Originally published on ArlNow.com 

I get a lot of inquiries asking how many lessons it will take to solve a certain problem.

My answer is always the same: it depends. It depends on:

  1. what the problem is
  2. how severe the problem is
  3. how compliant the owners are, and
  4. whether it is a training issue or a behavioral issue.

What is training? When we talk about training we are usually referring to teaching the dog to do something specific. Typical training lessons include sit, down, stay, off, etc. The primary goal is to teach the dog to do a behavior on cue (i.e. when we ask) and in all situations.

For example, we can start by teaching the dog to sit in your living room and over time work up to getting the dog to sit at the corner before crossing the street. Initially the dog has no reason to like or dislike sitting, but will grow to love it with lots of positive reinforcement. Getting the sit in the living room can be done in a few minutes while getting the sit at a busy street corner might take weeks or months. The hardest part of this training is teaching the dog to ignore the distractions of the busy world. Even though it takes time, training specific behaviors like this tend to be a matter of practice and reinforcement.

What is behavior modification? Behavior mod is a different beast. By its very name and nature we are starting with a behavior that needs to be modified is some way. Since we are starting with something that the dog is already choosing to do, the dog already has an opinion about it. This inherently makes it different from training which usually starts off as neutral and becomes positive.

A very common behavior that requires modification is aggression. If the dog is aggressing at something, they very clearly have an opinion about it. This is no longer a matter of just teaching the dog to do something, because there is a very strong emotional component. Behavior modification almost always begins by attempting to modify the emotional state of the dog. We need fear to become acceptance and anxiety to become security. As I am sure you can see, behavior modification is therefore much more complicated. In a person it is the difference between learning how to play the piano and overcoming a fear of spiders.

Behavior modification is very different in another way as well. Because of the emotional component, you can never be 100% sure the dog is not going to revert back to the original state of mind. This means that even though the dog may no longer be showing any outward signs of aggression, care should be taken to manage the dogs environment so that they are able to emotionally deal with the situation and that there is no danger of them hurting themselves or anyone else if they do revert back. Management is always a critical part of any behavior modification plan.

So when dealing with behavior modification, there is no end time. I can never say we can accomplish this in three lessons. It depends on the dog, their emotional state and how severe the problem is to begin with. It always involves patience, management and lots of love.