Managing the owner
in dog training or behaviour therapy

Lecture given at the 2nd Belgian APBC symposium the 15th of March 1997
(Posted 1997, adapted 25 Dec 2001)

©Dr JoŽl Dehasse

3 avenue du Cosmonaute, 1150 Brussels, Belgium

[Introduction] - [What is the problem?] - [Who is the dog?] - [Who are the owners?] - [What did the owners do to amend the problem?] - [What is the system?] - [Who is the "t"?] - [Who is the referent?] - [How to formulate, to interact?] - [How to individualize the training or the therapy to the people?] - [How to create a therapeutic system?] - [Choosing to co-operate with other selected intervenors?]


This subject is a challenge. Who is better placed to talk about it? I would have thought: a psychologist, a system therapist, even a marketing manager, ... Several people seem to have an innate facility to manage dog owners. But techniques and education exist.
Question: Why did the organizers ask me to lecture about this topic? What do they think about me ? about my job ? about my capacities to lecture about the management of the owners ?
Answer: They've heard about me. We've talked about it.
And this is the core of the subject of this article: representation and communication.

Here are several frequent asked questions (FAQs) and the leading ideas.
  • What is the problem?
  • Who is the dog?
  • Who are the owners?
  • What did the owner do to amend the problem?
  • What is the system?
  • Who is the "therapist"?
  • Who is the referring party? Who send them?
  • How to formulate, to interact?
  • How to individualize the training or therapy to the people and not the people to the therapy?
  • How to create a therapeutic system?
  • Choosing (not) to co-operate with other selected intervenors

I will use the "T" as an abbreviation for trainer or behaviorist or veterinarian (therapist). There is a great confusion in the words used in this field. I hope that every professional will be able to define his role and function adequately (see below).

What is the problem?

The dog is not coming to see the "T" by itself. It is brought by its owner.
Because the owner is annoyed or troubled by one or several problems. The problems are not problems in the absolute, but only in relation (relative) to the owner. That is one of the reasons why the problem is presented now to the "T" and not before.
  • A behavioral problem is a behavior that causes a problem for the surrounding. The environment is losing its capacity to come back to equilibrium (homeostasis).
  • A behavioral pathology (sickness) is a behavior that has lost its adaptive functions and is not capable to come back to equilibrium (homeostasis)

The way you ask the question may change all the dynamics of the interview. It will (not) frame the dog or the owner as the culprit, and the "T" as an expert, or as a co-constructor of a therapeutic solution, ...
  • What is the problem of the dog?
  • What is your problem?
  • What do you think is the problem? (to each member)
  • What are we going to try solving together?
  • What are you expecting from me, from this meeting?

The way you ask the question may change the way people imagine the training or the therapy.
The hidden question may be: "Who is the culprit? Who is the black sheep? The dog ? the owner (which one ?) the breeder ? a trainer/vet. ? the system ?"
Is the "T" an external expert who will give all the tricks and solutions ?

What really is the problem ?
  • Is the problem single, simple or complex ?
  • Is the problem for real ?
  • Is the problem
    • a redirected sign of something else?
    • a chance for the family members to communicate resentments, feelings, changes in the life cycle, conflicts with adolescents, ...

The problem as exposed by the owner may not be the real problem.
The problem may be an entry to other dynamics. What does that mean? A fearful dog may be diagnosed as "anxious". But it may also be an opportunity for the family to communicate resentments, or angers, or anything. You understand that treating the dog will be very difficult and will not change anything.
The problem may be the signal of a crisis in a system.

What is the cause of the problem?
"My dog has become aggressive because he was bitten twice by a German Shepherd when he was 7 months of age"
Maybe he provoked it !
Maybe he was just producing pheromones that activate the aggression by an adult
Maybe ...

The cause of the problem as exposed by the owner may not be the real cause. The "T" has to reframe everything from an ethological and ecological (and other) point of view. The apparent cause may just be a catalyst of a pre-existing process.
What is reframing? It is another way to explain behaviors.
  • Reframing is giving other hypotheses
  • for the probable cause or function of a symptom
  • that is acceptable by the owner
  • that is impossible to associate with the cause or function he/she proposed
  • that is demonstrable by reasoning ...

Bad reframing
  • A disobedient dog is
    • a dominant dog (bad dog ?)
    • living with an owner that is incompetent (bad owner ?)
  • Even if the dog was badly socialized, is fearful, show irritative aggression, has mood or endocrine disorders, ...
  • Everybody is feeling badly with this explanation

Good reframing.
  • If the owner of a welsh terrier thinks her dog is mean because he is attacking her from under the furniture, explaining that a terrier is just that, a terrier, and has been selected as a breed to go under things, under the earth, to attach foxes.
  • That is a reframing with a proposal for a new explanation for a behavior.

Another way to reframe things, and that is more subtle, is to change the way people think.
The problem is existing in time. So why is it presented now? What were the dynamics that led the owners to you here and now?
  • Aggravation ?
  • Dangerousness ?
  • Neighbors complaining ?
  • They eventually got your address ? ...
What may be the cure of the problem ? The are more than a single way to "cure":
  • remove / solve the problem
  • increase the tolerance of the owner
  • change the owner's idea of the problem: the problem may be an opportunity to change
  • etc.

Who is the dog?

The dog is presented as having a problem.
Is this behavioral problem a training problem, a behavioral pathology, a somatic disease, or something else?
As a behaviorist veterinarian or a dog trainer or a behaviorist intervenor of other capability, you have to meet the dog. It is what you have been educated to do. There are numerous ways to do it, by way of an interview with the owners, by observation of the behaviors of the animal, of the occupation of the space, of the alliances between people and the dog, ...
That may be the subject of a whole lecture...

Who are the owners?

Meet the owners !!!
Who are you talking to ? How are they talking to you (intellectual level - professions - ...) ?

Who called you?
The member of the family who called may be the most motivated to start a therapy, may try to get an alliance with the "T" , or challenge him, or try to control the therapy before hand, or be very shy in asking for a therapy or is trying to delegate all the responsibility to the expert.
Who is the owner?
It may be useful to ask the owner to present himself (herself). The way he will answer will give informations on him and on the idea he has of the "T" or of what the "T" is asking for; he will give you a professional or a familial presentation; that is already interesting.
  • What do they say to you ?
  • What do they express in their body language, in their space occupation ?
  • Is it congruent ? or paradoxical ?
  • What are you feeling about it ?

If needed, you can reframe as soon as possible the way people may anticipate the therapy or the training. You can also adapt your language to the intellectual level of the owners. You will be able to know if you need to explain things in an intellectual way, or prefer the use of metaphors. This is another step to implement the therapeutic convention.

What did the owners do to amend/change the problem?

People do things to have a more peaceful life. Everybody is egocentric. So with certainty, people did do something to alleviate the weight of the problem off their shoulders.
Are the solutions worsening the problem ?
  • prescription of a drug XYZ
  • impossible way to train the dog
  • coercive training for a fearful dog
  • punishment for a hyperactive dog
  • ...

It is very important to know that because, as an expert, you may have to be able to propose new solutions and those solutions must not be the same as the ones already put to the test. Or, as a systemician, you may propose the very same solutions with slight adjustments so the people will be able to do it easily.

What is the system?

The dog is not living alone. It is living inside a system (the famous family-pack system). What may cause a problem in a system may not be annoying in another system, even a behavioral pathology as noise phobia, or hyperaggression, ... In case of hierarchical problems or separation anxiety, the system may be preponderant in entertaining - or worsening - the problems with bad solutions.
A system is a living being, it tries to stay stable (homeostasis) with rules and a peculiar structure. The system frequently does not want to change, do never forget it.
Analyzing the system is not easy. There are several ways to do it.
  1. the structure and the hierarchy of the system (patriarchy, matriarchy, democracy, inverted hierarchy with a lot of power to the kids and the dogs, ...)
  2. the rules, the way people interact with each other and the dog (physical harsh or soft contact, or verbal communication, ...)
  3. The culture(s), their myths (interdiction to hit the dog, impossibility to envisage the euthanasia of the animal, ...)
  4. The secret (hidden) value of the animal, its secret burden [the replacement dog syndrome: dog in replacement for a dead kid, sister, parent, ...]
  5. The resources depending on physical or moral strength, on obstinacy, ...
  6. The resistances depending on physical or moral weaknesses, handicap, sickness, psychological disorder (depression, anxiety, cyclothymia, paranoia, ...), ...

Who is the "T"?

The "T" is involved in the therapeutic convention, in the therapeutic system. He cannot avoid it, even if he tries to stay as an external expert. Our [medical] culture frames the "T" as an expert that will surgically remove the problem.
The image of the "T" is out in the world, the way he put it (publicity, information) and the way people put it (hearsay, ...). The image of the "T" is not the "T". It is framed by people representation, so is also framed its training or therapy. Will he be able to amaze the people or/and the dog?
Several question have to be answered:
  • Whom is the "T" empathetic to?
    Following his own history, family, life experience, the "T" will be more empathetic to the dog or a member of the family. Will the "T" be able to know it and to help people with whom he is not empathetic?
  • What is the mental image of the "T" for each member of the system?
    Why not ask people what is their feeling to work with the "T", what they think about him, what they anticipate they will be able to achieve together, ...?
  • What is the mental image of each member of the family in the "T"'s mind?
    Is the "T" able to objectively relate with all the members of the family-pack? If he is not, what is the "T" going to do about it?
    The "T" beliefs & myths !
    "You don't see the world as it is ... but as you are" (Talmud)
    People are building their (own map of the) reality. But the map is not the territory. The map is a model to read the territory. There are useless and useful maps ... depending on where you want to go!
    The animal behavior "map" inside the "T" brain:
    1. hardware defect (tumor, endocrine disorder, ...)
    2. software defect (genetic)
    3. environment perturbation
    4. operant (Skinnerian) conditioning (behaviorism - behavioral therapy)
    5. social learning (cognitive behaviorism)
    6. applied ethology
    7. synthetic approach with applied ethology, psycho-physiology, psycho-pharmacology, neuro-physiology, neuro-biochemy, ...
    8. psychoanalytic belief (?)

Who is the referring party, the referent? Who sent them?

How did the people come to the "T"? How did they find his references? Who gave it to them? Is it a veterinarian, a trainer, a friend? Was it by the yellow pages? Did they read a book written by the "T"?
Two questions have to be answered related to the stakes at hand:
  • What is the positive reason for the referral?
    Is he a friend of the "T", a frequent referring party, is he working with the "T"? Is he a new referring party? How did he hear about you?
  • What is the hidden reason for the referral?

Some referring people try to protect themselves, or would like to wreck the therapy (because they failed to cure the dog, to save the dog, ...) This is a resistance factor you will have to counteract or at least keep in mind.

How to formulate, to interact?

People do things because they have a good enough reason to do it. Maybe it is not the same reasoning or even ethic as you would have, but they have no choice, with their history, their affectivity, ... to do something else. So the first thing is to be highly tolerant.
Then, as dog and people are living together in a system, and as anybody has his own parents and education and life events, you will have difficulties to pinpoint the causation of a problem. If you do it, eventually, you may have the wrong cause. Every young or adolescent dog has been bitten by an adult dog. It is not the reason why he became aggressive. It is even because the adolescent dog was impertinent, not greeting the adult with proper ritual, that he was bitten. Causation is in a circular mode, not linear one. Everybody has to stop to give the "bad owner" discourse.

Linear vs. circular cause /chain of events
It is not because the owners let the dog sleep on the bed ...
It is not because the dog is genetically impetuous ...
... that he is dominant / aggressive
Linear causation is easy & false !
Everybody is always reacting to a stimulus produced by somebody or the environment. Nobody is the cause of anything.
When you are thinking "circular", you stop giving the "bad owner - bad dog" culpability accusing discourse.
If you are tolerant and do not accuse the owner of being a bad owner, you will avoid culpability. Then the people will be more open to you and you will get better information and better co-operation.

It is even better to put the personality of the owner in a positive way. If he is very passive and has endured months of barking and aggression from his dog, just say that he is very tolerant and that he must love his dog very much to have that kind of patience.
But do not forget to express your own feelings in an "I feel" way and never with a "you are" way. Do not say: "you are a bad owner; do not punish the dog when he comes back!"; just say: " if I were a dog, I would stay away if I were awaiting a punishment when coming back."
Avoid the "you you you" accusation.
If you do not express your feelings verbally, your body will do it for you - that is body language. You will then put people in a double contrary message - that is paradoxical communication. You will put the owners and the dog in an ambivalent position, and they will surely resist your therapeutic proposal.

How to individualize the training or the therapy to the people and not the people to the therapy?

That is a big question. A lot of "T" are just doing that: trying to cut enough of the head and tail of sardines so they can fit in a can. They are very rigid in their approach and people have to change and adapt to what they say: from walking on a leash (there is no way a 50 kg female owner may be able to pull (and pull) on the leash of a great Dane male hyperactive dog!) to trying a desensitization or counter-conditioning.
The "T" will need a lot of experience and knowledge to adapt his own techniques to the resources and resistances of the owners.
Remember that the people, in general, want to give the dog to an expert to "cure" the dog from any misbehavior without changing anything to their own behaviors or communication patterns. Training, behavioral or systemic therapy is not surgery. You will not be able to do it in the absence of the owners co-operation.
So you will have to be an artist, and not only an expert.
To be an artist, you need techniques. So learn.

It takes
  • ... minutes to train a dog
  • ... hours to train an owner to train his/her dog
  • ... weeks to train a trainer to train different dogs
  • ... weeks/months to train a trainer to train an owner to train a dog
  • ... months/years to change a system
  • ... years to educate a therapist on how to change a system
  • ... decades to be a skilled trainer / behavior therapist / behaviorist / ...

You will have to choose between being an external expert who will give good advises, or let the system be the expert with the "T" only as a catalyst of positive changes inside the family-pack. To be a systemician, you need hundred of hours of education. The lack of competence may be very dangerous for the stability of the family.
A systemic analysis is very important when you thing that the dog is used as a way of communication between the members of the family.

If the dog is suffering from a pathology, or is dangerous to certain members of the family, you may need to put it under medication. The prescription of psychotropic drugs is restricted to the profession of veterinarians. This, too, needs dozens, if not hundreds of hours of education. There are two kinds of drugs: regulatory and inhibitory drugs. The last ones are used in very aggressive cases.
There is a danger that medicating the dog will put on it all the pressure of the therapy, removing any sense of co-responsibility in the owners.

How to create a therapeutic system?

The therapeutic system is constituted from the dog, the family and the "T". Every therapeutic system is individualized. It has a frame of space (the place where it is situated: at home, at the vet clinic, at the training center, ...) and of time (the duration of the interview, the consultation, the phone call, ...).
The therapeutic system is the system that works toward the objectives determined by the system as a whole. So as a negotiator, you will have to lead the system to the apply the best solutions or to find by themselves the best solutions or compromises that will suit them and that everybody will respect.
These objectives may be a change in the system structure (hierarchy) or in the interactions.

Choosing (not) to co-operate with other selected intervenors !

I am in favor of co-operation. Because nobody has all the knowledge, the ideas, the technicalities, the time, ... to adapt to every situation, every dog, every family-pack.
But even if I send dogs to trainers, it is not often reciprocated. And trainers may not be competent to realize a behavioral therapy as I prescribed it. I am searching for competent trainers, who have a sufficient knowledge in ethology, experimental psychology, conditioning techniques, behavioral modification techniques (cognitive and behavioral therapies). I need these people to control how the therapy is realized and to give me a feed-back and ideas to modify it depending on the situation.
So I thing everybody has a role to play.
The role of the trainer
The role of the behaviorist
The role of the behaviorist veterinarian
The role of a psychologist, psychiatrist, systemic therapist
The role of a supervisor
The role of the referring party
Whichever his role and function, one of the most important things is that every "T" takes his professional and legal responsibilities and does not encroach on another professional land. There is a great need for ethics in this field.
Lots of problems (90%)
Lots of pathological dogs (60%)
Big potential market
Lots of trainers
Lots of veterinarians
Few people wanting to change anything
Few artists


Dr Joël Dehasse
Behaviorist veterinarian