Overcome Behavior Problems using the PAW System

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At some point all of us – dog owners and trainers alike – have experienced the excitement of adding a new dog to our home. Leisurely walks together, afternoons on coffee shop patios, evening snuggles – these were just a few ways we imagined the dog would improve our lives. We knew there might be a few bumps in the road but we’d get her trained and socialized to make sure she was obedient and friendly. We were committed to giving the dog the best life that we could.

Unfortunately, no one explained our plans to the dog. She turned out to be aggressive towards people, especially house-guests. She was disobedient, ignoring our commands even after training. The reality of the dog’s behavior was not aligned with our expectations of how things would be. We became frustrated, upset, and sometimes angry. Our dog had behavior problems and we did not know what to do. We felt helpless and burdened.

I’ve often wondered whether a system could be developed to reduce these feelings of helplessness, and give even novice dog owners a strategy for approaching any kind of behavior problem.1 The ideal system would also provide a framework for trainers to diagnose problems and create sensible training plans. Until recently, I couldn’t quite put my finger on a concrete method that I could articulate. That changed when I read Ryan Holiday‘s excellent manual overcoming general life obstacles, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday convincingly argues that, when approached correctly, mental, physical, and emotional obstacles are actually opportunities to improve our lives and our situations. His system is built upon three essential disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will. It occurred to me that these three disciplines could be easily adapted into a system for methodically overcoming any dog behavior obstacle (replacing the term “behavior problem” which I believe has more negative baggage).   It also occurred to me that despite my long-standing distaste for overused dog clichés, I had no choice but to name the system “P.A.W.”

Perception – Diagnosing the behavior obstacle

Holiday defines perception as “how we see and understand” events and “what we decide those events will mean”. We need the right perception of an obstacle before we determine the right actions for overcoming it. Unfortunately, our perceptions are often distorted by preconceptions, expectations, judgments, and emotions, causing us to attribute meanings to events beyond what is really there.

To perceive an obstacle correctly, we need to view it objectively and simply see what is front of us. We need to break the obstacle down into smaller components, stripping away expectations, emotions, and judgments. Only then can we systematically choose the right action for overcoming the obstacle.

Obedient. Friendly. These terms were used to describe our expectations for the dog we brought into our home. Disobedient. Aggressive. These terms describe our judgments of the dog’s behavior, which happen to be the polar opposite of our expectations.

What none of these terms do is describe the dog’s actual behaviors. They attribute meaning beyond what is in front of us, compartmentalizing complex behaviors into broad categories that obscure our view. We are unable to correctly perceive the behavior obstacle when we use these types of terms. We cannot make a proper diagnosis of what the behavior obstacle is and therefore have no way of understanding how to overcome it.

For example, the phrase “aggressive towards house guests” has virtually no meaning in terms of behavior. Is the dog biting guests? Lunging forward at them? Growling when they get close? The range of possible interpretations for “aggressive towards houseguests” is endless.   I once had a client use that exact phrase to describe her overjoyed Lab excitedly jumping up and licking anyone that walked through the door.   The inability to derive any real meaning from “aggressive” makes it impossible to determine the actions needed for overcoming the behavior obstacle. The term “aggressive” is merely a judgment of a behavior, not the behavior itself.

Instead of judging, we need to break a behavior obstacle down into smaller components, describing what we see in front of us with as much detail as possible. I recommend using the 5 W’s of journalism as a framework:

  • Who did it happen to/Who was there when it happened?
  • What happened (describe the sequence of events)?
  • When did it happen? (Were there certain events that triggered changes in behavior?)
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen? When diagnosing behavior obstacles, answer Why last because the answers are often contained within the details of Who, What, When and Where.

We do not try to interpret or apply meaning to any of the 5 W’s. We simply report the answers like we are reporting a news story. Be specific! Below I’ve tried to describe a hypothetical scenario that could easily fit the description of a dog being “aggressive towards guests”. I’ve broken the obstacle down into five components, and tried to answer the 5 W’s.

  1. When a guest (who) arrives at the house (where), the dog barks at the guest continuously (what). The dog is stressed or uncomfortable (why).
  2. After the guest is inside the home the dog usually follows the guest barking always from a distance of about four feet. The dog is stressed or not comfortable, and does not want to get closer than four feet away from the guest.
  3. When the guest sits on the sofa, the dog continues barking from four feet away for the next 15 minutes. The dog remains stressed.
  4. After 15 minutes of the guest sitting, the dog stops barking and lies down around four feet from the sofa. Some of the stress is reduced when the guest sits for a period of time.
  5. When the guest stands up or walks around, the dog starts barking again from four feet away. The stress re-escalates when the guest is no longer seated.

For each component, I first extracted when the behavior is happening, who is involved, where it is happening, and what the dog is actually doing.

The why was left for last and answered using the details of who, what, when, and where. The why is the hardest W to answer objectively, making it the easiest to answer subjectively, using judgment (e.g., “because she’s aggressive towards strangers”). I am not sure it is possible to answer why purely objectively, but we need to get as close as can. When answering why, I recommend using a term that identifies an emotion a dogs can feel internally, at that present moment. It’s easy to imagine a dog feeling “stressed” or “uncomfortable” when strangers are in the home. But it is hard to imagine a dog “feeling aggressive” or conversely, “feeling friendly”. “Aggression” and “friendliness” are responses that result from emotions – they are not emotions in and of themselves.

Once we have identified the emotion, that is enough, in terms of overcoming the obstacle. Whether the stress is a result of past abuse or a lack of socialization does not matter. We do not need to know why the dog feels stress when guests come over. The stress itself is the why that matters.

Now that we have successfully broken down and perceived the behavior obstacle, we can choose actions for overcoming it.

Actions – Creating a Training Plan

Holiday calls the right actions “the solution and cure to our predicaments” in which “everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us”.

The right perception steers us towards the right actions. The components of the behavior obstacle all relate to the dog’s stress at guests in the home. The stress caused by guests in the home is the “whole”. All of our actions must be in service of this stress. The broken down components describe different events that generally occur when guests come over, some of which cause the dog’s stress to escalate. For each of these events, we need to choose actions that will reduce stress at that present moment. The actions we choose will make up our training plan. There several options for actions that could fit this criteria, but I won’t describe them here because it would take several pages. As always, the best actions will depend on the dog, the family, and the situation. Answers to the 5 W’s can be provide useful ideas. Maybe if we change the answer to some of the W’s that we can control, the dog will feel less stressed. For example, instead of meeting the guest at the house (where), the dog might feel less stressed if they met outside and entered the house together.2

The right perception also steers us away from the wrong actions. Any action that does not help the dog feel less stressed is the wrong action and should not be included in the training plan. It becomes easy to see why certain actions are the wrong actions. With the right perception, there is no question that a physical correction would be the wrong action because it would be likely to cause more, not less, stress. But when our perception is that the dog “is aggressive towards house guests” (a judgment), then a physical correction could seem reasonable, as would yelling out “commands”. I know I am probably speaking to the choir here, but I think it’s helpful to be aware of the words we use and how judgments can affect our decision making. It also helps us understand why so many (so-called) trainers use methods that are contrary to any common sense, and why the general public will often still buy in to these methods.

Choosing the right actions is not enough – we also need to execute them correctly. Dogs only live in the present moment. Holiday even uses dogs as an example of something to remind us of what it is like to live in the present. We need to give our full attention and energy whenever we are taking action. We need to commit to the training plan, working to reduce the dog’s stress at that present moment. It’s impossible for us to give our full undivided attention to both the guests and the actions for the entirety of an evening. Instead, we need to bring our dog out for short chunks of time when we can devote our full attention to executing the actions. When we want to focus on our guests, we need to put the dog somewhere comfortable away from the commotion, maybe with a delicious stuffed Kong, so that we can enjoy our company free of worry.

The Will – Your Inner Bad-Ass

Holiday defines the will as “our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world.” Sometimes, uncontrollable conditions – perhaps genetic, neurological, or situational – may thwart our efforts to overcome a behavior obstacle, no matter how well we execute the right actions. The effects of these uncontrollable conditions are, by definition, unable to be changed. We can’t change a dog’s past experiences or breed genetics. Uncontrollable conditions should have absolutely no bearing on our will to take the right actions on the conditions we can control.

Setbacks are inevitable. Setbacks are just additional obstacles that we need to look at objectively. Our will gives us the fortitude to break setbacks down, perceive them correctly, and take the right actions to move forward. Our will gives us the fortitude to not give up when there are still actions we can take.

Maybe the first two times we execute the training plan, we decide that things “went well”. But then, the third time, we decide things “did not go well”. This setback makes us frustrated and discouraged because it suggests the training plan is “not working”.

Once again, we are making judgments. We executed the training plan, “things” happened, and now we are judging the “things” that happened by labeling them as having gone “well” or “not well”. Instead, we simply need to break the events down into components as we did earlier. We might then be able to correctly perceive why the dog’s behavior changed the third time. Maybe we made an error in executing the actions. Maybe our guest was male, where previously we only had female guests. Whatever the reason is, our will is what drives us to find it, learn from it, and move forward. A setback is an opportunity to fine-tune our perception of the overall obstacle.

There are times when uncontrollable conditions might make a behavior obstacle insurmountable. At this stage, it may be time to acquiesce. Holiday explains how this is different than “giving up” in that it has “nothing to do with action”. Acquiescing is for behavior obstacles that are beyond action – where conditions exist that are beyond our control. If we have taken all the right actions and committed to the training plan, yet the dog is not making any progress, we might need to acquiesce. The decision to acquiesce might be a simple one. If our household tends to have infrequent guests, we can acquiesce by simply putting the dog away somewhere comfortable when guests come over and not attempting to overcome it. No big deal.

But acquiescing might also mean making very difficult choices for the greater good. If our household consists of five children who bring new people home every day, simply putting the dog away might not be the best solution. None of us want to be “those people” that return or re-home dogs. But again, we need to look at the situation objectively and determine what is best situation for all involved. Is isolating the dog somewhere the majority of every day a reasonable solution? Would the dog be happier in a less active home? How do potential solutions affect the quality of life for the dog and the family? There are no right answers – the best solutions are purely dependent on the individual dogs, the families, and the situations. But it is important that we do not let preconceptions prevent us from asking and answering these questions without judgment. Sometimes the best and most fair choices are also the hardest ones.

Perceive the obstacle correctly, take the right Actions, and have the Will to see it through to the very end. Even in a worst-case scenario, by committing to P.A.W. we can be satisfied that we gave the dog the best life we possibly could. In return, she will have given us opportunities to learn how to better understand and communicate with her. We will have created a stronger bond by working together to overcome the obstacles without judgment.   We will take pride in whatever we accomplished. We will love her more than ever. We will be better, more knowledgeable owners for our future dogs. Our dog will have improved our lives in ways we never could have imagined. Isn’t that why we got one in the first place?


What do you think?  Will you find this helpful for addressing dog behavior obstacles in your life?  Would you like to see more about the P.A.W. system?  More specific examples?  Let me know in the comments or by contacting me!

1 In no way does this suggest that a dog owner does not still need the help of a professional. Professional trainers will give you the best techniques for overcoming the obstacles. I highly advise getting help from a professional for any obstacle that you face.

2 this would just be a single action that contributes to a more thorough training plan, not the training plan itself.

Purchase The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

photo credit: Cristian Ştefănescu via photopin cc