The roll of the animal behaviourist is very important in identifying behavioural problems, which are causing concerns and stress in the home. The behaviourist is able to give insight into the problem, advise on the reasons the behaviour is occurring and provide the knowledge necessary to correct this unacceptable activity. However, in some cases this may not be sufficient to rectify the problem as owners do not have the skills and the necessary knowledge to reinforce the regime given by the behaviourist. It is for this reason that this topic is very dear to me, as I have personal experience of the synergistic approach to correcting animal behaviour. I have rescued and rehabilitated dogs for a number of years and managed to place the dogs in appropriate homes. The synergistic approach is the combination of Ethology and practical outcomes based obedience training, offered by the trained Animal Behaviourist with the practical knowledge of ongoing obedience training.

The synergistic approach to animal behaviour consists of the following

Firstly, the consultation with the family and the dog at our training facility, which is held in a large enclosed area. We collect the information on the history of the dog and the problem, and familiarise ourselves with the family dynamics. This gives us the option of evaluating the handler and dog interaction and the interaction between family members, as this has direct impact on how the dog is placed in the family hierarchy. We have to remember that bad behaviour in our animals is invariably handler related. Very few dogs start out with problems unless they are cognitively impaired. You might say “but I have a rescue dog”. Remember this dog also started out a gorgeous puppy until some human being interfered. Invariably mistreatment of animals is more from lack of knowledge than purposefully. It is unfortunately in our rushed society today, that we look for quick fixes. Therefore it is our un-rushed synergistic approach which can assist in giving positive outcomes.

We then plan the way forward: Guidelines to take home. A training program is put in place, that is to be carried out at home. Appointments are then set up for the family and dog to attend obedience classes. When the family attend the classes, we get feedback on what has occurred during the week and record any changes. The training program at this point, might have to be adjusted. All concerns from the family will be addressed. The dog is then placed in a class with the family member that has been chosen to handle the dog. An obedience class automatically installs the handler in the alpha position, as the dog is on a lead and has to do as the handler requests. The dog is taught different exercises, which involves the handler teaching the dog to listen and carry out these exercises. We encourage the handler to continue these exercises at home. The handler is also taught how to maintain his alpha position over the dog at home and how to include the rest of his family in the 'alpha group'. Most behavioural problems occur when the dog is allowed to become the pack leader or when they look upon the family as equal to them. The dog needs to learn that it is at the bottom of the pecking order.

Example: A Jack Russell called Rocket

He was adopted from the SPCA and lives on a plot. The living arrangements on the plot consist of a number of cottages, inhabited by different families. In the one cottage the family has a child who has Leukaemia. The family compensated by giving the child whatever he wanted, which involved the purchasing of a number of animals, including a pig and a tea cup Yorkshire Terrier. Rocket was adopted by one of the families on the plot. Within his first week he attacked the Yorkshire Terrier and the pig. He also attempted to bite the handler. On being contacted by the SPCA to intervene, as the dog was to be put down should he not behave, I met with the two families at our training facility and spent a few hours learning about the families and the dynamics of the community in which they live. Bringing the dog to the training facility also takes the dog away from its territory and it gives him nothing to defend, therefore nothing to attack. I did some socializing with the dogs and explained to the handlers what regime to follow at home and when they have community functions. I also started Rocket in obedience classes. At first rocket would not comply with what the handler wanted, as the handler was at Rockets mercy. The handler was scared of the dog and what the dog would do to him if he pushed the dog into doing something he did not want to do. Ongoing obedience lessons have taught the handler how to handle Rocket and to make himself the pack leader. Ongoing advise and correcting the training regime at home has made Rocket a functional member of his family and he is blossoming under their guidance. Rocket has established himself as the pack leader amongst the other animals in the community and rules with an iron paw. He does not attack the other dogs any more but displays true leadership qualities by disciplining without violence. He has also adjusted to the fact that his handler is boss and follows him where ever he goes. His obedience class consists of five other dogs with which Rocket does interact positively. He does on occasion attempt to discipline the Great Dane in the class. Rocket's quality of life has improved, but should Rockets environment or owners change, unfortunately he could possibly regress to his former state.

Placing of dogs in obedience classes does not only teach obedience to the dog, it also gets the dog to start working and getting the dog to use its natural ability. Numerous problems with dogs, are a result of the dog being bored and not doing what its species was designed to do. Imagine being kept in a room with nothing to do. Would you not be depressed and aggressive? If you had no boss at work would you not be confused about who was in charge? Look at the world through the eyes of the dog. Obedience classes let your dog know who is in charge and also gets his brain going. We educate the handlers on how the dog functions and what his needs are. Each week we can re evaluate the dog and give the handler more exercises to do with the dog to keep him busy and to expand the dog's knowledge base. We can make sure that the family are continuing the therapy on a daily basis.

The synergistic approach to animal behaviour is also used successfully in our centre to assist in inter-dog aggression. In the home environment we are unable to teach the dog the socialising it requires, as the dog does not come into contact with other dogs on a daily basis, unless the dog is walked. Which is where your dog aggression problem arises. Attending obedience classes facilitates placing the dog in a controlled environment with an experienced Animal Behaviourist who is also trained in dog obedience. We are then able to teach the handler about his dog while the dog is displaying adverse behaviour. We can also socialise the dog with other dogs without placing handler and dog at risk.


The importance of our clients attending ongoing obedience training, is to:
  • assist in correcting animal behaviour, as it gives structured sessions with handler and dog by an Animal Behaviourist who is also an experienced dog trainer,
  • carry through the knowledge that is given in the first consultation with the client, and
  • have weekly updates on the progress, and the opportunity to reassess the situation and amend the therapy regime.

Recently I was approached by a “dog listener” to give referrals, I asked how it worked. I was informed that there is one consultation, and any follows up, would be via telephone or email.

Behaviour correction is an ongoing process. It cannot be contained to a consultation and a backup phone call or an email. I believe it cannot even be kept to consultation rooms or even one or two consultations in the home. It takes animal behaviourists a year to do their basic course, how do we expect pet owners, who have no knowledge of animal behaviour to correct the behaviour of their problem pets without ongoing obedience and guidance from a professional?

The synergistic approach to animal behaviour allows us the time to educate the handler, which will enable the handler to facilitate a successful outcome with his dog and all other dogs to follow. Hopefully this handler will take the knowledge that he has acquired and pass it on.
Breeder of South African Boerboels with sound temperament
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