Is Your Dog a Criminal or Alcoholic?  Canine Rehabilitation vs Behavior Modification

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

“Ring! Ring!” whined the phone, “Ring! Ring!” followed by a polite, “Hello? How can I help you?” A minute of silence followed, then my assistant popped her head into my office and said, “The caller says she has a dog who needs rehabilitation and wants to know if you can help her.”

“Tell her no,” I said, which took my assistant slightly aback. “I don’t deal with criminals, drug addicts, or alcoholics. But, if by chance, she wants behavior modification for a dog with some behavioral issues, then send her my way.”

Okay, I know this reply sounds odd, given that the caller probably has an aggressive dog she wants help with and knows my specialty is animal behavior, but that’s what I wanted to say. For nearly a century, the term in psychology used for changing the behavior of animals and people using the scientific principles that guide learning and behavior has been called “behavior modification.” This term describes a range of modifications, from the modification of simple behaviors, such as getting children in a classroom to be respectful and quiet, to handling anger management, tantrums, and depression.

In the dog obedience world, one or two celebrity dog trainers or animal handlers (who have probably never taken a psychology course in their lives or at least never paid attention in class) come along and decide they will elevate the status of what they do by calling their practices canine rehabilitation. Their goal was to distinguish training of simple behaviors (such as sit and lie down or training dogs to greet nicely instead of jumping) from fixing more complex behaviors such as attacking people and other dogs.

Animal Rehabilitation Is Not for Behavior Problems

If you’re going to make up some terminology, make sure the term you decide on is not already in use in the field for something else! The word rehabilitation already has an official definition and veterinarians and human physical therapists can get certification in canine or animal rehabilitation through at least one veterinary university, the University of Tennessee as well as through another well-established veterinary organization, the Canine Rehabilitation Institute.

What’s more, animal rehabilitation is not related to animal behavior. Rather, it’s actually physical therapy. That is, animal rehabilitation uses exercises, ultrasound, TENS and other non-invasive technologies to help animals recover from physical injuries or prevent or slow physical processes down. These exercises include, but are not limited to, balance exercises, passive range of motion exercises, swimming, and water walking. You know, the types of things you do when you rupture your cruciate or are trying to deal with sciatica or shoulder pain. So, in a nutshell, the person or people who popularized the term rehabilitation, meaning fixing of behavior problems in dogs, put little thought into their choice of the term and had a narrow view of the field of dog handling, care and training. All they needed to do to realize the they had chosen the wrong term was a quick Google search.

Are Dogs with Behavioral Problems Morally Bad or Physically Addicted?

The second problem with the term rehabilitation for problem dogs is that it implies the dog is a criminal or an addict. As a reminder, with human behavioral problems and disorders, the word behavior modification is used to describe the scientific techniques used to modify behavior. These are techniques that take advantage of what we know about animal and human learning and cognition. The word rehabilitation is most commonly used for those undergoing treatment for alcohol or other drug addictions but it’s also used for treatment of criminals. Clearly, dogs with aggression issues or other extreme “misbehavior” issues are not alcoholics or drug addicts. And while they may be breaking the house rules or other human rules, they are not doing so out of a moral choice or even a real understanding of human societal laws. Their behavior reflects the way a dog naturally would  behave in the “wild” when it is afraid of something, or when guarding its possessions. Once again, various behavior modification techniques provide the tools to fix these behaviors.

Here are articles on fixing some common behavior problems:

Treatment of Food Aggression in Dogs is About Finesse, Not Force

How Do I Train My Dog to Stop Chasing My Chickens, Cat, Rat…And Our Other Pets?

Excessive Barking: Why Some Dogs Bark and How to Fix It

How to Prevent Damage from a Destructive Dog

Of course, if people don’t know the principles that guide learning and behavior in dogs and other animals, they might be inclined to make up a word as if they had invented an entire field of training.  However, doing so would be a red flag to those in the know and would indicate that these people don’t know much outside what they do themselves.

How about Dog Psychology?

If rehabilitation is not a good word to use, how about using the term dog psychology? Well, to me this term is hokey because it conjures images of a dog reclining on a couch telling stories of his childhood.  I have no problem with someone using this if they have actually taken psychology courses and understand what current psychology is. For instance, use of Freudian psychology, which was the popular psychology before psychology actually earned its place as a true science, would not represent what’s current in psychology today.

For now, use whatever terminology you like. I can’t make everyone use what’s appropriate. However, be aware if you’re a trainer or animal care professional and use the term rehabilitation instead of behavior modification when talking to me, I will assume you gained your knowledge about behavior from what you learned on T.V. or your knowledge has remained static over the years.

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One response to “Is Your Dog a Criminal or Alcoholic?  Canine Rehabilitation vs Behavior Modification

  1. I’d love to be able to call myself a “Dog Psychologist”, but alas somebody else has popularised the phrase and given it the effective definition of “somebody who makes it up as they go along”, and I want to distance myself as much as possible from that methodology!

    The number of times I have explained the benefits of reward versus dominance-based methods, only to have the dog owner tell me that’s just the difference between “dog training” and “dog psychology”. Maybe it would be easier if I got “I actually have a psychology degree” tattooed on my forehead!

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