There is a principle of dog training that I often talk of with our clients.
That concept is of illness vs. symptoms.
When I’m sharing this concept I’ll often tell someone to picture that they’ve got pneumonia. They’ve got a fever, their nose is running, they’re coughing, and they’ve got pain in their chest and their head.
Now imagine that the doctor sees this person and says, “Alrighty, let’s get you some aspirin. That will fix you right up!”
What would your thoughts be?
I’m no doctor but a simple google search tells me that pneumonia is caused by bacteria, virus, and even fungi. If you’ve got a serious case of pneumonia and the doctor sends you home with a bottle of aspirin you may get some temporary relief from a headache or body pain but the underlying illness isn’t touched at all by this regimen.
How does this compare to your dog?
This exact same concept applies to your dog and your dog training efforts.
When you’ve got a dog with aggression problems the aggressive behaviors are simply the symptoms. The underlying cause is typically a need for leadership that is more clear, a need for better understanding of structure and obedience, and a willingness to work within a system.
When you’re dealing with some serious dog destruction the fact that your dog chewed up your slippers or your couch is the symptom. The illness hiding beneath the surface is often a lack of supervision, not enough mental or physical stimulation, or other issues.
When you’ve got a ‘dog who doesn’t listen’ what you’ve really got is an underlying disease of you, the dog owner, not knowing how to clearly communicate what you want from your dog.
So what is the best way to treat a disease? Is it wrong to treat the symptom? I personally don’t think so. In the case of pneumonia perhaps you take the aspirin for short term relief AND you take antibiotics to kill the underlying illness. Herein lies the problem for most dog owners.
The problem for the average dog owner
The problem is that the average dog owner typically wants to treat the symptom. The questions we get often include:
‘How do I get my dog to stop acting aggressive to other dogs/guests/people/etc.?’
They aren’t asking- ‘How can I help my dog not feel the need to be aggressive?’
People will ask:
‘How do I punish my dog for chewing or digging?’
The question they fail to ask is- ‘What needs of my dogs are going unfulfilled so that he’s being destructive?’
I always encourage our clients to start asking different questions. The questions need to be asked from a foundation sense; what part of my dog’s foundation is incorrect such that he or she is displaying this behavior?
Instead we’ve trained ourselves as people to look for the quick fix.
‘Tell me what to do to stop the dog from doing this now!’ is the common mindset we get when people email us through our website.
Most people want to hear that super-special word, or look, or thing you can do with your hand so that the dog stops being aggressive RIGHT NOW!
Or they want to know the secret formula of gross sauce they can put on their shoes to stop the dog from chewing TODAY!
The irony is that if you work on treating the root causes of your dog’s ‘training illnesses’ you’ll often overcome your problems much faster than if you tried to treat the symptom. In nearly every case we come across treating the root causes entail:
- Solid obedience training. No, I’m not referring to ‘sit for a cookie’. I’m talking about a level of training where your dog is obedient in the face of distractions. Without treats.
- Good exercise. Being a member of the animal kingdom and not getting exercise can be a recipe for disaster.
- Proper supervision. Dog owners are too quick to want to give their dogs freedom before their dogs have earned that freedom.
- Common sense. Not everyone has to be dog savvy. But do try to think of potential outcomes and prepare for them with every scenario with your dog.
Treat the root cause of the illness and the symptom and your training efforts will be rewarded.