Most of Mike Dixon’s job as a behavioral dog trainer and owner of Tri-State Canine Obedience entails working with the dogs’ owners instead. He has always loved dogs, he says, but the decision to go into this line of work came when he saw something he considers a great injustice – the euthanization of dogs with manageable behavioral issues.
"I saw a need to educate people out there and let them know that this is not the end of the line ñ it’s not the right thing to euthanize them," Dixon says. "I’ve seen dogs be put down for potty issues in the house."
But Dixon’s specialty is dealing with dogs with aggression issues. "Turns out a dog is just protecting its owner a lot of the time. As humans, we tend to open doors for dogs to be aggressive in that way. I’ve seen a person go through four dogs who were all aggressive. In that case, you’re the problem, not the dog," he says.
The root of a multitude of behavioral problems for dogs come from the way humans treat their dogs, he says. Man and man’s best friend have a bit of a communication barrier for a simple reason. "Humans treat dogs as their kids or babies, not as canines," he says. "They add human emotion to them." On the other end, dogs view humans as canines – they apply canine reasoning to human actions.
This issue is the cause of a lot of problems for dog owners. They expect dogs to understand after-the-fact corrections to behavior, but dogs don’t understand this, Dixon says. "We need to be proactive with dogs: The best way to stop bad behavior is not to let it start. We give our dogs too many opportunities to do bad behaviors," he says. For example, letting dogs on the bed gives them the opportunity to pee on the bed. Once a puppy does something, it’s a part of its formative experiences, which will inform its behavior later in life as well.
If there is a behavioral issue, though, it’s important for owners to figure out if the problem derives from behavior or a medical issue. Potty issues are often automatically considered to be behavioral, but Dixon says he has seen a lot of dogs with urinary tract infections that weren’t detected for this reason. "You have to determine the cause. Seek out the advice of a vet – there are many issues that can be related to medical problems," he says.
With or without these behavioral or medical issues, humans love their dogs and find this love returned in kind, he says. But that’s an error on the humans’ parts, he says. "Dogs are the most social creatures in the world besides humans," he says. "They show submission and appeasement behaviors, like jumping up and licking under your chin, but they only display it towards humans because they think they’re part of the pack."
Although Dixon understands this, it’s hard to separate the human emotion from his relationship with his dogs, he says. "Even for me, who does this for a living, it’s hard to separate the emotional side. The human response is very powerful. Yes, the dog is doing these behaviors for affection, but it’s in a different way. We’re looking at it as love, but it’s not quite love."