The Down Side of Well Intentioned Advice

December 10, 2009

I just read a post about a woman who has a 10-week old toy breed puppy who is nipping at her hands. Her veterinarian suggested swatting the puppy with a rolled up newspaper while yelling, “No!” When the woman reported back that the nipping had progressed to biting any time she came near, the veterinarian’s advice was to swat the dog harder.

Fortunately, in this case a trainer who knew better got involved. As a fellow trainer, I hear these types of stories constantly. Just last week I spoke with a man who put a shock collar on his dog to stop the dog’s constant barking. This advice came courtesy of the clerk in his local chain pet supply store. Owners receive advice constantly from other dog owners, friends, veterinarians, and even some trainers who are, unfortunately, not well qualified to give behavioral advice. Although the advice is well intended, it can also be extremely damaging to the dog.

The first thing to consider when your dog is exhibiting unwanted behavior is why the behavior is occurring. For example, 10-week-old puppies explore the world with their mouth, since they don’t have opposable thumbs! Nipping is not a bid for world domination, but rather, a perfectly natural puppy behavior; and there are gentle, positive ways to curb it. The dog who is barking non-stop when left in the back yard may be bored and under-stimulated; he may have separation anxiety; or, there may be something in the environment that is causing him stress. Using a shock collar is like slapping a band-aid on the problem. It may appear to work at first, but it does not actually solve the underlying problem, and the added stress may lead to even worse problems. So take the time to consider why your dog is doing what he’s doing, and proceed accordingly. If you have trouble discerning the underlying motive, enlist the help of a professional trainer.

Whenever you receive advice on how to handle your dog, regardless of whether it comes from a “professional” or a friend, listen to your gut. Is this really something you want to do to your dog, or do you feel uncomfortable even thinking about it? If you get that squirmy feeling, don’t do it! Much of the information on “correcting” dogs comes along with the suggestion that “you can’t let him get away with that” or “you have to show him who’s boss.” In reality, most dogs misbehave because it works. It gets them something they want, whether the reward is that sandwich you’ve left lying on the counter, your attention, or a fun romp once they’ve darted out the front door.

Not all suggestions you’ll get are bad, and some will actually be quite useful. So the next time someone offers tips on how to handle your dog, smile and say thank you, and then listen to your instincts. If the suggestion seems promising, take the time to think it over, and if you’re not sure, consult a positive, professional trainer. That’s my best advice!

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