The Importance of Objective Observation in Assessing Dog Behaviour

The Importance of Objective Observation in Assessing Dog Behaviour

OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE Observations in Dog Training:

A common situation that often arises in the field of dog training, is how we observe behaviour.

The ‘how’ has an undeniably important influence on the outcomes for the dog, because –

  •     ‘how’ we observe behaviour influences the conclusions made in the behavioural assessment and as a result,
  •     it influences the behaviour modification plan that is designed around those conclusions.
  •     It can also influence the outcomes of difficult decisions such as, whether to re-home or to euthanise a dog.

We can see why it is vitally important that behavioural consultants and dog trainers get it right from the very start of the consultation.

I am talking about OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE observation. Whilst we may be skilled in training dogs, it is incumbent on trainers and behavioural consultants to also be highly skilled in OBJECTIVE observation and to be aware of the differences between OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE observation, as well as the nuances of each.

It is commonplace for dog trainers to hear comments or opinions from the dog’s owner about their dog’s behaviours, which are based on the owner’s subjective observations of their dog. This is because there is an emotional or psychological involvement for the owner with their dog which is based on their established relationship. That relationship can be either a positive or a negative one and this alone can cloud the owner’s own observations of their dog. We also see this when an owner develops sentimentality towards the dog.

One of the skills required of a dog trainer or behaviourist, is the ability to recognise and not be influenced by the subjective observations offered by the dog’s owner or those closest to the dog emotionally. This also extends to those who are not emotionally attached to the dog but who might have another type of attachment such as a geographic link to the dog and its immediate environment for example, a neighbour. In cases where the dog is displaying a problem behaviour which is impacting on neighbours, we then see ‘negative labelling’ which can lead to subjective observations of the dog. This can be especially so for a neighbour who has to put up with a barking dog and as a result is so heavily influenced by the negativity of that situation that they label all of the dog’s behaviours as bad or unreasonable or unprovoked. The opportunity to objectively observe the dog’s behaviours, to identify possible antecedents and ultimately to be able to understand what might possibly be driving those behaviours, is then missed. Here’s a simple scenario that can result in a ‘geographically subjective observation’:- The neighbour’s cat sits on the fence and teases the dog who barks continuously at it. As soon as the annoyed neighbour (who owns the cat) opens their door to yell at the troublesome noisy dog next door, the cat disappears!! The dog is then blamed for unprovoked behaviour because of the absence of the facts and because the situation is so loaded with angst and discontent that the evidence can be missed, or misconstrued, even if it is actually observed.

Then, in comes the dog trainer who is detached both emotionally and geographically and is able to objectively observe what is influencing the dog’s behaviours and has the ability to identify the antecedent (the cat sitting on the fence). The trainer is then able to develop an accurate behaviour modification plan using training and/or management strategies to address the ‘problem behaviours’. This is effective use of objective observation.

Although OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE observation are very different, behavioural assessments by trainers and behaviourists can easily be influenced by subjective input. We need to be careful to approach these exercises with objective eyes and an objective mindset and to ask for clarification where we suspect subjectivity may be at play either in our own thinking or with those who are affected by the dog’s behaviours. Even our own breed bias can influence or cloud our objectivity when observing behaviours.

  • What is the definition of these two terms?

OBJECTIVE: –  is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

SUBJECTIVE: –  is based on or influenced by personal feelings, judgements, tastes, or opinions.

  • What is a simple example of each?

OBJECTIVE: –  the dog got up from its bed and walked over to the water bowl.

SUBJECTIVE: –  the dog was thirsty.

(Although one could easily come to a natural conclusion that this dog went to the water bowl because it was thirsty, it is possible that there are many other reasons behind the behaviour and just because we couldn’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.)

How can we apply this in our Behavioural Asssessments and Dog Training and why is it so important?

Here are some useful guidelines about how to keep your observations OBJECTIVE:

  1. BIAS: Do not conduct the observation if you have an emotional attachment to the situation or are geographically linked to the case. Ask a colleague to do it or have the colleague attend with you and then compare your observations. Be open to their input about your observations possibly being clouded or subjective.
  2. FACTS: Make sure you are ONLY recording the facts and not what you think or believe is going on before, during or after the behaviour manifests. Practice with your own dog or children or even your partner! Record only what you see and hear.
  3. DETAILS: Record as much detail as possible, even if at the time you might not understand if there is a link to the behaviours.
  4. ENVIRONMENT: Record the physical layout of the environment which can have an enormous influence on animal behaviour even without our being aware of it. You want to paint the whole setting in such a way that the audience feels like they are there too. The more information you provide, the easier and more accurate the conclusions and advice will be.
  5. CHANGES: Look for and record changing environmental factors which may be influencing the behaviour and record them, without surmising that they are, or are not, influencing the behaviour/s. For example, “…and at that point a child walked into the room…”
  6. POSITIONING: Make sure you are not positioned in such a way that YOU are inadvertently influencing behaviours or changes in behaviours. Consider where you will sit or stand to observe with the least impact on the animal. Out of view of the dog, is always the most objective position to observe from, provided the dog is not nervous or concerned about you being in that position.
  7. LABELS: Do not use labels. Examples can include: vicious, stubborn, jealous, cute, harmless, annoying, protecting, guarding, grumpy, not happy, out of control, angry, dumb, just doesn’t get it, etc. Try instead to describe the particular behaviour/s that made you think of labelling it as such, e.g. “…the dog kept annoying me…”
  8. QUANTITY: Avoid summarising quantities. Instead, record how many times a particular behaviour was exhibited. For example: replace “…the dog circled a lot…” with “…the dog circled three times in an anticlockwise direction, on the same spot, for 20 seconds…” (Yes direction of travel takes on a whole new meaning when diagnosing Compulsive Disorders!)
  9. BODY LANGUAGE: Don’t forget to observe and record ALL body language. This applies to not only the dog that is the subject of the observation, but to everyone involved in any interactions during the observation period, e.g. look at the body language of – other dogs in a multi dog household; of other animals; of household members and of visitors.
  10. SURETY: If you are not confident you have made an accurate observation, e.g. something blocked your view when a behaviour was displayed, then use terms such as “it appeared to be ….”, so that this particular observational comment is allocated the correct amount of credence when pulling all the observations together. Alternatively, leave it out altogether. Each circumstance will be different.

In Conclusion:

Objective observation ensures that:

  • the behaviour is accurately recorded and identified;
  • an appropriate training and management plan can be developed to effectively address the behaviour;
  • if required, the dog’s owner can make an informed decision about the dog’s welfare and future.

The conclusions we make about our pets and their behaviours can have far reaching effects, not only on them, but also on so many other lives whether it is our family, our visitors and/or our neighbours. The efforts we make to ensure we are gathering the right information about what is actually taking place at any time, is the only way to ensure that the process is accurate, effective and fair to all involved.