Are You Describing What I’m Seeing?

The importance of using description over interpretation

Jessica Lockhart, MS, PhD, CAAB

In the current day and age, it is tempting to consult with ‘Dr. Inter-web’ prior to contacting an expert in the field. These quick internet scans can sometimes result in useful information, but more times than not, the information gathered is either tangential to the truth or flat out wrong.

The field of animal behavior and animal training is no different. The internet is over-run with information that is outdated and disproven. There are unqualified television celebrities touting techniques that have been out of favor for almost a century. There are arm-chair trainers that will happily tell you a whole host of hooey because it sounds good (at least I am assuming this is the reason; it’s definitely not because the information is factual).

One looming issue created by these searches is that people will contact experts and start describing an issue with diagnostic terms rather than just listing what is actually happening. In the dog training and behavior world, these terms may include things like “resource guarding”, “defensive aggression”, “separation anxiety”, “alpha”, “dominance”, and much more.  Although these terms have a time and a place, they are not descriptions; they do not convey what is actually happening with your pet in your home. Instead, these terms are diagnoses that experts will assign after observing an animal in a particular setting or over the course of a specified amount of time.

When contacting a trainer or behaviorist it is important to be able to accurately describe the behavior to the professional. A description is worth far more than a supposed diagnosis and can help to reveal the true source of the issue. A call that starts with “my dog has separation anxiety…” typically ends with a laundry list of questions from the expert that are required to confirm the self-proclaimed diagnosis of “separation anxiety”. Surprisingly, most owners very rarely have ready answers for these probing questions. Something as simple as “when did you first notice the behavior” can meet with a reflexive answer of “always” but that always may actually mean “the past two weeks”.

It is far more valuable to a professional trainer or behaviorist to have a complete picture of the behavior than to be presented with an animal, a diagnosis, and an expectation of a simple answer. Instead, a client that calls and suspects separation anxiety because ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ are happening and change with ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c’ is already miles ahead in helping to find the right treatment plan for their pet than the client who calls and states emphatically that their six-month old lab has separation anxiety – full stop.

When speaking with an expert, remember that she/he is there to help analyze, diagnose, and treat the issues at hand. The only way to effectively accomplish that job is to have a complete understanding of the activities and behavior patterns that are occurring. Offering a simple diagnostic term will not paint a clear picture and may end up muddying the water.