Dog trainer Lisa Matthews recently added new credentials to her professional name. The owner and operator of Pawsitive Practice near Atlanta became an internationally certified dog behavior consultant (ICDBC) with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). As one of only three such consultants in the area, she joins an elite group dedicated to strengthening the human/canine bond by solving behavior problems using “least intrusive, minimally aversive” (LIMA) principles. ICDBC joins the Ed.S. (educational specialist) and CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer – knowledge assessed) after her name.
As a behavior consultant, Matthews will help solve dog behavioral problems by working in conjunction with local veterinarians to form a more holistic team approach, taking into consideration the dog’s medical history and environment and daily interactions, and the goals and needs of their caretakers. She’s already had an opportunity to put her skills to good use with an anxious dog named Blue*.
Blue is a rescue dog living with his family in Georgia. He was found with several other dogs, along with his owner, who had been dead for a week. Despite several months of obedience training, Blue was still suffering from increased anxiety, particularly during storms. He was licking his right forepaw raw, as well as displaying other signs.
Prior to Matthews meeting with Blue and his owners, Blue also bit a child. Some kids were visiting and playing with Blue when thunder began. Blue ran to hide under a bed, but the children tried to get him to come back out by pulling on his collar. The doctor treating the child’s bite injuries reported them as required by law, and Blue was quarantined for 10 days at his vet’s office.
Because of the bite, Blue was classified as a “dangerous dog.” This meant that his owners would have to keep him safely confined on their property, obtain liability insurance, post visible warning signs, and submit to unannounced visits from animal control. If they did not follow the requirements, Blue would be euthanized. Worried about the potential for future incidents, the owners called Matthews to schedule a behavior assessment. Using video surveillance, Matthews and the owners were able to see the extent of Blue’s anxiety when left alone.
Matthews sent her initial findings to Blue’s vet, who prescribed medication to help the dog’s anxiety and associated symptoms. The medication was helping, but many of Blue’s symptoms would require further intervention. Matthews came up with an action plan using clicker training to mark good behaviors as well as durable chews to distract Blue from bad habits brought on by anxiety. After several weeks of combined treatment and help from his owners, he was doing remarkably better. His anxiety has all but disappeared, and, as a bonus from the behavioral training, he has a better relationship with his family and his environment.
While he will remain classified as a dangerous dog, the threat of any future bites from Blue has been significantly reduced. Thanks to the partnership between Matthews and their vet, Blue’s owners have a much better understanding of their dog, his anxiety, and how to manage his behaviors in a healthy way.
For Matthews, this outcome has been very rewarding. “Many people do not recognize the signs of anxiety in dogs,” she said. “This leads to many dogs being punished for the way they attempt to deal with their emotions. People believe that these dogs are able to control themselves and are merely choosing not to obey.” Fortunately for Blue, his owners recognized some of his behaviors as stress-related and took action before anything worse could happen.
Matthews hopes more people will be like Blue’s owners and get help dealing with their dogs’ anxiety issues. “These dogs often get mislabeled as stubborn, disobedient, or stupid,” said Matthews. “Worse still, some people believe these dogs may be acting out of spite. These incorrect attributes place dogs suffering from underlying anxiety at high risk for abuse because they all stem from misunderstandings of who the dog is and what the dog needs to be successful.”
Matthews warns against punishing dogs who are displaying behaviors linked to anxiety. These behaviors are warnings, and not paying attention or punishing them can lead to dire consequences. “Using such [harsh] methods are typically appealing because they seemingly offer a quick-fix solution; however, their use does nothing to address the root of the problem,” Matthews said. “Merely suppressing the outward behavior of any animal is like removing the tick from an armed bomb, and doing so places us all at risk.”
Matthews hopes to continue using her new certification to help dogs in the South stay in their homes and out of the shelter system.
If you’re not sure whether or not your dog is displaying behaviors related to anxiety — like yawning, whining, or repetitive licking — it’s best to consult with a canine behavior expert like Lisa Matthews.
*Name of dog changed at the request of the owners.
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About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby and Odin (cats) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.