How does a dog get rehabilitated?
The process comes down to three simple steps: (1) learning, (2) understanding, and (3) acceptance. However, even though we have the same destination in mind for each one, the route we take varies with pretty much every single dog. The prerequisite for all of it though? Relationship building. That trust is key for bringing out the best in the dog.
Make Sure You Matter
In order to achieve real results, you must mean something to your dog. Would you take life advice from some stranger passing by on the street? Probably not. You have to become a mentor for the dog. That means someone he trusts and respects enough to willingly listen and absorb information. The best strategy for it depends on the dog.
Any sort of success in rehab involves altering the dog’s state of mind. And in order to make any alterations, you both need to be able to communicate. Maybe that involves interrupting anxious or aggressive behavior. Or maybe you’ve got a dog that just isn’t ready for that and can’t handle much pressure, so you have to communicate much more softly. Whatever it is, the goal is to get the dog to a point where he can actively listen to what you’re saying.
Regardless of whether you plan to interrupt a behavior, correct a behavior, or simply get started teaching a behavior, you need a clear language to allow for you to do so. If your dog does not know the language that you are trying to teach, you can actually contribute to a dog becoming more stressed, nervous, aggressive and/or confused. Taking the time to create fluid communication through tools that you plan to use to help you in other areas is critical!
Once you get that down, the real change can begin.
This is where we stop negative behaviors and teach new ones. Most children are taught early on how to behave. Dogs, on the other hand, can sometimes go well into their adulthood without much discipline. This stage starts by introducing new options for old triggers and making sure to address bad decisions, so he can begin to see a path through the fog of confusion created by this new way of life.
Don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t initially show a ton of confidence in exploring new behaviors and/or making different choices. We can’t expect him to fully understand it right away. We’ve got to be considerate and recognize when he’s putting forth the effort to learn.
If you see him: hesitating in situations where he used to make bad decisions, and possibly experimenting with different approaches until he finds the right one, engaging with the handler, etc., these are all signs that he’s learning that old ways are no longer working and that he might be onto something when dabbling with making different choices that we have suggested. It doesn’t have to be perfect just yet, but they’re signals that you’re on the right track. Often the first sign that a dog is in the learning stages, is when a dog seems unsure and a bit more hesitant to try what has worked in the past. He has learned that it no longer works but might not understand why or understand just yet that there might be a better way to go about that particular situation.
The understanding phase is where a dog gets a good grasp on what works and what doesn’t and confirms what distinguishes a good choice from an incorrect one.
This is really just fine-tuning and building on what you did in the learning stage. During this stage one must be considerate of the fragile state that a dog is in. Jumping into the assumption that the dog “knows better” at this point (and correcting/enforcing firmly) will likely slow down a dog’s ability to fully understand this new way of life, because listening to you now carries a negative association. And, whereas some hesitation was necessary when he was starting to learn, it impedes his progress if you’re over-correcting when the dog begins understanding.
It’s important to be considerate here and not push too hard. When you see that hesitation, it’s actually time to be softer and help him decipher the next move.
This is why most of our board and trains last six weeks (we offer 3, 6 and 8 week programs). We take our time and help the dog learn at his own pace. We want dogs to explore new behaviors and be open to taking direction where they used to just lash out and bite. Just because a dog has learned that something doesn't work and learned to do something different, does not mean that they fully understand it and accept it as a better alternative to old ways. A dog that is in the understanding phase, is on the verge of, but has yet to fully accept this new way of life. If done right, you can get a dog to accept this new routine and be enthusiastic about taking direction from a human, even if direction given goes against what the dog might have wanted to do. It's the difference in how the dog looks when complying to the direction of the handler and for us this is very important!
Acceptance is about enthusiasm (NOT excitement). If you’ve built your program the right way, you won’t see reluctance or sadness when the dog’s taking direction. In reality, on top of knowing what to do, he’ll also enjoy doing it. And what’s better than a dog who loves listening? He’ll want to perform at his best because he sees you as the source of great things in his life, and he knows you’re looking out for his best interests. The dog accepts that paying attention to you benefits them and that’s why a dog becomes so willing to trust you and your advice...because it’s always constructive. You achieve this by playing the role of a fair “life-guide.” Because how you do it is just as important as the result you want. By focusing on the journey and not just the destination, the difference in attitude becomes plainly visible.
Canine rehabilitation works because we take a world that was extremely confusing to the dog and break it down until it’s clear. Through learning to (1) make good choices and (2) look to the handlers whenever right is hard to distinguish from wrong, dogs can live happy, mentally stable lives. We can’t expect them to figure it out by themselves any more than we humans can expect to naturally understand complicated math or science.
By recognizing the three phases of dog education - learning, understanding, and acceptance – and tailoring the approach according to your specific pup, you can build a rock solid relationship with your dog.