If you’ve ever gone for a walk in the woods or in the mountains and followed a well-used trail, getting from point A to point B is just a question of glancing down now and then to make sure you’re still on the path. In some areas there are blazes on trees, stripes of paint or slashes in the bark, which highlight the correct route. In the mountains we look for cairns, piles of rocks which previous travelers or rangers have built to mark the route.
When I think about dog behavior I often think of it like a path in the wilderness. Either the trail is worn and easy to find or else a new trail needs to be started. The trail that is easy to find, perhaps even deep and rutted from use, might lead to the correct destination, or it might not. It’s not easy to get dogs or people to veer off their beaten path, even if we know that the views are better when we take a different route. It takes trust, practice and convincing that this new path is in fact better.
Many of the training techniques that work best with fear based behavior challenges begin by flagging the correct route. Leslie McDevitt’s ‘Look at that’ activity comes to mind. We are starting at the very beginning of the trail and marking the first step of simply looking at a trigger and creating or rewarding a positive response. Once the start of the trail is obvious we can move further along and continue to mark the route. But like a route in the forest, until it has been well traveled, it can be easy to miss. It becomes important to be consistent so that the path becomes obvious and easy to follow.
In my life with Sunny I have tried to lay down a path for him which gets both of us to a destination we are happy to arrive at. The times I have led us off a cliff, we’ve been lucky that whatever damage done was not irreparable. When I led him down the path of aggression it could have been the case. Fear aggressive dogs are not easy or safe to live with. If we don’t take the time at the beginning to ensure that we are flagging the correct route, or put our dogs into situations in which they have to choose their own path and they lack the directional skills to do so safely, we can begin to see aggression or other inappropriate behaviors.
It’s helpful to remember that even small steps in the right direction get us closer to our destination.