When Does Your Dog Need a Therapist?

Kate Naito
by Kate Naito
When my private training clients are faced with their dog’s behavior issue, I generally recommend we do “doggie therapy.” But when does a dog need “therapy,” as opposed to regular manners training?

Do versus Feel

Typical dog training is intended to teach your dog good manners: staying on his dog bed while you eat dinner, walking on a loose leash, or sitting while you open the door for him. This kind of obedience training prepares dogs to be polite members of your household and community by teaching them what behavior is acceptable and what is not. For instance, a well-trained dog is able to sit calmly when being pet by a stranger, rather than jump up on him. In essence, training teaches your dog to do something, whether it’s a sit-stay or recall.

Then there is behavior modification, which is the technical term for doggie therapy. (I use the latter term with clients to lighten the mood and help them relate to the behavior modification protocol.) The purpose here is to encourage your dog to feel something rather than do something. But what does that mean, exactly?

Just as many people enlist a therapist to help them overcome an emotional hurdle, lots of dogs can benefit from therapy to address unhealthy emotions. Think of a behavior problem your dog has. Common issues include: leash aggression towards other dogs or people, fearful displays such as hiding or shutting down, separation anxiety, reactivity to loud noises, or intense barking at triggers such as the doorbell. When dealing with any behavior issue, we have to look at the underlying emotions that are driving the unwanted behavior. That is, what is your dog feeling? By focusing on his emotion behind the barking rather than the action of barking itself, you can address the cause of the problem.

In many cases, behavior modification starts with desensitization and counter conditioning. It’s the process of teaching your dog to feel differently about a trigger, such as a doorbell. (You can see the process in action with my own dogs here.) With behavior modification, you have to help the dog feel relaxed around the trigger before you can ask him to do anything. This is why I don’t encourage clients to force their dogs into a sit-stay when they see a trigger. That’s obedience, not behavior modification, so a dog may respond to the sit cue but still be extremely anxious or overexcited.

Once you have successfully implemented doggie therapy to change your dog’s emotional reaction to a trigger, you can start to ask for manners-type cues. For example, a dog that has learned to relax when hearing the doorbell can then be trained to do a sit-stay when it rings. But the process takes time and shouldn’t be rushed.

What Kind of Trainer Should I Look For?

As dog training is currently an unregulated field, you’ll have to do a little research to find a professional that fits your needs. Here are some tips.

Generally speaking, if your dog needs to work on his manners, a dog trainer is what you’re looking for. Dog trainers focus on manners/obedience, puppy topics, and possibly canine sports training. On the other hand, if your dog is exhibiting a behavior issue such as aggression, you likely need a behavior consultant. Unfortunately, since these titles are not consistent among trainers, you may have some highly qualified behavior consultants who simply call themselves “dog trainers” because it’s a more common term; you may also find individuals calling themselves behavior consultants despite lacking qualifications. (This is not to criticize trainers in general. Most of us are honest and qualified.)

When in doubt, look into the trainer’s experience and qualifications, and pay attention to any letters after his/her name. This article will help you navigate what the various letters mean.

Having a dog with behavioral issues can be stressful, but rest assured that there are reputable “doggie therapists” out there to help you.

Kate Naito
Kate Naito

Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, "BKLN Manners." She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.

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