash can to skillfully upending a heavy covered trash can. He was a much faster learner than the humans in the household. We were very frustrated and tired of cleaning up scattered trash. We felt like we had to teach him that scavenging was wrong and to somehow train him to stop. Otherwise, we must be failures at this dog-guardian thing.
Then, tragedy struck! Griffin ate something he scavenged from the trash that made him very ill. He was hospitalized for days, and we weren’t sure if he’d make it. Remember I said he was a faster learner than the humans? Well, we finally decided to keep the trash can behind a closed door in the pantry. Additionally, any food items or wrappers that could be dangerous or of particular interest to the likes of Griffin were immediately deposited in the outside trash.
Can you imagine how easy that was to implement? So easy! And guess what? We got immediate results. Gone were the days of scattered trash and sick Griffins! Just like that.
Even though this simple management solution completely fixed the trash-raiding problem, at the time I felt like we failed because we didn’t teach Griffin that it was wrong to get into the trash. I will forever be grateful to the trainer who told me that our management solution was not a failure, but rather a smart idea and a huge success.
Dogs don’t know right from wrong. They know what works versus what doesn’t work (for them) and what feels safe versus what feels dangerous (to them).
Dogs are natural scavengers. Like with many other behaviors we humans see as problems, dogs are often just doing doggy things. They are likely to repeat behaviors that have been reinforced.
When they take the opportunity to check out the counters or the trash can, it’s like they’re playing the lottery or slot machine. And every time they get something yummy or fun, it’s like they hit the jackpot. So, they keep doing it.
It’s up to us to set things up so they don’t learn that counter surfing and trash raiding pay off. (Or, in the case of an already masterful scavenger like Griffin, to make sure it no longer pays off.) It’s up to us to dog proof so our beloved companions simply cannot access items that are of danger to them.
So you see, sometimes there are effective and simple quick fixes to help our dogs succeed in our human environments with our human rules.
Other examples of quick fixes:
- Give a frozen Kong before starting a Zoom call.
- Feed your dogs in separate areas if they guard food from one another.
- Put up vinyl window film/frosting to block the view of things-that-must-be-barked-at.
- Keep your dog on a leash so they don’t run out in front of cars.
- Install a baby gate to block your dog’s access to the kitty litter box.
- Puppy proof so your puppy doesn’t chew your shoes or TV remote.
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