Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Is there anyone who never gets grumpy, even just a little? I think we can all wake up and be out of sorts but not know why. Or something happens during the day, or someone says something in passing that deflates us, changes our mood. Sometimes we don't know why we get mood changes, other times it's way more obvious.
The same goes for dogs, they are not robots and unfortunately they are not saints even I feel they are depicted in our society as should be - there's a whole new blog on that one!
Grumpy dogs happen, some dogs are very mild about it and get over it quickly and others carry their mood around with them constantly. So what can we do to help those dogs switch out of their grumpy mood.
One of the options that has been around for a while and I believe was probably started by a very well known and much admired dog behaviourist, is grumpy dog class. I am not going to name this person as I admire their work but on this one point I struggle. I get the idea, put all the grumpy dogs in one class, make it safe by muzzling them and keeping them on very short leashes. Then you can teach/preach to a whole lot of people at the same time. Everyone is in the same boat so they all empathise and sympathise with each other - I guess it's a bit like an AA (alcoholics anonymous) type meeting - everyone tells everyone else how they ended up in this predicament and then they are coached into understanding how (with help) to make the necessary adjustments to achieving a life without the unwanted behaviour.
I think the grumpy dog classes must be tough on the dogs; everyone is eyeballing you, everyone is posturing, there's some bad looks and maybe even some low snarls, growls and barks and no one can be trusted. The owners have had weeks, months and sometimes even years of being on high alert when their dog is around other dogs. So how is a dog supposed to relax in this environment and how if the dog is on high alert is it supposed to focus and learn to behave differently? I figure it must be like the 11pm/5am dog walkers - those who have dog aggressive dogs and don't want to meet any other dog while out walking. We know the dog has an amazing sense of smell yet can you imagine what it must be like when you can't see your foe but you know that they are out there because you can smell them? Yes that's because everyone with a grumpy dog is out walking at the same time.
Yes the grumpy dog class is all about teaching the dog to focus among distractions and after a while the dogs get too tired to look as though they care about the other dogs in the room. Are the dogs really focusing or are they suppressing the anxiety of the other dogs being in close proximity? I know people who are anxious about say spiders but putting them in a room of spiders and asking them to focus on something else while knowing those spiders are still there would be a nerve wrecking experience - but if they had no choice but to stay there I believe they would effectively "shut down". Does this behaviour then look as though they are cured of the fear of spiders?
If I want to learn a new task or a new language I would go to the experts, those that are practitioners in that task or speak that language. If I go once a week I will get a chance to practice with the experts and they will give me some great tips, teach me some more stuff to practice over the coming week and coach me for a better outcome. Or I could go to a more intensive workshop held over a longer period of time. I think both ways should work really well if I was learning a new skill or improving a skill I already had.
But when it comes to changing a habit or replacing a set behaviour with a new one well I think that something different has to happen. There are options out there in order to change a behaviour from an unwanted one to a wanted one, these are labelled as retreats, rehabilitation and support meetings. These are places where I can go for an hour, a few days or a week or more with like minded people, and we all go through the same treatment together with the same end goal in mind, practicing with support in order to really change the old behaviour to a new one.
If we were really wanting to change a behaviour should we be placing ourselves within a group that practices the behaviour that we are wanting to replace or change?
I believe we would be much more successful if we put ourselves among people who already practiced the behaviour that we want. For instance if I wanted to learn to speak the French language there would be no better place to learn than living in France where speaking and understanding the language in some form becomes a necessity.
So for me this logic applies to the dogs. If you want your dog to learn a new skill or improve on an existing skill then by all means a weekly class or intensive workshop is a brilliant way for your dog (and you) to learn. However if you want to change a behaviour your dog is already doing then surely they would learn in an environment where other dogs were already performing the wanted behaviour.
So shouldn't we be bringing these grumpy dogs into happy environments? So that they can learn from dogs that are more chilled out?
They need to be in environments that aren't intimidating; places that have control over who enters; ones which can nurture the positive aspects of the grumpy dog's personality and where the owner can learn to be more relaxed; these are the environments where we the dog's guardians can teach the dog a replacement behaviour.
Having introduced grumpy dogs into various different classes I have had quite a lot of success with them learning that not all other dogs are scary, intimidating or need to be dominated; and that in fact they can cope with being around other dogs. Each dog does need to be assessed as to the suitability of which environment and which class they can come into and their behaviour and changes need to be monitored, managed and amended as necessary to continue the rehabilitation but it doesn't always take very long.
Why does it work so well? The dog is brought into an environment that is not intimidating as no one else is upset or has the same anxieties. Not only does the grumpy dog learn to relax around other dogs, in some cases they will even interact well with them. The classes are very controlled in that at the start the grumpy dog is given their own space from where they can observe the other dogs but can't get to them and the other dogs cannot get to the grumpy dog.
Understanding what really makes the dog tick is important, observing the behaviour the dog gives and the response of the other dogs and advising accordingly. Being respectful of the owner's situation, their abilities and their wishes is also key to making this work. As trainers and behaviourists we need to be acutely aware of our client's needs rather than our own.
These class situations are not for the new trainer or behaviourist to conduct but it is worth while attending a class or a lesson where this type of learning is being carried out in order to see how it works. I know we offer these opportunities to grumpy dogs but I fear we are in the minority. One day I hope this way of thinking helps the situation become the majority.