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— February 26, 2013 —

Icons, Triggers and Impulse Control —
Keys to understanding your dog’s problem behavior.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Sidney has an issue with the dog across the hall, Bella. When they see each other, she reacts badly. As I write this, however it’s the middle of the day on a weekday. Sidney is probably napping on the couch while her mom is off working. At this moment, Sidney is not thinking about the her future walks. She is not planning for tomorrow and at this moment, she is most definitely not worried about Bella.

I had a very long conversation with a client the other day about her dog Sidney. Sidney kind of reminds me of a dingo. She’s medium sized, medium coated and a beautiful red-fawn color. She has a very nice, calm sweet temperament and is a little shy with new people. To see her, you’d think Sidney is the nicest dog in the world. That is until Sidney sees the dog that lives across the hall in her condo building. I don’t know her name, so we’ll call her Bella. When she sees her arch enemy, Sidney erupts into the kind of display that makes you think she wants to eradicate the evil Bella from the face of the earth…that her whole life revolves around that one, singular goal. Her mom wanted to talk to me about why Sidney hates that one dog so much and what can be done about it.

First, I’ll backtrack. We did a significant amount of training with Sidney a little more than a year ago. She is also a semi regular daycare client and she is considered “social” by our staff. So, why and how could she be a “sweet, slightly shy, social” dog in one situation be so mean in another?

As I said in the opening, Sidney doesn’t have any preconceived notions about the dog across the hall and she doesn’t “hate” her. She probably wouldn’t say mean things about her, even if she could. What Sidney has done, however is this. Sidney has become conditioned, through repetition to react aggressively at the sight of Bella whenever she sees her in a particular setting. It should be noted that Bella is not innocent here. Both dogs react to each other. I won’t go so far as to say who started the whole thing. Plus, it’s really not important or helpful to lay blame.

Our dogs, Sidney included, do not live in a world of thoughts. They don’t have conversations with themselves and they don’t decide things in advance. They simply react to stimuli that they take in from the world that they observe. Over the coming weeks, I will try to give some insight into how to work on your dog’s problem behavior.

The first step to this is to understand how your dog conceptualizes the world. That is, how does your dog “see” things. I often use the example of the walk sign that we see when crossing the street. We all know what the sign “walk” and “don’t walk” mean. This is what I mean by an Icon. There is no need for a long explanation next to the walk sign and we could probably understand the Icon even if we were in a place where we didn’t understand the language. Dogs basically interpret their entire world through these Icons. What they see starts to take on specific meanings and they assign reactions to them. Also, these Icons are very specific to the environment where they are located. Moving the Icon to a different place, or even changing something about the location can change the meaning if the Icon for a dog.

As I said, these Icons are assigned specific meanings by your dog. This essentially becomes a Trigger for behavior. There is no forethought, the dog is simple Triggered to react. It’s no different than when someone kicks a soccer ball and it comes at your head. You would likely move your hand to block it out of reflex. There is very little conscious thought involved. When your dog observes an Icon that has specific meaning, this Triggers a reaction/behavior.

Next is Impulse Control. If the dog is very excited, or is in a state of high arousal, it will likely not display good Impulse Control. In this state, a dog may react unpredictably, or “blow up” like what Sidney does when she sees Bella. Good training should include some amount of work to help the dog learn to control their stimulation level and by association, the dog learns Impulse Control.

In the coming weeks, I would like to give my take on dealing with these the Icons and Triggers. We do this by controlling the environment and teaching Impulse Control.