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By Published On: November 19th, 2010

silohette of sherlock holmesAs much of a pain as it was to find myself with a project instead of a pet, I not only adore my fearful dog Sunny (who I am upgrading to my ‘super cautious’ dog Sunny) I am grateful to him for bringing the joy of inquiry back into my life.

As a kid the world was full of endless discoveries and questions; certain types of mud stick very nicely to the soles of your bare feet, peppermint stick and hot fudge make an awesome combination, why was it that if you stand in a doorway with your arms by your sides and push against the door frame hard and long enough when you step away your arms will float up? Adolescence and hormones brought a whole new batch of discoveries (which I will decline listing, in case my mother decides to read my blog) and the questions took on a new philosophical bent. It’s not that the questions and discoveries cease when we become adults, but the electrifying edge they have seems to dull.

I have always enjoyed being with dogs and training them, but it wasn’t until Sunny that I started to find myself experiencing ripples of pure delight when I discovered topics like learning theory and neurochemistry. One of the reasons was because Sunny didn’t make anything easy for me. Why wouldn’t he come out of the corner? How could I get him to stop being afraid of me? Why was he afraid of me? Might he always be afraid of me? What should I do? Each of these questions pointed me toward something interesting and eye-opening. Sometimes the answers were simple and appealed to my common sense. Other times the answers were neither simple, nor constant.

Working with dogs is like being a detective. First I have to figure out, as best as I can, why a dog is doing something. Then I get to think about how to get them to either keep doing it, stop doing it, or do something else. The easy answer can seem to be, just make them.

Years ago I was bequeathed two cocker spaniels. Prior to this I felt no particular preference for the breed. In fact I initially thought they were too small and cute to count as real dogs. But as you might imagine, I fell for them. The fact that they need to be groomed, must have their ears, eyes and lip folds cleaned regularly, was certainly not part of what endeared the breed to me. But it came with the package.

When I didn’t know much about training the only solution to performing unpleasant housekeeping on my dogs was to use compulsion, suck it up and deal little dog. The problem with this was that not only did I get resistance from the dog, it made the process unpleasant for me, making it less likely that I’d do it, more likely that infections would set in, which caused the cleanings to be painful for the dogs, and made their resistance even more extreme. It became more expensive for me when I brought them to the vet so someone else could make my dog deal with it. This was not a very good system.

Compulsion, bribery and trickery came with an even higher price. My behavior became suspect. Was a recall being asked for because ears were going to be cleaned? Hands reaching out could be going to grab a collar for restraint, so should be avoided. Even a small head duck offended me. That was not the kind of relationship I wanted to have with any dog, never mind my own.

Then I discovered methods like desensitizing and counter conditioning, rewarding for behaviors I wanted and even better, getting the dog to be an active participant in whatever the process was. I discovered that even if my dogs did not enjoy what was being done to them, they could comply with my request for them to hold still while I did it. Even though some procedures require restraint (I’m not sure how to convince Annie that having her anal glands expressed is a necessary evil) I am always pleased when it’s over and she shakes it off and then looks at me as if to say, ‘ok lady not sure why you felt the need to put your finger up my bum, but you did, so how about that liver treat’. Fortunately most of the things I need my dogs to do, don’t require me to force them to comply, but even then, the manner of their compliance is tolerant and accepting, liver treat or not.

Whenever I find myself thinking that the only solution to a dog’s behavior problem is to make them do something, I know that I haven’t asked enough questions. Sucking it up and dealing should not be the main skill any dog should have to learn, despite the fact that many are masters at it.

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