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Why Good Trainers Don’t Dwell on “Why”

For nearly seven months now I’ve been frustrated with daily pain in my left shoulder.

I keep wondering if it’s ever going to stop. At my therapy appointment last week I asked what exactly they think the cause of the pain is? Torn muscle? Chronic inflammation? Tendon issue? Why does it hurt when move in certain ways?

My therapist responded that there are many possible causes since the shoulder is a very complex joint. The next thing she said made me laugh:

“This will be tough to wrap your head around, but technically it doesn't really matter because regardless of why it hurts, or what the initial trigger was that caused the pain, the treatment plan that will fix the pain is going to be pretty much the same.” After I finished laughing I replied, "same with dog training!”

My heart goes out to all pet parents who struggle daily with their dog’s behaviour. I know so many well-meaning people who wish more than anything that they could “fix” whatever it is that is makes their dog behave in a difficult way.

Dogs who are fearful of noises and get spooked by what could only be the wind sending them into a frenzied (sometimes aggressive looking) panic...

Dogs who are triggered by various unavoidable things in our urban environment making it difficult to go anywhere despite wanting to provide more enrichment...

Dogs who escalate to a bite in the blink of an eye when a person approaches and tries to pet them...

Dogs who compulsively chase shadows and light reflections to the point that training new skills outside becomes exceptionally difficult...

Humans often want to know WHY our dogs behave the way they do. What could have happened to Fido that made her fearful, aggressive, obsessive, and/or reactive? I think it's human nature to wonder why... I am very much a “why” person myself. From when I was a child up to this very day I want to know the reasons for all of the things. It’s as if knowing why is going to make a difference in what needs to be done.

I have worked in Human Resources for 10 years and I’m always coaching managers to try and articulate the why behind their actions, policies, etc., as it can help to get their people on board faster. I find it can also help pet parents get on board, too. For example, if you learn that Fido had a frightening experience while traveling in a car early in her life, it can garner a sense of empathy if it is a struggle every time you try to get her in the car. It is often that without a back story - a justifiable reason - we find it harder to get to a place of compassionate understanding.

Stop and think about it though. if there was a way for you to have 100% confirmation of the reason WHY Fido looses her mind when someone approaches her, there still wouldn’t be a single thing you could do to change what’s already happened. You can’t go back in time and take away that initial triggering experience, or make up for a missed socialization experience, or rearrange her genetics. All that is within our control is to make an educated guess about WHY she is the way she is right now. If Fido is fearful of people we can hypothesize that maybe they were not properly or adequately socialized at the right time, but we’ll never know for absolute certain that this is the reason. We’ll never be able to get inside our dog’s brain to identify the catalyst moment for the behaviour we are seeing today.

Spending time wondering the reason why Fido is the way they are is akin to wandering in the desert.

Time spent trying to understand the reason why is not an efficient use of resources (i.e., time, energy, money, brain-power, etc.) because we can change behaviour without that information. Similar to my shoulder pain, the way to address it will not differ much one way or the other. What DOES matter in behaviour modification though is clearly and correctly identifying the function of Fido's problematic behaviour which means determining how the behaviour is working for them to meet a specific need. Dogs do what works, unless there is a pathological condition involved, they will not waste precious energy on behaviours that don’t serve a need. Wandering in the desert takes your eye off the ball. Eye on the ball is getting to work right away on implementing vetted training plan solutions based on reliable data. The advances made by the behavioural, ethological, and cognitive sciences in recent decades has paved the way for effective and ethical behaviour modification strategies - no need for desert wandering.

You may have heard the phrase “train the dog in front of you.” This is what we need to dwell on rather than wasting time and money musing about reasons we can't ever validate 100%, nor go back and change even if we could. A good trainer will not waste your time dwelling on the past, they will help you focus on what can be done to get on the road to change today.

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