Is it a Behavior Problem?
Feature photo: The author during a home session. For illustrative purposes only. Photo by Tilde Detz-Jensen (etologi.dk).
We often read about dog behavior problems: in social media and from dog trainers, behaviorists, consultants, etc. Some scientific papers classify à priori a set of dog behaviors as “problem behaviors.” The examples of “problem behaviors” vary from jumping up on people to aggressive behavior.
There is an increase in the use of subjective and abstract words and labels in the dog world, primarily for commercial purposes. Often trainers classify a set of behaviors as “problem behaviors” learned from others. They present these behaviors as a problem, and then they sell a solution to the problem. Even if the “problem” no longer exists, they may sell the solution as a preventive measure.
One of the challenges is to analyze the words of the past, and “problem” is one of them since working with “problem” behaviors may be one of the longest misunderstood services that trainers provide. Most of the time it is more expensive than “standard training,” and sometimes this makes the typical dog owner hide some information from the trainer in order to pay less.
In my anthrozoological studies, several questions appeared on this topic. What is a “problem behavior”? When is a behavior excessive? In which situations can we see a “problem behavior”? How problematic is it to classify behavior as a problem generically? Does the dog actually have a problem, or is it that our classifications consider his behavior problematic? It seems that whenever we consider it a problem for us, we classify it as a problem of the dog, even if there was actually no problem. Also, my ethological background makes me cautious when I speak about “problem behaviors,” since there are several mechanisms behind a presented behavior. Is jumping really a “problem behavior,” or rather perceived as an undesirable behavior by a specific person? How can we define or classify, in a general way, a behavior as “excessive”? How excessive is “excessive”? Where do we draw the line when classifying barking, jumping, pulling, and even biting as behavior problems?
Note: It is not my intention to create a semantic debate with this word. Instead, I want to share how this word can be challenging when generically applied in dog training and to living beings in general.
The English word “problem” comes from Ancient Greek προβάλλω (”proballein” with “pro” meaning “before” and “ballein” meaning “to throw”), and later from Latin problema (problem, puzzle, enigma, the question proposed for a solution), followed by the old French probleme.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a problem is (1) something that is difficult to deal with: something that is a source of trouble, worry, etc. (2) difficulty in understanding something, (3) a feeling of not liking or wanting to do something.
I don’t know when the idea of “problem behaviors” came to dog training. Since humans have a peculiar ability to create a problem, put themselves inside the problem, and complain that they have a problem, I suspect that it was a natural consequence for its use to arise in dog training, reinforced by the introduction of behavioristic concepts in dog behavior modification in the 1960’s–1980’s which reinforced the “problem” concept.
Although ethology is the science that studies animal behavior in their natural environment, comparative psychology is the most common practice for behavior analyses of other species. It brings a solid anthropomorphic DNA because comparative psychology has its genesis in human behavior.
Distinction between behaviors
Behaviour is the actions and reactions of an organism or group of organisms. Living organisms, robots, and virtual agents all exhibit measurable forms of behavior. (Bateson, 2021)
A behavior characteristic is “all reliably recognizable attribute or distinguishing mark of an organism” (Wickler and Seibt, 1977). The term refers to any such feature connected with behavior, for example, a movement pattern, vocalization, scent signal, sensitive period, or responsiveness to a sign stimulus. In summary, it is the average behavior of a specific species and population in a particular location and time.
Abnormal behavior is all behavior that deviates from the norm. This concept has only marginal value since it is usually hard to say what behavioral characteristics constitute the normal behavioral repertoire of a species and which are to be considered deviant (Immelmann, 1980). In this category, I suggest adding the concepts of antagonistic, maladaptive, displacement, and stereotypic behavior for further discussion.
Pathological behavior is all behavior caused by physiological malfunctions that may decrease the individual’s chance for survival. (Abrantes 2010).
Undesirable/problematic behaviors are natural behaviors of the species but undesirable for some humans.
Behavior is measured by its duration, frequency, topography, and intensity, and has a specific origin and function, sometimes with adaptations and other mechanisms involved.
Therefore, classifying a behavior immediately as problematic can create a misunderstanding of the individual’s behavior. How often does a family report a “problem behavior” related to their dog, but after a quick analysis, we don’t find any problem, just a misunderstanding of his behavior by the family?
In animal behavior modification, one of the essential characteristics of behavior that we must be aware of is its high variability that occurs at different levels:
- There is variation in behavior between individuals of the same species, depending on the individual’s genes, sex, developmental history, etc.
- There is variation within individuals over time resulting from the effects of experience, maturation, developmental plasticity, and senescence, among other things.
- There is variation within individuals according to their current context. Behavior varies according to physical variables, such as time of day and ambient temperature, and biological variables, such as hormonal status and social context.
Information about a type of behavior that we obtain from observation and recording may include:
- The presence or absence of the specific activity.
- The frequency of occurrence of each activity during the observation period.
- The duration of each session of each activity.
- The intensity of activity in each occurrence.
- The latency of occurrence of the activity.
- The timing and nature of subsequent activities.
- The timing and nature of behavioral changes concerning physiological changes.
The resilience of dogs
Scientific papers on behavior problems do not consider the individual behavior adaptiveness to the present individual conditions.
As a new type of ecosystem, the urban environment differs significantly from nearby “natural” non-urban habitats in various abiotic and biotic factors. Urban populations, for example, may suffer less from climate stress, especially during the winter months, due to a warmer microclimate (“heat island effect”) or a lower risk of predation. In addition, food in urban habitats is often abundant throughout the year.
On the other hand, animals living in urban areas are confronted with many new and potentially stressful conditions rarely experienced in their original “natural” environments, such as unknown food sources, heightened anthropogenic disturbances, permanent presence, high density of humans, dogs, and cats, and increased levels of artificial lighting and noise. Combining these factors creates a new environment that favors individuals who can deal behaviorally and physiologically with altered and “new” conditions.
The novel factors also influence individuals’ behavioral plasticity and motivational states. Often dogs have to face new situations that demand a fast action, disregarding previous learning or the emotional homeostasis of the individual, which may originate maladaptive behaviors or displacement/stereotypic behavior.
As a result, the dog has developed different behavioral strategies among individuals in human environments and homes. Sometimes, the behavior presented results from a long shaping process through all the learning conditions, environment, and miscommunication between the dog and the different humans/cultures. For instance, a building with seven floors with a dog on each floor has different routines. The same applies to diverse urban/country environments.
The concept of “coping” in animal science is an exciting topic and an individual’s possible adaptive response strategies to stimuli. Animal trainers should research it.
Donald Broom and Kenneth Johnson (1993) outlined the nine coping schemes. I’ll give you their introductions.
- In the face of stimuli, an internal steady-state is maintained with ordinary basal responses. The state of being is wellness.
- Complete adaptation achieved with a minor extraordinary response. Stimuli provoke adaptation. Fitness and performance may be briefly compromised, but wellness promptly returns.
- Sometimes, animal response to stimuli over time is neither extraordinary nor adequate. For so long as the impingement continues, fitness and performance may be reduced, minor stress and fairness ensue, but after that, wellness returns.
- Stimuli elicit some minor extraordinary responses, but this is inadequate for complete adaptation over time. Both fitness and performance decrease for a time (equally), after which wellness returns. Stress is present in schemes four and higher.
- An animal’s extraordinary response over a long period achieves only incomplete adaptation. Although fitness remains relatively high, performance is reduced. The animal experiences overall fair-being.
- To completely adapt, an animal sometimes must mount an extreme response. During adaptation and recovery periods, fitness and performance decline. The animal’s state is only fair.
- Despite some extraordinary responses to stimuli, complete adaptation is not achieved long term. Fitness and performance decline; the animal becomes ill.
- In some cases, an extreme response does not result in complete adaptation, even long term, reducing the ill animal’s fitness and performance.
- An environmental stimulus may be so enormous and swift that the animal succumbs before responding.
Does a dog “know that he did wrong”?
I’ll use the popular word “owner” for this article’s purpose. I know that there are other politically correct words, such as tutor/guardian or parent. However, I’m not aware of tutors controlling and deciding each step of their students’ daily lives or of parents asking to remove the testicles or ovaries of their offspring. It is a discussion that I’ll reserve for another article.
Anthropomorphism happens when human behavior and human mental abilities are used as a reference system to explain the character of an animal or species.
Burghardt (1985) considers that critical (functional) anthropomorphism could be a valuable tool in answering questions about the function or evolution of behavior (Tinbergen’s first and second questions).
Other two models are present in the human-dog relationship: Lupomorphism (Serpell and Jagoe, 1995), a model that suggests that the social interactions between humans and dogs should be based on the rules that apply in wolf society; and Babymorphism (Meisterfeld and Pecci, 2000), a model that suggests that dogs occupy the social position of a human child with mental abilities corresponding to that of a one to two-year-old. Humans are expected to show parental behavior towards dogs regarding affiliative interactions and teaching or education. It is not exceptional that people attribute child-like behaviors to dogs and say that “dogs are just like small children.”
Perhaps it may be one of the reasons why dog owners want their dog close to them during walks, and they want to have full control of their behaviors, deciding what is “right” and “wrong.”
Taking for granted that the behavior of animals is consciously intentional is a characteristic of compulsive anthropomorphism, and it brings the long academic discussion about “introspection,” “goal-oriented behavior,” and “consciousness.”
It is expected that human perception creates anthropomorphic meanings. It is a way to understand the world and ourselves, and it goes beyond the other species. Our impulse to find faces or forms in clouds, put a religious connotation on natural disasters, use folklore, and cultural characteristics in our behavior are transversal examples of this.
Therefore, there is not enough or substantial evidence that allows us to say that dogs (or another species) have or do not have the “intention of doing bad things.”
Trainers, owners, and trends
The primary trend I want to refer to is the long questionnaires owners fill out. I have a couple of considerations about it. First is my experience that humans don’t write that they are guilty of something. Second, I don’t believe that sending 10-20 pages of questionnaire by email to owners to fill is a good practice. It is the duty of the trainers, consultants, etc., to make the necessary notes and analyze each case individually in physical presence. Third, different individuals have different perceptions of a word. Therefore, “aggressive,” “fearful,” etc., will be interpreted differently between the dog owners. And fourth, the way we transmit the information (written, spoken, online or presential) impacts how the owners will understand it.
Trainers who say “People don’t get it” are making a severely condescending claim that does not help in passing on information, and shows the poor skills of the professional to guide and teach their clients. I don’t believe that dog owners have an intrinsic desire to commit “mistakes.” Instead, they are flooded with opinions that indirectly shape their idea of having dogs and as a result frequently expect only desirable behaviors.
Since the beginning of my career, I have always asked owners to write what they are supposed to do in their own words. My programs are a research supplement that I send to them. I want to make sure that they know what to do by writing and practicing with me there. The actual “training” starts from the end of that session until the beginning of the other.
I adapt the programs according to individual needs. I don’t have a standard treatment checklist, unnecessary questions to ask, nor do I send any questionnaire through email for them to fill out. It is my experience that humans never will write that they are “guilty” of something. I now share these experiences with other students, trainers, veterinarians, and other professionals in the animal field through my mentoring sessions and other services of the Human-Animal Project.
It is not rare to put our problems on the other species, and animal trainers find themselves inside of a familiar problem, where their decisions will influence the destiny of the species. That pressure forces us to focus so much on solving a behavior by giving certainty about a subject that we neglect discovering possible activities that the owners may have done to cause this behavior in the first place.
Creating a bond takes time, and sometimes it will never happen. Changing behaviors also brings responsibility. Are we sure about the behaviors we want to change and are we really changing them? Usually, we hear claims from trainers who deal with dogs with aggressive or fearful behavior that “this problem is solved.” But how can trainers remove a species’ essential social behavior from their DNA?
Human-animal incompatibility between individuals from different species cannot continue as a taboo within the dog training community because we face situations where the animal’s welfare is seriously compromised as a result. Herzog (2021) shows several examples of misunderstandings on the human-animal relationship, most of them fed by scientific papers. Of course, clarifying and openly discussing these sensitive matters will jeopardize the new trend of “bond trainers,” and it makes a bit ironic they speak about a “problem” in these situations because:
- We cannot “train” bonds when two individuals are incompatible or do not depend on each other.
- It is difficult (or impossible at the moment) to measure a bond and determine whether it exists.
- We know that the communication barrier results from a weak approach to the honest communication concept in animal communication theory.
- Toys or gizmos do not replace natural needs from an individual, and sometimes camouflage and obscure the absolute lack of communication between dog-human.
Another trend is categorizing still unknown behaviors in the scientific community as “funny.” A good example is this: “Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAPS)” or “Zommies” are popular terms used to describe the “burst activities” that make the dog run around from one side to another and sometimes spin in circles.
Popular groups and articles describe it as something “funny” and natural, including claims from scientists that do not show any references to support their arguments. I do not consider it funny at all. It worries me that this behavior is a consequence of inadequate stimulation for the dogs and a lack of homeostasis in their daily life as a result of some humans believing that dogs should have the same schedule as humans for food and physical activities (before or after work), and thus the humans observe emotional outbursts from the animals, Which I believe it may became learned behavior. I found no information or studies in the scientific literature about “FRAPS”, and I believe that further studies on the neuroscience field will give us a better insight on that subject in the future.
Is it a behavior problem? I don’t know. I gave you different perspectives in order to open a discussion between all the perspectives. I don’t know a reason to classify certain behaviors à priori as a problem. On the other hand, I don’t have another word to suggest we use instead in a human society guided by rules, impositions, various cultures, and social etiquette.
I don’t use the term “problem behaviors” anymore. Not because it is wrong, but because I’m not too fond of it. When using that phrase, we are already classifying a particular behavior as a problem and indirectly influencing owners. Also, “problem behavior” has a strong connotation from earlier military dog training, so it surprises me that the extreme and fanatic sides of dog training still use this term in their services, since it spreads a potentially fallacious idea that will influence the social and evolutionary components of the dogs through generations.
Several questions here require a deep, and rational discussion. The dog world needs paradigm shifts between professionals and the academic field, with an improvement of strict terms and definitions, not trendy or socially accepted words by the popular audience in social media.
We currently live with a large number of moral dilemmas in society. I read so much about animal laws and ethics, and I’m seeing dog trainers (ironically) forcing people to believe how positive they are. However, I do not read anything about the importance of one of the essential pillars of dogs in society: social education with sound scientific knowledge and dog trainers sharing their experiences without an ideological agenda behind it that discriminates and cancels those who have a different opinion. We should leave our personal ideologies and frustrations at home.
Society needs more education about the relationship with dogs, and we must give it in a sound and simple way. Sometimes we indirectly feed the premise of behavior problems as a need for commercial purposes. Providing helpful information and adapted guidance to the owners are the seeds for a better future.
Animal trainers should also know their ethical and technical limits, especially keeping in mind that the dog may have a health condition and require a visit to a veterinarian. The fine line between trainers and veterinarians needs to be strengthened with responsibility and credibility, so that both know their places.
We cannot force relationships by manipulating one individual (dog) to our wishes. A genuine relationship is the result of learning to live with our differences.
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Edited by Dana Lee
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