"100% Guaranteed!": Prognoses, Promises and Dog Training

Oxford Dictionary Online defines “PROGNOSIS” as:

noun (plural prognoses /-siːz/)

> the likely course of a medical condition:
the disease has a poor prognosis

> an opinion, based on medical experience, of the likely course of a medical condition:
it is very difficult to make an accurate prognosis

> a forecast of the likely outcome of a situation:
gloomy prognoses about overpopulation

I have a foster right now, a hound named Lucy. She’s come to my home with a history of reactivity with children and dogs, and she’ll leave my home with a history of reactivity with children and dogs. A lot of training can happen between now and then, but no amount of training will erase a behavioural history.  Joseph LeDoux, author of “The Emotional Brain” writes:

“One of the things we know about fear is that you can always bring it back. So if either a rat or a person, with the previously learned fear, is exposed to stress, the fear will return. And so if a patient with a fear of heights is doing fine because of the therapy, and then the patient’s mother dies and it’s very stressful and so the phobia comes back.”

Emotional triggers mentioned here lead to behavioural changes, and when it comes to dogs reactivity/aggression is frequently a result. A behavioural repertoire can be added-to, but can never be subtracted-from. The past cannot be changed (unless, perhaps, you are Marty McFly).

Many clients seek out a trainer looking for a definite prognosis… or, more accurately, a guarantee of a positive outcome. And often they want a guarantee before booking a consult, without the trainer ever meeting them or their dog and with no in-depth report of history or circumstance. Many potential clients will book a trainer based solely on that guarantee. Guarantees sure do land a sale, but what exists in those words? What goes into this forecast of outcome?

Prognosis is about prediction. It is about an informed prediction. Guarantees, on the other hand, are empty promises. Synthesizing a prognosis is not slapping a label on a behaviour problem or promising an outcome. If we’re to look at an issue like resource guarding (aka “food/toy/etc aggression”) we need to look not only at the issue as a category of behaviour, but also at the dog’s circumstance and history: does she have a bite history? what is the assessment of those bites, including the target, the trigger, ease of triggering, the severity/intensity/type of bites? does the dog have a good ‘warning system’ prior to a bite? at what age was the resource guarding first evident? is the dog in good physical, emotional and mental health? etcetera.

The owner/household is just as important as the dog’s history of guarding: Are there young children or other vulnerable people in the home? Does the owner want to put the time, money and energy into training, or do they want a trainer to just ‘fix’ their dog? Does the owner have realistic expectations of themselves, and as an extension, their dog? etcetera.

One cannot ask “what is the prognosis for a dog who is resource guarding?” Those questions above – and more! – must be explored before the topic of prognosis can even be considered.

My foster Lucy was adopted out at the too-young age of 5 weeks, she lived in near social isolation in her first home, and her next well-intentioned owners subjected her to heavy corrective training in an attempt to quell her reactivity around children. What this means is that Lucy was very poorly socialized as a young dog – something that can knock a dog out of the running on its own – but she also learned that every time she was exposed to children very painful and scary things were done to her. Despite never having bitten a child, in her 6 years she has never had good experiences with kids.

Lucy is available for adoption, but she has the qualifications of ‘no cats/kids/dogs’. To someone who doesn’t know her history, she doesn’t look like she has any issues with children. Routine walks are not disrupted by children across the street. But what are the stakes if she is placed in a home with children? No matter what training I can implement while I have her here with me I would not recommend placing her in a home with children. I can never guarantee that she will be okay in consistent, close contact with children and I can’t guarantee what her adoptive owners will do with regard to management and training. Management is easy to implement and maintain if there are no children in the home, but risk will increase greatly if she is exposed to children regularly. There is very little flexibility in the outcome of a dog who bites a child. While Lucy has never bitten a child, any dog will bite given the right alignment of circumstances. Given her history of reactivity and the knowledge/skill/risk assessment of an average dog owner, placing her with children in the home is not a reasonable risk.

The prognosis? Realistically, that comes down to her adopters. My job with Lucy is more as rescue volunteer than as trainer. My job isn’t to “fix” her with my magic wand, my job is to screen homes, looking for someone who will use appropriate training methods, understands the potential of risk, and will not throw Lucy into a situation that she’s not prepared to deal with. So, with that in place, yes I think her prognosis is excellent.

But I can make no guarantees.

Trainers certified by the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers are bound by their Code of Ethics. This Code of Ethics clearly states that trainers are “to refrain from providing guarantees regarding the specific outcome of training” (point 9 in the CCPDT Code of Ethics) A trainer or behaviour consultant who makes a guarantee risks losing their certification, quite a serious consequence. Offering an accurate prognosis is a delicate process. Too restrictive and a client will feel disheartened. To positive and the client may expect too much too soon, or even think it means they can unwisely put their dog in inappropriate situations. As a foster ‘parent’, I can’t expect that Lucy’s prognosis  will be the same in an average adoptive home as in an trainer’s home.  Clients must also realize how much their own attitude and behaviour feeds into the prognosis and outcome of their dog’s behaviour. No trainer has a crystal ball or magic wand, no matter that their guarantee will have you think.