Dr. Joan Engel consults with pet dog owners who have a dog with a problematic behavior. She uses the Applied Animal Behavior approach, which does not hurt or frighten animals. The approach takes into account natural behaviors and tendencies of dogs, biology, ethology and health of dogs, their environment, and how dogs learn. Dominance hierarchy theory and punishment (as applied early in behavior modification, such as choke chains, pinch collars, electronic collars) are not used because they are not humane, can create fear or confusion, and can create other unintended problems while not addressing the underlying cause of the problematic behavior (AVSAB, Position statement, 2007).
One natural behavior of dogs is a tendency to repeat a behavior that gets what they want or need, such as food, attention, outdoor and indoor activities. The food, attention, and activity are examples of what is called reinforcement. One way of to reduce problematic behavior is through reinforcing appropriate behavior. The focus on science-based methods increases desirable behavior (by providing reinforcement or reward) and letting fade out undesirable behavior (by removing reinforcement). This is but one example of science-based methods of the applied animal behavior approach, which use knowledge of how dogs naturally learn and how best to influence them.
One feature of a consult for problematic behavior is a history, taken for the purpose of understanding how the problematic behavior came to be and the reason it continues. Asked another way, what originally reinforced the behavior and what continues to reinforce it? History questions include what does the behavior look like, when and where does it happen, who is present, what happened right before the problem behavior and what happened afterwards (the reinforcer). When appropriate, a new behavior could be trained until the dog performs it well and the dog has thoroughly learned the verbal cue. Then, by recreating the occasion when the undesirable behavior occurred, the new behavior can be requested with the cue, and then reinforced. For example, teaching the dog to sit in front of the person for greeting. The goal is to replace jumping up on a person for greeting, with sitting in front of the person for greeting. Once the dog “knows” sit, practice having the owner come in the door, ignoring the jumping up (removing the reinforcer), and requesting the new behavior with its cue (“sit”), reinforcing “sit” with treats, BIG affection, games, whatever the dog likes. Teaching people how to bring out willing cooperation in their pet is important in order to have the dog learn right behaviors and fade out undesirable behaviors. The people will have knowledge for the future to teach their dog whatever they need him/her to know. The goal of a behavior consult is to facilitate a harmonious and joyful relationship, for the present and the future, between the dog and his/her people.