DOG WHISPERER

Dr. Kapla is one of nation’s few certified animal behaviorists

Dr. Susan Kapla is shown holding her 10-week-old German Shepherd Jack. (Laura Farwell photo)

LOCALS by Laura Farwell
Despite my misguided belief that I actually understood our dogs, I felt ill-equipped to handle one of our rescue dog’s behavioral problems. Fortunately, Dr. Susan Kapla was recommended to us. She distilled the problems, the antecedents to the problems, and guided us to reinforce the behaviors we wanted from our self-protective and extremely noise-sensitive dog. Without Dr. Kapla’s help, the ending would have likely been much different and seven years premature.
In addition to teaching in NMU’s Dept. of Psychological Science, Dr. Kapla is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, or “CAAB,” and owns Canine Consultants, LLC, which offers private consultations, group training classes, and resources to people and their dogs.
With fewer than 50 CAABs in the nation, our community is extremely fortunate to have such a rare, valuable, and practical resource. In fact, the CAAB requires certification through the exacting Animal Behavioral Society: 6-10 years of formal academic training (including a doctorate), considerable hands-on experience in applied animal behavior, and close adherence to ethical standards.
Recently, Sue spoke to me about her passion for understanding animal behavior, becoming a CAAB, and some of the challenges people and dogs face in our community.

How did you become interested in dogs and animal behavior?
As far back as I can recall, I have always wanted to spend a life with animals. I had a pony and later a horse as a kid; but my intense interest in dogs really started 30 years ago with a Springer Spaniel named Arthur, a gift from my boyfriend, Dale (who eventually became my lifelong partner!)
Unfortunately, the dog we already had did not appreciate the new addition, and bit Dale. At the time there was little behavioral help available, and we were told he should be euthanized. Since we were unwilling to euthanize him and naïve about how to handle his behavior, he was re-homed. It was an irresponsible thing to do, but we did not know what else to do. As sad as the situation was, the dog’s gift to me was that he prompted me to start a journey to find out what else could be done for dogs like him.

What motivated you to pursue an advanced degree in psychology? And later, the CAAB credential?
I discovered that my newly earned bachelor’s degree in psychology could be combined with my budding interest in animal behavior and training. I learned about the possibility of a career with animals as a CAAB if I earned a graduate degree. But I would find myself training dogs for another 10 years before pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.
I volunteered at the local shelter and started training my own dogs for things like competitive obedience, tracking, pet facilitated therapy, and Schutzhund as well as other people’s dogs to be well-behaved companion dogs; I loved all of it.
But this chronic unsatisfactory feeling always followed me; I really, really wanted to know why behavior changes. How could a deeper understanding of behavior help dogs—like my own relinquished one—find and stay in homes? My experiences with the local animal shelter showed me the tragic outcomes that were all too common, many the result of humans misunderstanding dogs and dogs misunderstanding how to live in the world of humans. I wanted to be part of the solution, so I sought my CAAB credential.

Why did you choose the CAAB certification?
Because the CAAB is the most academically rigorous credential focused exclusively on animal behavior. It is a certification earned through the Animal Behavior Society, the leading professional organization in North America for the study of animal behavior.
The only animal behavior credential that exceeds the CAAB is that issued to veterinarians who choose to specialize in behavior. My interest has always been behavior, not veterinary medicine.
What do you like most about being a CAAB? A psychology professor?
My husband and I completed our Ph.Ds in 2005, and we both were fortunate enough to obtain academic positions at NMU. Becoming a professor of psychology (in my case, an assistant professor) was not my primary motivation for obtaining a PhD, but it dovetailed beautifully with my interest and my professional, experiential history in behavior. I love helping my students learn about the science of behavior, and my background as a dog trainer and behaviorist makes for a rich blend of theory and practice.
My credential as a CAAB puts me in the company of a small group—fewer than 50 credentialed specialists in the country—of specially trained individuals with similar academic preparation and experiential backgrounds. It is also a very important way to showcase to pet owners what I did not have when I re-homed my dog. Namely, that there is hope via a body of academically and experientially prepared service providers that devote their professional careers to making this world a better place for dogs (and horses and cats and birds, amongst other animals) and their caretakers.

Dr. Susan Kapla is pictured working with a dog at Fiddle Knoll Farm. (Dale Kapla photo)

How does a CAAB differ from a dog trainer?
“Dog trainer” and “behaviorist” are not industry protected terms, and the field of dog behavior and training is not regulated by law. That means that anyone with an interest in training or behavior can currently and legally call themselves a trainer or even a behaviorist despite their level of education or experience. Education and experience alone do not make one great at what they do, but in my case, having started as a trainer, what higher education has taught me is how to look at behavior differently than I did when I was a trainer. Behavior is a complex phenomenon subject to many variables including development, genetics, and, importantly, the environmental contingencies that support its presence, absence and rate.
As a dog trainer, I knew how to teach a dog to do things, but my academic training has prepared me to help understand why they do things; in other words, it has helped me to understand function. Before I learned how to ask why, I relied heavily on technique or tradition (and there are many, many training approaches and trainer certifications available today.) But, a technique can fail to address what happens when the same behavior occurs in two different settings—the behaviors can look identical yet have completely different functions! For each condition, the same technique will not work. The result could be a seriously misguided intervention or training plan. Discovering why a behavior occurs makes for more effective and flexible interventions and training plans. Otherwise, one is just trying out approaches to see what might work; it’s kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks!

If someone wants to train a dog or a puppy, what should they consider to find the right person for their needs?
To find a trainer, especially for a new puppy, my best advice is to look at outcomes and experience. Teaching puppies well via classes or privately can be one of the most influential and important parts of a young dog’s behavioral development. What they are exposed to there may very well be the foundation for appropriate or inappropriate behavior for a dog’s lifetime. While many consider puppies to be the easiest to teach, and perhaps the best place for a beginning trainer to start, they actually carry the highest degree of responsibility because of the potential lasting impact. Hence, decisions about training are best based on empirically supported evidence from the professional literature, and when that is lacking in a specific area, on experience. Thoughts about proper puppy socialization and training are constantly evolving as we learn more and more!

Biggest challenge?
One of my biggest challenges in my caseload is how my clients and their dogs have to learn to navigate living in community with other owners and dogs who may not understand how their dogs affect one another. We live in a beautiful and dog-friendly part of the state, and that should mean that everyone has the ability to enjoy what our gorgeous environment has to offer.
For instance, young puppies in sensitive developmental stages may find an unfamiliar dog who approaches them to very frightening and it might have a lasting effect on that puppy’s social development. We need a serious discussion about how we can all learn to live together with our dogs to keep enjoying the beauty here. It’s a precious gift.

Greatest joy?
When a family finds a dog that wants exactly what they want. It’s a match made in heaven! When a dog lives in harmony with family and doesn’t need me…that is my greatest joy.
(For more information visit www.canineconsult.com or contact Dr. Susan Kapla at sue@canine-consult.com or (906) 458-5817.)

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