Oh Behave: Behavior Consultants Meeting


WARWICK, RI — Need help with a dog who barks incessantly when you’re not home, a cat who targets the wall instead of the litter box, a parrot who screams obscenities, or a horse who’s pretty much eating up his stable? A behavior consultant from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants may be able to help.

A continuing education meeting of nearly 300 animal behavior professionals was held April 20-22 in Warwick. IAABC Executive director Marjie Alonso, a certified dog behavior consultant in Boston, MA, said, “We are people who care deeply and enough to go out there and do something about whatever we can, independently or through organizations, to improve the lives of the animals and humans with whom we work.”

Here are some highlights from conversations with several speakers at the conference:

Most victims of dog bites are children, most bites occur in the home, and nearly all dog bites can be avoided, explained Dr. Sophia Yin, an applied animal behaviorist and dog behavior consultant from San Francisco.

Yin, author of the handout “How to Greet a Dog and What to Avoid” (CattleDog Publishing, 2012; available as a download www.drsophiayin.com), said most dogs throw up neon signs when they don’t want to be petted. “They back away, yawn, might lick their lips and simply won’t look at you,” she says. “If the dog isn’t looking at you, fine, don’t pet the dog.” She continued, “If you don’t know the dog, of course, always ask permission from the owner. Stand beside the dog and avoid reaching over the dog’s head.”

Dog behavior consultant Brenda Aloff, of Midland, MI, said you can prevent such problem behaviors when dogs are still puppies by teaching them to tolerate people reaching over their heads. Aloff, author of “Puppy Problems? No Problem! A Survival Guide for Finding and Training Your New Dog” (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA, 2011; $39.95), says with a puppy, reach over the pet’s head and drop food. It won’t be long before this movement is no longer intimidating.

To those who suggest it’s important to do this to teach dogs that people are dominant, Aloff replies, “Heavens no. Even thinking about dominance is not a useful paradigm which to train a dog.”

Katenna Jones, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Providence, RI-based dog and cat behavior consultant and author of “Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer” (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA, 2012; $9.95), feels puppy classes are important. She suggested auditing a class without your puppy just to get a feel.   “You should see nice happy, relaxed dogs,” she said. “Stressed out dogs can’t learn.”

Run the other way if the instructor is using a choke (chain link), prong (with inverted points), or electronic (shock) collar in a puppy class. Jones raises her voice when referring to such techniques. “Oh, God, no! Relying on a shock collar for basic training is like being electrified to do your job; it’s not necessary.”

When it comes to teaching, arguably no person alive has taught so much to parrots as Irene Pepperberg, president of the Alex Foundation; research associate, Harvard University; and adjunct associate professor, Brandeis University. Alex, the African Grey Parrot featured on many TV shows, passed away nearly five years ago, but Pepperberg’s work on parrot intellect continues.

A scientific paper hot off the press reveals that Alex was able not only to count in English (not unusual for birds) but also in Arabic. If you asked Alex, “How many cups?” he could even add them.

Pepperberg says all parrots are pretty darn smart, but Alex would get so bored with learning that sometimes he clearly offered the wrong answers to questions on purpose. How does Pepperberg know this? “It had to be,” she says. “If it was a random wrong guess, it happens once in a while, but statistically to always pick the wrong one is otherwise quit improbable.”

To find a dog, cat, parrot or horse behavior consultant near you, check www.iaabc.org.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services