Any behavioral problem, has at it's root, confounding variables. Genetics, learning histories, perceptions, behavioral follow through, the environment, individual proclivities and the list goes on. But what most people who have hired professionals to address their dogs behavior have not been told is why predictability matters in your dogs behavior(s). Even if you have not made the investment in seeking professional help and your dog struggles with behavioral imbalances, you too need to understand the profound impact a predictable environment, predictable behavior and predictable experiences have on a dogs mind and body.
First, let us be clear on what we mean when we say an environment is predictable in this context. An environment is predictable, in terms of dog behavior, if when they interact with the world, the people, the other animals; they can cope with the sounds, movements, sudden environmental changes (up and down the stairs, doors opening and shutting, a friend coming over in a hoody, a dog appearing on a walk, etc.) in a balanced non-reactive manner. When we say behavior is in the environment we are suggesting that the predictability or unpredictable nature of the environment has a direct effect on the way the animal feels and subsequently behaves. A predictable behavior has to do with what an animal has learned or has not learned from a gesture made by a person/other animal/experience in the past. A hand reaching towards a well socialized dog (typically) is predictive of good feelings and elicits relaxed and even welcomed body language from the dog. A hand reaching towards a dog that has been abused or is feral (no reference point for human touch) is registered as negative and a freeze, flight or fight response can be engaged. The hand reaching towards the dog is a behavior that is the same but it is different due to each animals own unique feelings of if that behavior is predictable to them or not. A predictable experience, similarly is felt or not felt as safe, depending on if the dog has had experiences before that were negative, neutral or positive. The veterinarian's office is a great example of a place that many dogs feel are unpredictable. Sometimes they get muzzled and forced into situations that induce stress and fear and other times they go on a fun car ride go in with mom, stay leashed with mom, get a cookie and leave with mom never being touched by anyone else (running errands/picking up medicine for instance). The fact that the dog never knows what to expect can create anxiety in the best of our canines.
A feeling of predictability is inherently positive. We know what to expect. Our human lives are ripe with predictability. We know we have a home. We know our home is safe. We experience our loved ones coming and going around the same time. We know when and how we are going to nourish our body. We predict our vacations, relaxing and down time as feel good moments based on how we have felt in the past during these times. Day in and day out we can rely on the structure, routine and sense of knowing that our actions, choices and environments produce the desired and needed outcome we are expecting. Please let that really sink in. Some dogs have never had this. The instability, the chronic anxiety of not knowing, of being unsure if something will be good or bad, not being able to trust that a human equals good experiences and sadly not having the physical control to make the environment, the other persons behavior or the experiences in their world safe are a sad reality our dogs must deal with daily. This reality unfortunately creates many common behavioral issues.
Now that we are hopefully in agreement as to what we are defining a sense of predictability to be and understanding why it is crucial for a mentally-behaviorally sound dog, lets discuss how we would go about making a dog feel safer, more comfortable, confident and trusting; that is how we implement predictability.
The best way to grasp what this looks like in real life is to use real life scenarios. Our first example will be a dog that is being reactive to new people coming into the home. This is so very common in my behavioral work. The very first step in addressing a negative reaction to people coming into the home with a regimen of predictability is to stop letting the dog have free roam to act out of impulse, fear and insecurity. The dog does not associate outsiders of his family as predicting good, positive feelings. So we can use a baby gate, a crate, a leash, another room, even taking the dog and guest outside for a tangent walk to break the cycle of going towards what causes the dog stress. This is step one of progressing into other people being a source of predictability. Because you cannot instantly make the other people a source of trust unless we first help the dog feel like we have control over the situation which then helps the dog feel like he doesn't have to react and he too has more control over the situation. From adding an environmental management tool as mentioned above, we can then use the Premack Principle also known as the "when-then rule." This behavioral principle says when people appear then I get a Kong with canned dog food/peanut butter/yogurt/pumpkin (frozen ahead of time). Thus, the dog experiences when people outside of my family appear suddenly in my home that is predictive of something really awesome. And this is a process. No it is not instant, no it is not magic. It is showing up for your dog through mindful environmental set-ups to consistently offer an arrangement and enrichment that develops more comfort and structure so he can feel that these people's presence bring about positive emotional responses. And from here we can use the dog's own behavior as a measurable result of how secure he is starting to feel with this new formula of making an experience more predictable for him. For the first three weeks perhaps he still has marked reactivity, but then the next 3 weeks of commiting to he plan he is only reactive for 10 minutes and then he can mentally let go of the strangers in his home and enjoy his Kong. Then three more weeks 5 minutes, then two more weeks a minute, and then the next week when people come over he is simply looking for that great feeling of licking his Kong. This therapeutic process is crucial for a reactive dog to form a predictive experience and healthy pattern of perceptions and behviors. Our dog is showing us that they can now start to move from a feeling of insecurity to secure feelings and all of this was accomplished by making our behavior consistent and the experience and people predictable.
Another example of helping a dog through their behavioral issues with predictability in mind is a dog that is being triggered by another dog. For them, the other dog does not bring about a happy, calm or friendly association. When people make dog's meet on a leash, bring another dog into the home suddenly or put dogs in a shared space we have not helped each dog learn that the other dog is predictive of structure, positive association or feelings of calmness. All of that can change if we take the time to construct an integration plan rooted in each dog having a predictable role for the other dog. The other dog equals tangent walks. The other dog equals chicken. The other dog equals place work and chill time. The other dog equals check ins with mom. The other dog equals learning histories and histories of positive reinforcement through training exercises. We will actually be helping each dog develop a relationship if we set them up for predictable interactions.
Hopefully, we have covered the inter-relatedness of predictable experiences, predictable people and predictable behaviors and how you can literally be a source of developing safe and structured set ups to elicit less reactivity for your dog mentally and behaviorally. Control and structure create safety and security, a fundamental sense of being ok helps our dogs feel relaxed and capable of offering balanced behaviors. Your behavior should always be a source of predictability for our dogs so that from our stability our dog's too can have copeable and digestable experiences that overtime plant seeds and processes for positive and inherently good collective perceptions and experiences. If you need help with a reactive or fearful dog please reach out to us so we can discuss how to implement a customized behavioral plan rooted in arranging experiences in a way your dog can expect a consistent and good outcome. Predictability matters on both ends of the leash.