Sure, sometimes our dog's bevavior is less than desirable, but it doesn't always mean you have a behavior "problem" on your hands.
Typical behavior is what I would expect of a given dog in a given circumstance. It has nothing to do with desirable behavior. For example, I think it is perfectly normal for an eight week old puppy to mouth human hands, to chew random objects in the house, and to complain when crated. Typical is normal!
What is atypical? Atypical is what I don’t expect of a given dog in a given circumstance. For example, it is atypical for a dog to bite a family member with intent to harm. It is atypical for a dog to scream and drool in their crate for hours when their needs have been taken care of. It is atypical to spin in circles when there is nothing happening. It is atypical to hide and shake when someone comes in your house who is ignoring the dog.
There are a few things you need to keep in mind when thinking about typical or atypical behavior. The obvious one is that it requires circumstances and a reference point! If you don’t know anything about dogs within your given context, you can’t possibly know what is typical or atypical. However, since I know that I am primarily speaking to “dog people”, hopefully you have reference points to help you understand atypical versus typical behavior.
Breed is important: behaviors that I consider perfectly typical in a working line Belgian Malinois I may well not consider typical in another breed. How old is the dog? I certainly don’t expect a puppy and an adult dog to behave in the same way. What circumstances is the dog living within? What prior training has been received?
Notice that I am not saying good or bad when I talk about typical and atypical. I’m talking about expected under a given set of circumstances and I am assuming that the person doing the evaluation has a reasonable frame of reference.
So why does it matter?
Because there are normal interventions that work for most normal dogs. And then there are interventions that are not going to work because of the dog’s specific and atypical circumstances. Those dogs will need more.
It is helpful to start with the assumption that most dogs are normal and typical. The nice thing about normal dogs is that they are a reflection of many many years of dogs living with humans. That means they can manage to improve even with not very good training. Believe me, this is a wonderful thing! Which does not mean we should apply poor quality training, but we should recognize that perfection is truly not required for most dogs in most circumstances – they are normal and typical. If dogs were not capable of doing reasonably well under a range of circumstances, they wouldn’t be a common household pet living with individuals who have no clue about training – and still get to a point of reasonable harmony.
When a dog is typical we talk about basic training and common management strategies. We talk about developmental stages and molding behavior over time to get us where we want to go. We structure the dog with communication! We tell them what we like and what we don’t like. We try and structure the environment for success and… they get it. Frankly, it is almost identical to how we raise toddlers.
Typical dogs are generally going to do fine working with your average dog trainer. This is a person who understands how to teach basic obedience, how to get manners around the house, and how to stop or mitigate very normal yet annoying behaviors before they become true problems. The dog simply needs some basic training and application of common techniques.
I also like to encourage dog trainers to develop a recognition of what is normal and typical within given breeds of dogs. For example, having raised working line Belgian Shepherds, I consider a puppy hanging off the sleeve of my jacket to be perfectly normal, even if he redirects on me with anger when I attempt to remove him. Which doesn’t mean I allow it or encourage it to continue. But I find it normal. It is typical for my breed. Again, something I am going to work on. But does it require a specialized behavior plan? No. It requires a trainer who is familiar with that sort of dog and can set out a reasonable route that works for most typical working line Belgian shepherds.
Atypical dogs are different. Maybe they are notably fearful in daily life situations, or sensitive, or showing neurotic behaviors, or just a really bad match for their owner and something needs to change.
When a dog is atypical we start talking about things like functional analysis, behavior modification protocols, drug therapy, and intensive management strategies. We start thinking about behavior specialists rather than dog trainers. For example, If I were working with a dog that had true separation anxiety, the atypical kind? The kind that is impacting the dog and owner’s quality of life? I am going to recommend a behavior specialist. The dog needs more than the average.
I am not a fan of doing a formal functional analysis and behavior modification protocols for perfectly normal dogs. Don’t take situations which are normal and typical and make them complicated! The average pet owner neither needs nor wants that degree of intervention. They just need an understanding of what is normal, what is likely to go away with age, what deserves a little attention, and what should be celebrated as part of the nature of being a dog. It’s fine if you’re doing it in your head without meaning to, but there’s no reason to share it with your client. Just tell them what they need to know to improve the situation.
I’m bringing this topic up because I’m a little concerned about how seriously some dog trainers are taking behaviors that I consider to be fairly normal and typical and part of the dog’s growing up process. A dog doesn’t have a behavior problem because it’s not been trained yet or because the behavior is intense. It’s being a dog! It’s being a dog of a given breed! And to treat it like a problem may well be causing issues that don’t need to exist.
Before advising your client, ask yourself if the behavior you are observing is normal and typical. If you don’t have enough experience with the behavior or the breed in question in that set of circumstances, consult with someone who does before you decide what to do next. A herding breed of dog who is reserved with strangers? Often perfectly normal. You don’t need to change it! Simply accept the dog for who they are. A highly energetic young retriever? Your job is not to teach the dog to be calm; your job is to help the dog and handler find daily routines that can work for both of them while recognizing the normalcy of that dog’s temperament within the breed. These dogs do not need to be changed – they do not need drugs or a specialist. They need basic training and handling that will bring out their best selves.
Set up a reasonable plan for the dog’s owner that can actually be put into effect! Don’t make training complicated when it doesn’t need to be. Maybe think of it like this… some toddlers are calm and some are energetic! Some are outgoing and some are shy! And yet, these are all within the range of typical, so one might ask oneself… How does one raise a toddler? With kindness, structure and consistency! Ask for what is reasonable, offer choice within structure as the toddler is ready, and pick your battles. I guarantee this will set you on the right path a very high percentage of the time.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean the owners are thrilled about the entire package, but hey, if your kid is a chess player and you wanted a football player… Who should give a little?