DEAR DIDI: What is it like being a dog Behaviorist? It seems like a dream job! -Curious in Turlock
DEAR CURIOUS: I am extremely fortunate that I can make a living at something that I am passionate about, for sure! As with any job, there are parts that are not so much fun, parts that are challenging, and many moments of sheer joy that are so rewarding that they eclipse the unpleasant aspects of the job.
It isn’t enough to “love” dogs or be “good” with dogs. To be truly effective and highly successful, a Behaviorist has to understand and be able to work well with a wide range of … humans. The dynamics between family members, lifestyles, household routines and other very personal lifestyle choices can frequently have a direct impact on the family dog. We are part psychologist, family counselor, trainer, advocate, and most of us have medical backgrounds and advanced degrees. Each case is a puzzle that I have been asked to solve, so I am also a Sherlock Holmes. Not only does a family have to trust me enough to be honest about all the things going on in their lives and how they deal with them but they also have to be willing to adapt to some changes for the benefit of their family pet.
Behaviorists help people understand why their dog may be doing certain things or acting a particular way and what they can do to curb those behaviors. Solid training techniques are an important first step but management in the home is equally important. As we learn more and more about the amazing intelligence of our dogs, new techniques arise which makes ongoing education crucial. We apply principles such as Canine Learning Theory, Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and the Yerkes-Dodson Law to our methods.
Dogs can come in all sizes and each one is an individual with his or her own unique personality and … baggage. The hardest part is that I can’t ask the dog questions to help figure out what is going on. I also have to be able to adapt and come up with techniques that the human has the capability of executing. Humans have different capabilities mentally, emotionally, physically and fiscally.
In many cases a dog’s life may be in the balance once someone is referred to a Behaviorist. Perhaps the dog has bit someone, rushes out open doors uncontrollably putting him at risk for getting hit by cars, or is struggling with potty training in a home that is kept immaculate. Some dogs are lacking in confidence and everything scares them. There are times when a dog’s personality is just mismatched with the desires of the human or the energy levels just don’t fit. Behaviorists try to find solutions that meet the needs of both parties so they can live together harmoniously. At the very least, the dog’s best interests and quality of life are paramount. Honestly, the humans are the ones that we have the most problems convincing to change!
I discovered early on, while studying at Texas A&M University, that more dogs lose their “lives” daily from behavioral issues than medical ones. They get dumped, re-homed, euthanized for biting, or just have a bad quality of life because their actions seem “uncontrollable”. The best part of my job is that I truly save lives every day and I love supporting people that have brought dogs into their homes!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. Like Didi’s Facebook page: California Canine. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. E-mail your questions to Didi@californiacanine.dog.