Elementary my dear Watson

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.


12 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    I can totally relate to this Debbie.

    When Gracie first came into my life I was even less prepared for her fearful ways than you were with Sunny. I had to handle her even though she shut down every time I came near her. Had I known about your blog and web site in the first instance I most likely would NOT have done half the things with and to her that I did out of ignorance and inexperience.

    But we live and learn, hopefully! Gracie has survived my novice handling of her and has grown in confidence around me, now positively seeking out affection and attention.

    I can’t yet say that she is any less fearful of all other humans but I’m hopeful that she will continue to improve for her own sake and not mine.

    Vince’s words do ring true, ‘The dog does the work and we take the opportunities’. It’s certainly worked for us 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I figure we do the best we can with what we’ve got Lizzie. I sometimes think about the things I know now and how they would have helped me with dogs who lived me in the past. Ironically one of the most responsive and bombproof dogs I ever had was a pup I got for my 16th birthday. I didn’t know squat about training, I just loved that dog more than anything else in my life. I took her everywhere, even places I wasn’t suppose to, just to be with her. I didn’t know about training but I knew how to be a friend.

  2. honeysjourney on

    Your first paragraph in this posting really hit the mark, Debbie. I could just change the names and there I find myself with little Ms. Blondie. Honey has forced me back in life to be again curious, patience among other things, unwillingly at first.

    I’ve had several bombproof dogs in the past, and still do today. I took Maggie for 4 acupuncture treatments, while the vet placed 20 needles in her back and legs, Maggie just allowed the procedure with no complaints. The vet stated she had never had a dog so easy to work on.

    I think these bombproof dogs are taken a lot for granted, I know I did prior to the arrival of my girl. Now I find it exciting when I get a tail wag, or a come when I whistle, life’s good.

    Thank you for all the help and the hard interesting work you’ve done, all I need do is read.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Actually George it’s the work you are doing which further convinces me that slow and steady wins the race. Even if the race is part of the doggie Special Olympics.

  3. Mel on

    Wow. Can I ever relate to this one!

    Before I had Daisy I knew how to train using positive reinforcement, but it was only when I adopted Daisy that my inquisitive side truly came out. She made me research and learn more than I had with any other dog, and I constantly had to problem-solve and think of new and interesting ways to encourage her and build up her confidence and trust.

    There is something about the journey that makes this work so worthwhile. I love the challenge of it, the testing ones self and seeking and learning more and more. But the best, is the Eureka! moment that comes when the discovery process leads to success.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not only that but look at the wonderful people that are brought together by their commitment to helping a fearful dog. Totally awesome.

  4. Lizzie on

    Talking of bombproof dogs, my last Lab, Lucy was pretty much like that, apart from storms, gunshot and fireworks!

    Being a PAT dog she had to be Ok around people and even loved going to the vets, always had a waggy tail. But I do agree with George that these dogs get taken for granted as when Lucy was hiding under a table or in the laundry basket under the stairs during a thunderstorm I’m ashamed to say that didn’t have anything like the understanding or empathy with her as I do for Gracie.

    However I am pleased to be able to say that amazingly Gracie does NOT react to fireworks or thunder and there is a bonus to that as well. My middle dog Fugee was just as scared as Lucy when the fireworks started on New Year Eve or Guy Fawkes night but since Gracie has been with us, he couldn’t care less about the noise.

    I can only conclude that he was reacting to Lucy’s behaviour and not the noise!

    I think that if or when Gracie can overcome her fear around people, she might evolve into a bombproof dog, you never know!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sunny can sit in the midst of leaf blowing, vacuuming, etc, and not flinch, but have someone stand up out of their chair, yikes! Sensitivities are interesting things.

  5. Donna in VA on

    I think creating a routine or “ritual” surrounding some of the activities we ask them to tolerate may help – do the same thing the same way as much as possible. We have a bath ritual that always follows the same routine, a brushing ritual, nail clipping, etc. Each has its own place, a usual time of day, a specific reward. That way the reward can be anticipated. A longer reward is deserved for more patience exhibited, a single treat may or may not suffice. Examples of longer rewards could be a stuffed kong, a towel rubdown, a lap nap, a game, an extra walk. For tolerating his bath (15 minutes), Max gets a rub-down and a lap nap. For brushing (15-20 minutes), he gets a stuffed kong. For tooth brushing (1 minute), he just gets a pat on the head.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like your dogs can use a union rep Donna 😉 How about 2 stuffed kongs, a scratch behind the ears and the promise of no baths on Sundays?

  6. Jessie on

    Wow! Can I relate. I have the same things with my dog going on. I tried luring her with treats then dive bombed her to clean her ears, no wonder she didn’t trust me and have good recall.

    I am still working on getting near her with novel objects, it’s just so hard knowing simple things like eye infections or ears with lots of buildup can be cleaned easily (in my eyes of course) and she’s not yet comfortable with it! Then like you said it can lead to ear infections and vet visits! Still working on it, but thankfully your blogs help me along!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a challenge for sure. If you have not used a clicker consider it.

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