Good Doggy Guide, dog walk on the beach
A happy dog walk on the beach, photo by Good Doggy Guide

Tips for working with a dog behaviourist

If you’re thinking of getting some expert help with your dog or puppy, you might be looking to engage an animal behaviourist. We got some help with our dog, and found the experience really positive. So, I thought it might be useful to share some tips with you.

Three years ago, we adopted our beagle Poppy from a wonderful local animal shelter. As you may be aware, she’s our first dog and it’s been a steep but rewarding learning curve for us as owners.

When we first took her home, she was quite placid and subdued. But after a few months and some bonding, her personality started to come out. This is entirely normal and we were expecting some changes. But what became quickly apparent is that Poppy had some issues with other dogs. To be honest, she still does.

This was when we made the decision to seek some expert help. And we’re so glad we did. We got in touch with a great dog behaviourist who gave us the foundation and tools to help Poppy with her nervousness. But working with a dog behaviourist can be challenging, so I thought I’d share a few tips based on my own experiences. I hope they’ll be of some use if you’re thinking of hiring someone to help you too.

Know when to ask for help

Firstly, when we decided to ask for help, we did feel a little as though we’d failed Poppy and it put us on the back foot. So, my first bit of advice is not to beat yourself up. If you’re asking for help then you’ve recognised there’s a problem and you want to solve it. That takes a bit of courage and you shouldn’t feel bad. Getting help is a positive thing!

There’s a whole host of problems that can develop with dogs (and their owners), from signs of aggression or anxiety to destructive behaviour. You may have adopted a rescue dog like us, or raised one from a puppy, but problems can develop for many reasons. Stress, separation anxiety, bad habits… it’s a long list.

For Poppy it was her nervous behaviour around other dogs (and some humans) and a reluctance to walk at times. It was also apparent that she wasn’t handled much as a pup. So she didn’t like her paws touched!

Visit the vets first

A good behaviourist will ask you to get your dog checked over by a vet first. This is important, just to check there’s no underlying health issues that are causing your dog’s problems.

So, this should be your first step. Your vet may be able to put you in touch with a reputable animal behaviourist too, so do ask.

Finding the right dog behaviourist

Obviously, it’s important to find the right person to work with. The RSPCA recommend choosing an Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) registered professional. The RSPCA has more useful advice on this subject on their website.

We found that the local dog behaviour professionals were fully booked up, but we managed to get a recommendation for someone based just out of our local area. This put the cost up a little bit, but we found it was worth it.

Don’t feel you need to rush into a decision. The first time you meet, it’ll be for an assessment (or hopefully it will). This is a great opportunity to ask questions and get to know your trainer; as well as an opportunity for them to find out about you and your pooch.

Poppy the beagle, Good Doggy Guide
A curious but calm Poppy the beagle, out on a walk. Photo by Good Doggy Guide

Listen to your dog trainer

Sometimes, as adults, it’s hard to take advice on board. All too often we take it as criticism. Many animal behaviourists, if they’re being honest, would probably say that it’s the owners they have the most trouble with, not the dogs! So be prepared to listen and learn. Basically, it may be your dog or puppy that has the issues, but that doesn’t mean all the learning is for the pooch to do!

If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to admit it. I found one or two things difficult at first and was honest about it. But this meant we had the opportunity to work on this and try out a few different approaches.

Be patient, changing a dog’s behaviour doesn’t happen overnight. Dogs tire very easily when learning new things, even when you make it fun to do. You’ll soon get to know (with the help of your behaviourist) when to take a break.

Dealing with conflicting advice

As soon as we hired the help of an animal behaviourist, we found that everyone wanted to give us their advice on how to handle our dog. Advice that was often completely opposite to what our behaviourist was teaching us.

This is kind of inevitable. You might find that every seasoned dog owner thinks they know everything about keeping a dog. Even though every dog is different!

You may notice on this blog, I only ever share what we’ve learnt or found useful. I’ll never tell you you’re doing something wrong or that there’s only one way to do things. And this is because it simply isn’t true much of the time. But many dog owners will.

It’s always well-meant, but you’re paying your dog behaviourist for their knowledge, not some stranger in the park. Be polite about it, but don’t let conflicting advice from other dog owners mess up the work you’re doing with your trainer.

Your behaviourist will assess you and your dog and base any advice and training on this. This is the advice you should trust, and anything else you can take with a pinch of salt.

Keep up the good work

Once you’ve achieved what you wanted with your behaviourist, it’s time to go it alone. Don’t be complacent! It’s easy to slip back into old habits or not keep up with training.

For us, every day is a school day! We’re still learning together, as a team. We still use the tricks that our behaviourist taught us, but this has also given us the confidence to do more with Poppy. Since being given some help with desensitising Poppy to having her paws touched, we’ve got her to a place where she is happy to have her claws cut. And we’re currently working on desensitising her to having her ears touched.

We still use the distraction techniques we were taught to help Poppy deal with other dogs, and we use them every day! It has made our daily walks much more pleasurable and a lot less stressful.

We couldn’t have done any of this without the initial help we received.

Focus on positive outcomes

Although Poppy is still a nervous dog, and has good and bad days, we’ve come a long way. People often tell us how much Poppy has changed since we first got her. And that’s always nice to hear.

But it’s not just Poppy who has changed. We have too. We understand our dog’s body language, so we can spot when she’s nervous or annoyed really quickly. Knowing your dog is so important to being able to have stress-free walks, playtimes and night-times.

I know I feel more confident of how to handle Poppy and how to communicate with her. We’re always teaching her new things, and our bond has increased substantially.

So, when you’re debating whether or not to get some help from a dog behaviourist, think about the positive outcomes you’d like to achieve rather than the problems you’re having. This will help it feel like more of a positive rather than negative experience.