Tomorrow, I’m going to the dentist for a root canal. I’ve never had one before. I feel lucky that, in my entire life, I’ve only had one cavity. All those years ago, when I was eighteen, I got the cavity filled and then I didn’t think about it for the next fifteen or twenty years. As time has gone on, around that filling in the back of my mouth, the tooth has started to decay.
This is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s probably been going on for a long time without my awareness. I go back in my mind, I’ve been wondering when I started to notice the pain. I have brief memories from as long as a year ago of drinking a cold or warm drink, or eating something sugary, and noticing that it hurt. But then it went away, and I didn’t think about it. Then one day, out of the blue, I was in enormous pain! I realized I had to act right then because it was hurting like crazy. So of course I went to the dentist, who told me that I needed a root canal. I’m a little terrified at the idea of needles on my gums, so I’m not looking forward to it at all!
Here’s where I’m going with this: I see that this pattern a lot in the way that people approach their dog ownership endeavors. They often notice small things occurring with their dog, but don’t recognize their significance. I didn’t register a bit of tooth pain every now and then, and if I did notice it I just didn’t attach any meaning to it. Many dog owners are the same. They believe that their dog is doing fine—he’s not destroying things, chewing on stuff, or peeing in the house—but maybe he pulls on the leash. Or the dog seems fine most of the time, but loses control every time someone rings the doorbell. The owners don’t like it, but they don’t do anything about it. It’s just something they deal with when it happens.
Those incidents are sort of like what I felt when I drank a hot beverage. There’s a spot of pain, but you ignore it. You go back to your everyday life, and everything else is basically fine. But many people don’t realize that they don’t have any control in that one particular area. Ninety percent of their dog’s life might be completely fine, but the ten percent that’s annoying them or isn’t up to their expectations will gradually erode their dog’s behavior. This will eventually reach a breaking point.
For example, people frequently call me and say things like, “Oh boy, do we have a problem! Our dog is such a sweetheart, but now he’s getting aggressive.” If we start to do some diagnostics and look into the past, we can see some trends beginning to appear. Perhaps the dog pulled on the leash, and the owners didn’t realize that he was entering a chaotic state of mind. It wasn’t a problem, as I say, until it became a problem—because the owners didn’t connect that small behavior to the potential for aggression.
We can usually dig through the past and uncover where a dog’s anxiety or aggression began. All the owner notices is that one day their dog was just “different.” But just like the dentist, I can see that the problem has been going on for quite a while. As dog trainers, we see that it’s been building up for a while. It didn’t “just happen.” The dog’s entire baseline was off, but since he was manageable most of the time his owners didn’t really care.
Up until recently, my tooth was also manageable. I didn’t care that every now and then I felt a twinge of pain—until the day when I really cared! It would be stupid of me to do something now that everything I eat or drink drives me crazy. If I did nothing now, I’d be the world’s biggest idiot. But as it is, I’m only a slight idiot for not paying attention during the months that the pain was building up.
It’s the same with our dogs. If your dog is having behavior problems, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one morning he’ll wake up completely different. (After all, not every tooth twinge turns into a root canal.) Likewise, not every little bad behavior turns into a huge one. But huge bad behaviors never just pop up out of nowhere: they always start with small bad choices, that lead to other bad choices, that eventually lead to bad states of mind.
I’d encourage you not to let the problem get to that point. If you have a “root canal” issue now, then don’t be stupid. Get help, whether from us or from another trainer. But if you’re not at that point, and you’re noticing just a few small misbehaviors, then don’t allow it to get to that breaking point. Put in the effort. Go to your local trainer, or come work with us. Grab that book or DVD course. Start working with your dog so you can head off problems before they actually turn into problems. No one likes a root canal. And no one likes a huge dog training program to fix a problem that could have been solved a lot earlier, with a lot less effort.