The M is for Management
Setting up the environment for success
Preventing unwanted behaviors from happening/being practiced
Preventing exposure to triggers
Advocacy, Considerate Approach and Safer Handling
Management Is about changing the environment to help prevent problems and also to prevent your dog from practicing unwanted behavior.
The environment is filled with cues that seem to ask dogs to do things. This is similar to us asking a dog to sit then giving him a treat when he does. For instance, leaving a steak on a counter prompts a dog to jump up and get it. In the future, the counter becomes an environmental cue to jump up and see if anything yummy is there. The counter seemingly whispers “jump up” and the dog is reinforced when he finds something. After being reinforced (or getting the reward from the counter) the dog continues listening (or in this case watching) the cue.
With management, we intervene and change the environment so that the behavior doesn’t become automatic, or habitual.
About Practicing Unwanted Behavior
We talk about management in the context of practicing unwanted behavior. Dogs do behaviors for a reason. There is a law about this. Edward Thorndike was a psychologist that applied psychology to learning theories. He came up with the Law of Effect which states “any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated.” This law helps us work efficiently and effectively with your dog, but it also explains why some unwanted behaviors persist. Think back to counter surfing -- the dog found some steak once, so the behavior is likely to be repeated. It's a law!
Dogs do behaviors that work for them. So, if your dog is doing a behavior, there is some type of reinforcement happening, or the behavior would not persist.
The tricky part of this law is identifying your dog’s reinforcer. This is not about treats. Let’s look at a scenario. Your dog is barking and lunging at a person, and the person startles and moves away. The behaviors are barking and lunging. We have to ask ourselves what happens next (or in the future). Does barking and lunging persist? If yes, it’s likely that the person moving away is the reinforcer for the behavior. The dog in this scenario was likely doing the barking and lunging to create more distance between him or herself and the person.
This can apply to more simple scenarios too. Let’s look at recalling your dog to you. If you recall your dog to you and you give a treat every time, it’s likely that your dog will come to you if the treats are yummy. However, if you call your dog to you and you pick her up to go into the crate, coming to you may stop happening if your dog thinks the crate is undesirable or if she doesn’t like the physical feeling of being picked up.
One more scenario – let’s think about a dog guarding a bone (or person, or location, etc.) from another dog. Dog A has a great bone. Dog B walks by. Dog A growls at Dog B, then Dog B leaves. Bingo - reinforcement. Dog A has successfully protected his bone from Dog B so it’s likely that the behavior will continue in similar situations.
Management is important in things like house training, play biting and jumping:
Sometimes, a dog’s behavior has serious consequences to management and becomes important for safety. Here are some examples:
A dog who ingests socks requires a family who keeps socks put away at all times.
A dog who attacks other dogs in the home over bones, treats or toys requires these things to be kept up at all times, especially if/when the dogs are unsupervised.
A family with a peanut butter loving dog with a terrible peanut allergy must keep peanut butter on a high shelf in the pantry.
A family with a door darter should put a gate up for extra safety.
House Training puppies require a crate.
Advocacy, Considerate Approach & Handling
You are your dog’s advocate. Since your dog can’t speak human, it’s our job to help. Your dog is more important than a stranger wanting to pet. It’s ok to say, “your dog doesn’t want to interact right now” – or “we are in training and my trainer doesn’t want anyone to interact with your dog for the next few weeks.”
If someone has a dog and wants their dog to greet yours on leash, please avoid this at all costs. Blame it on us! This is a recipe for accidents. Even if a person thinks his/her dog is friendly, it’s unknown how it will react to yours, especially when movement is restricted by leashes.
Considerate approach includes best practices to approach your dog that maximizes comfort. These practices apply to all people in your dog’s life, including strangers:
If you’d like to interact with your dog, prompt your dog with a “touch” cue. It’s ok if your dog doesn’t come. Interaction may not be desired at that moment. This is being considerate to wants/needs at the moment.
If it is necessary to approach, do so slowly in an arc or semicircle (some dogs find quick, forward-walking approaches threatening)
If someone is standing next to your dog and you sense your dog’s discomfort, ask the person to turn sideways and avoid direct eye contact. If your dog is still uncomfortable, increase the distance from the person or exit completely.
Because people love to pet dogs and puppies, it’s really important to learn how to properly execute a consent test for petting. This is important for both known and unknown people. Check out these videos to understand how a consent test works.
A Note about Fearful Dogs
Management for fearful dogs is a bit tricky to understand. Remember, management is about setting the environment up for success. For fearful dogs, we want to reduce things that elicit fear in the environment. This could be sights, sounds, smells, people, dogs, etc. We want our dogs to experience relief from fear, anxiety and stress so that they are primed for learning. Sometimes the lesson is that the world isn't scary. For many fearful dogs we can't teach them that the world isn't scary without reducing the scary things so they can process information. If your dog is fearful, we will help you identify what is
Management Examples for Fearful Dogs
Create Safe Spaces
For some dogs, management is about setting up the environment so the dog can keep distance from things that make her uncomfortable or are scary to her. Sometimes, she may not even be able to move away because she is scared. In those instances we need to put her away so she can get a break from stressful things. This is important in family situations where there are many people and things going on.
Have People Ignore
If you have a fearful dog in a place place where there are many people nearby, and you can't remove the dog from the situation, ask people to ignore her. This is the fastest way to help her feel safe other than putting her in a confinement area far away where she can decompress.
If someone wants to give a treat, the treats should be thrown away behind the dog. This treat delivery creates distance between the dog and the person so that she can eat the treat in comfort and then reassess her comfort level. Comfort level is fluid, it's not black-and-white. Your dog may be comfortable for the first 10 or 15 minutes of a visit and then have a trigger and be less comfortable for the duration. Reassessing comfort by throwing treats away is the kindest approach.
Closing the Gap
Ask people to not close the gap of space for a fearful dog. If your dog wants to interact with someone, allow him to make that choice and approach a person on his own. Even then, I’d ask humans to ignore the first few approaches. Sometimes your dog may approach someone to get a good sniff due to curiosity and then realize he is a little too close for comfort. If someone does not touch him at these times, the sense of safety will improve more quickly than if he has a perceived unsafe experience. Remember, what is scary is in the eyes of your dog not in our eyes or our perception, so we want to be very conservative and slow.