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By Published On: December 1st, 2011

In dog training the way you get the behavior you want, really want, is by constantly raising the criteria. This means that you stop rewarding the behavior that is ‘almost’ what you want and ask for more or better from the dog. When you get it, you reward it. If you want your dog to ‘down’ you don’t settle for one of those lowered, but resting on their elbows kind of ‘downs’. That might be ok if you are shaping the behavior but you better not continue to reward it, or that’s all you’re likely to get. Expect more from those capable of doing more and reward for better.

It seems that in the world of animal rescue far too many of us are willing to settle for, and reward, not quite good enough behavior from the people performing it. Typically when I bring this up I get the routine responses of; “Well at least they’re doing something” or “It’s better than nothing” or there’s a list of reasons why ‘better’ is difficult or impossible to attain. And then there are those who chose to go on the attack with, “And what are YOU doing to help?”

Though each response has a reasonable point to make, they seem to miss the point I’m trying to get at which is-we can do better but not until we raise the criteria for what constitutes a successful ‘rescue’. As it stands now simply getting a dog out of a shelter or out of an abusive situation and into a home is ‘good enough’ and heaven forbid anyone is evaluated for the way they do it. In my opinion it’s like rewarding one of those, almost but not quite, ‘downs’. It may be good enough for you but it won’t stand up to the scrutiny of those who make it their business to assess those sorts of things. Or are called in to try to help pick up the pieces of a broken dog.

cartoon of very scared womanAfter watching this video of beagles being rescued from a laboratory in Spain, and which was suppose to bring tears to my eyes, I found myself feeling more angry and upset, then joyful. These are special needs dogs. Their development has been compromised by confinement and the lack of exposure to novelty. ‘Freeing’ them to a life beyond a cage is a worthwhile goal, but exposing them to things which people think they should enjoy, without acknowledging or understanding that the very ‘freedom’ we subject them to, is scary, is not good enough. Sure it feels good to the handlers to be the ones lifting the latches, and I don’t want to take that away from people, but it shouldn’t be the main goal of ‘rescue’ and I suspect that if we all did some soul searching we’d admit that ‘saving’ animals makes us feel good and is a prime motivator behind our behavior.

Some take that response to an unhealthy end and become hoarders with rooms, cages and kennels full of animals they’ve ‘saved’ but who live lives of neglect and inadequate care both physically and emotionally. Others seem to behave like impulse shoppers, going into situations and ‘saving’ animals and then moving on to the next ‘rescue’ without ever taking their previous purchase out of the box. If the ‘rescue’ is a high visibility one, or can become one, this is often enough to start generating the income in the form of donations, for their ‘almost good enough’ behavior to continue.

The risks of handling dogs as they are being handled in this video are real. Almost everything about the experience is novel, and potentially scary to the dogs. This means that anything associated with the experience has the potential to be scary to the dog in the future. This type of conditioning is so effective that people trying to sell you things use it all the time. Cars are associated with the feelings one has when looking at scantily clad women or powerful appearing men. Cigarettes and soft drinks conjure up images and the associated feelings of freedom and fun. Think about how the smell of those cinnamon rolls baking at the airport food court or mall make you ‘feel’. It doesn’t matter if the texture of grass on a dog’s feet actually hurts them or not, if stepping on grass is associated with being scared, by whatever might have scared them, you can end up with a dog who is reluctant to step on grass because it recreates the feeling of being afraid. The same is true in regard to getting into a vehicle, getting out of a crate, or experiencing any of the myriad sights, sounds and scents a dog may have been exposed to at the same time they were experiencing fear. It doesn’t matter if any harm befell the dog or not. The physical and emotional responses of fear are enough proof to a dog that being afraid is warranted.

Trainers are often called on to help solve problem behaviors in dogs, and there may not be any obvious reasons or causes for the dog’s behavior. Dogs who won’t get in cars, or step outside their houses. There are dogs who no matter how long they are outside come inside and pee behind the couch.

Why are we so reluctant to demand more and better from the people ‘saving’ animals? It’s like settling for ‘fast food’ as a nourishing meal. There will always be those dogs who will be able to thrive despite the challenges they face, but there will be plenty more who because of inappropriate handling, often when they needed good handling the most, who will never find peace and comfort in the lives we can give them. Can we admit that most people looking to adopt pets are not prepared to deal effectively with compromised dogs? Are we ready or willing to look at how transporting dogs might be affecting their future behavior? Can we accept that not all dogs will become happy, confident pets given the time and resources available to their care?

It’s difficult to see the ways animals are abused and disrespected and not want to do something to change it. It’s this response in people that makes me like them the most. I’m all for doing something, I’d just like to see the ‘something’ that many are doing, was as good as it could be. The ability to assess a developmentally challenged or fearful dog’s needs and abilities should be on the ‘to do’ list of anyone involved in rescue. We’d all feel better for it.

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