The Behaviorist

So, I’ve been pretty absent here lately because I’ve had something looming on the horizon. Today I took Silas to the veterinary behaviorist. (The real deal, dispenses both training advice and potentially medication type.) After our last trip back home, where Silas was scared of things like: my nephew, because he took a shower and changed clothes; my dad, because he carried a load of laundry; the ironing board; his new toy; and the train noises in the distance, I realized it was time for some professional help.

The thing is, Silas is an incredibly well-trained dog. I’m not perfect. There are obvious and real gaps in his training. At the day-to-day level, though, he has a very solid base of very reliable behavior cues that he does reliably and happily. We work on something almost every day. I’ve counter-conditioned or otherwise trained my way through a pretty substantial list of garden variety fears. About hundreds of things, big and small, he’s getting better every day. His list of “acceptable” life conditions is still expanding, to the point that he can pass as a pretty normal dog in a lot of places.

Nothing I do seems to help the big stuff, though. I still can’t take him on a walk. If he sees a car through the trees in the park, he will try to bolt. He would rather chew his own legs off than walk on the sidewalk. If something surprises him, he still reacts badly. With both of these, there isn’t exactly an implementable coutner-conditioning regimen. I can’t plan increasingly difficult surprises. I can’t get him far enough away from a car that he isn’t flattened to the sidewalk. It was time to call in some precise, targeted help. We tried private training lessons last year, with a very good trainer, and he thought Silas might have been beyond his ability to help.

Mostly what I wanted to know was how bad he really is. Am I overreacting to his anxiety? Are we on the continuum of average, somewhere?

In the end the verdict was kind of a yes and no. Silas was, of course, perfectly well-behaved in her office. He neither peed on anyone’s shoes nor barked at them during the initial greeting. (Although, the staff at a behaviorist’s office isn’t exactly passing out the ear scratches.) We did take him out on the sidewalk, so that did get shown in its full effect.

My main homework is deceptively easy sounding: I need to teach Silas how to relax. He, as was extremely obvious even in an office full of strangers, has no idea how to just not interact. The assistant spent what seemed like an eternity teaching him to lie on a bed, and he never would relax and do it without prompting. The behaviorist looked at him doing this and said, “He really loves to work, and he’s very smart. This is great! Except, it means he will manipulate everything in his environment just to get you to give him something specific to do.”

There is a massive quantity of other information that I have to process. We have a lot of lifestyle and behavior things to think about, plus a more serious training plan for the cars. For now, we’re exhausted. Poor Silas worked hard for the two hours of his visit. And bless his little heart, the landscapers are coming this afternoon.



Dogs don’t act at random any more than people do. Yes, there’s a reason you keep buying soy sauce at the grocery store, even though you did it last time, and maybe even the time before that.

We’ve been trained by a hundred years of psychology to invent really complex reasons that we do things. Our grocery shopping behavior is linked to our happy childhood memories of eating around the table, or our unhappy childhood memories of skipping meals. And it is. But, it’s much more pragmatically linked to the fact that we’re stressed and keep forgetting the grocery list.

Your dog offers behaviors for a reason. It’s important to remember that. It’s also, however, important to let it go.

For example: Silas is barking out the window. He’s barking out the window because there are people outside, and that stresses him out. He’s an anxious dog with a history of awkward relationships with strangers, due to genetic influences on his temperament and maybe too little socialization.

Alternatively: he’s barking because he finds this behavior rewarding. He’s hoping that if he barks at them (behavior) that they will go away (reward).

The first construction of this is a very compelling narrative, and truthful as far as I know. In the grand scheme of things, it might even give me some useful training data. It tells me that I should keep exposing Silas to new people, and do everything I can to keep his anxiety level down. It’s not nearly as much help with the actual behavior in the moment, though, as the second construction. That second narrative helps me to recognize that barking is self-rewarding, and that if I want it to stop I will need to somehow intervene in that moment.

As a training tool, the big picture ultimately matters very little compared to watching the response/reward pattern. That’s good, because it’s also easy for our deep psychological reasons to be entirely wrong. We are not inside our dog’s heads. More dangerously, those same unverifiable psychological explanations often become excuses. “The dog poops on the floor while I’m at work to spite me for leaving him, so I can’t do anything about it.” “He was abused; he’ll always bark at men.”

How about this: your dog pees on your rug, eats your trash, chews your shoes, hides when you vacuum, and barks at strangers because he finds it rewarding to do so. Behaviors that are rewarded increase in strength and frequency, whether your dog is a singleton puppy with genetic fear issues or the most confident show-dog in the ring. There’s a narrative you can act on, rather than just feeling sorry about.