I talk about management a lot. It’s one of the quickest ways to prevent unwanted behaviors and keep everyone safe. But one of the concerns that I come across frequently when talking about management is:
“Will I have to do this forever?”
I hear you. It can be scary when someone is seemingly talking about changing your entire way of living. And it’s made worse when the professional answers, “It depends” or “Maybe” or “I don’t know” (which is a common answer because any ethical trainer or consultant won’t guarantee future behavior). So let’s unpack the answer to this common concern!
It really does depend…
Let’s start with the obligatory disclaimer: the answer to this question really is that it depends. It depends on what the unwanted behavior is, what triggers it, the environment, the people in the household, safety concerns, and so many other things. If you’re here to get a solid, definitive answer to this question, I’m sorry to say that I don’t have it for you.
Now, there are situations in which I would be very surprised if the pet didn’t need some level of management forever. For example, if a dog has a history of making cats, let’s say, unalive, and the household just got a new kitten, I would recommend some level of management forever for the kitten’s safety. If a dog is resource-guarding their food from the other dog in the household, I’ll likely recommend management forever since that’s usually far easier than modifying that particular behavior.
There are absolutely situations in which I’ve recommended management forever. But the answer really is still- it depends. Even in those situations above, there could be a factor that changes 10 years from now that would make me provide a different answer. Forever is a long time and I don’t have a crystal ball.
… And that’s a good thing
While that infinite grey area is annoying and daunting, it’s actually a good thing that the answer is, “It depends”. That means we have quite a bit of wiggle room overtime to set up management strategies that actually work with our lifestyle, our needs, and our pets’ needs.
At the beginning of a behavior modification journey, the management is usually pretty strict. It’s kind of like an elimination diet- we need to shut everything down and slowly add things back to see what effects belong to which things. But after that, we can change a lot of management factors to come up with a solution where the pet parent isn’t concerned about having to do that strategy forever. They’re happy to do it.
Realistically, all individuals have management in some fashion throughout their days because that’s just part of good behavior modification and training (which we humans definitely participate in even if we don’t realize it). I want my partner to put his shoes away when he gets home. He just so happens to have the spot literally 2 inches from the door where his shoes belong. That wasn’t coincidental; that was management. I want to make sure that I end work at a reasonable time instead of working 10 hours straight. I schedule appointments at the end of my work day so I have to leave no matter what. That’s management. All of us have management strategies in some fashion.
The concern usually isn’t about whether we have to have a management strategy in general for our pets forever. The concern is about having an unsustainable strategy forever. An annoying strategy. A strategy that infringes on our human needs, lifestyle, or bandwidth. That’s truly the concern. And, again, we get a lot of wiggle room in what that strategy looks like.
There are a lot of options
Management can look like a whole lot of different things and there are a lot of ways to achieve the same results. That’s one of the things that I find fun in my profession- getting to come up with unique solutions that work for both my human clients and their pets when it comes to management. Let’s use an example of a dog (or any other pet not in an enclosure) with stranger danger.
One of the first recommendations I make to folks who have stranger-danger kiddos is to put them away before guests arrive. And I specifically use that verbiage because “put away” can look like being sequestered in: a fenced-in backyard, a crate, an exercise pen, a separate room, behind a baby gate, or being on a leash at a distance with a second handler. All of those fit the bill of making it so the pet can’t reach the stranger (and when they can’t reach them it’s a lot more difficult to bite them).
But not all of those options are going to work for every person, every pet, and in every situation or environment so my client gets to choose what that looks like. And, if they need help figuring that out, well that’s what I’m here for! Even the way in which we use certain management strategies can have very different effects. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve given a client a very specific baby gate set-up to boost effectiveness and a few days later they tell me it’s working so much better than when they tried baby gates before!
Management is a spectrum
When we’ve done some work on behavior modification and training, the pet gains skills that open up even more options for us. Oso, who was a stranger danger kiddo when we first adopted him, now has a management strategy that looks very different than it did 7 years ago. He now knows that people aren’t scary- they’re actually pretty exciting- but I still have a specific greeting protocol for him and new people. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that complacency breeds regressions and I’m not taking that chance!
He still gets put away (either outside or in our bedroom) before people come in the door but it’s now just to usher them inside and get them seated instead of letting him calm down for several minutes before coming out. We still incorporate treats, but he warms up fully within a minute or two instead of having to meet them on 3 different occasions like it used to be. I still encourage him to de-stress and move away from them and that is his favorite part; he knows he gets a chewie. Our management has changed pretty substantially over the past 7 years of having Oso, and it’s at a point where it’s very sustainable for us.
The other way in which management is a spectrum is that management strategies can be dependent on very specific triggers or how your pet is feeling that day (especially if they have a medical or pain-related issue. No one’s at their best when they don’t feel good.) For example, we get a lot of cases where parents are looking to improve the relationship between their dog and their baby or toddler. I just recently had this “forever” vs. “for now” management discussion with one of my clients working on this particular issue.
For them, I reminded them that part of our strict management plan is because their son is only 1 year old. We can’t yet teach him body language or have rules for how to interact with the dog. But when he’s a few years older we can teach him canine body language. A few years after that he can more reliably follow rules for how to interact with the dog (reliably being the operative word). But that doesn’t mean that all of his friends will know how to read the dog’s signals, or know what to do in particular situations, or be able to follow the rules as well as their son does. So they may end up having different management strategies depending on which of his friends is coming over. Some friend visits may require very little management. Other friend visits may require quite a bit. It depends.
How much work do you want to put in?
The other reason it depends so much is that it also depends on how much work you want to put into modifying the unwanted behavior. Let’s go back to that guarding example I used in the beginning. It’s absolutely possible to improve food guarding between two dogs. But, when I tell folks what all is involved in that and the timeline, they almost always choose management (which is usually as simple as separating with a physical barrier for feeding). No shame; that’s the path I would take too. In fact, there are some things I could work on with Oso and choose not to because I know how much work it would take and the management is very sustainable for both him and us humans.
Or here’s another example. Is it possible to teach an absolutely rock-solid recall to the point where you wouldn’t need a leash even in a more populated area (assuming there are no leash laws)? Yep. Do most people want to put in the work to teach that? Nope. Management is often a “work harder, not smarter” solution assuming it’s sustainable for the humans and we’re still able to meet the dog’s needs.
And, finally, another big factor that I take into consideration is the household’s risk tolerance. Let’s go back to that example with Oso. I tell folks that he wears a muzzle at the vet clinic not because he actually needs it- he doesn’t anymore- but because the humans in the room feel more comfortable with it on. Why would we risk someone’s safety when he’s perfectly comfortable wearing his muzzle and enjoys all the peanut butter that comes along with wearing it? Management is sometimes more for the humans’ peace of mind than what the pet actually needs at that particular moment. And that’s also totally okay.
- Evaluate your pet’s management strategy. Do you find it tedious? Annoying? Difficult to enforce? If it’s already sustainable, give yourself a pat on the back and celebrate with your pet! If it’s not, read on.
- If your pet’s management strategy is not sustainable, first ask yourself what that strategy is currently accomplishing. Sometimes we have a strategy leftover from when our pet’s were adolescents, or even from past pets, and they’re not actually needed anymore!
- Then, determine the sticky spot. What exactly is it about this strategy that is unsustainable?
- Get creative! Is there a way that you can tweak your management strategy so it produces the same or better results and is easier for you to enact?
- For even more tips, check out Enrichment for the Real World Episode 31 – Creating Sustainable Management.