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Archive for April, 2011

The Human Trainer

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

We often hear, and I find it to be true, that 90% of dog training is for the human, and 10% for the dog. But this blog isn’t about that – it’s about how often dogs train US, and how rarely we notice it.

A few weeks ago, Toby needed a minor surgery which required general anesthetic, but was simple enough that I could pick him up immediately after. Being Toby, he of course strutted out of the back of the clinic with the vet tech all tough and proud, as though nothing had happened. As soon as he spots me, Mommy, he collapsed into a heap of whining and submissive body language. Almost as if he’s a child who just noticed the scrape on the knee they got two hours ago and doesn’t start to cry until they see what they’ve done to themselves. That’s Toby – my little emotional basketcase.

When we got home that afternoon, he was out of the anesthetic haze enough that he could stay awake, but was still feeling dopey and drugged. He began to whimper non-stop – partly because I’m sure he was in some discomfort from the procedure, but mostly because he was feeling confused by the after effects of the drugs, and this surely left him feeling vulnerable and afraid. Of course, I babied him, cuddled him, and made him an extra special dinner that night. I noticed that his wimpering would stop if I made eye contact with him – even when he was cuddled into me on the couch, he’d cry until I looked into his eyes. As soon as I looked away, it would start again. This is a prime example of why we include “no eye contact” in the common phrase “No touch, No talk, No eye contact” – it is just as, if not more comforting and communicative than touch and talk. I love Toby, so given what he’d been through that day, I indulged him.

The next day, he was clearly not feeling any more physical discomfort, and the drugs had completely worn off. But he was still doing this crying for attention thing. Toby is a “talker” – he howls and moans often as a part of his general behaviour, but this was different – it was a cry, a “woe is me, life is ending” kind of cry. At this point though, he really didn’t have anything to cry about. Because it was unfounded and so out of character for Toby, every time he did it, I looked at him. He had me!! Toby had effectively trained me to give him attention by crying. He kept this up at varying levels of persistence for about two weeks, and over this past week has final realized that I’m onto his game and will no longer look at him when he cries. I was adamant about putting a quick stop to this behaviour not only because it could be dangerous (when he one day cries for good reason and I ignore him), but also because it really irked me to be a dog behaviour professional being duped by her own Boxer!

This happens more often than we think. I can safely say that the vast majority of my clients start out thinking their dogs have bad behaviour because they are stupid dogs– when in fact they are very intelligent. They have found a way to get around what their owner is asking of them and get the owner to do what the dog wants to do. Ball play is where I see this the most – “He just is too stubborn and too stupid to bring it to me when I tell him to bring it back! He stops 10 feet away from me, drops it, and just as I’m about to pick it up and throw it for him, he grabs it and runs away!!!”. Your dog has taught you how to play chase!!! Dogs love this game, and play it with each other all the time – and have found a very effective way of getting their owners to play it too. What’s the first thing you do when you dog grabs your very expensive shoe from the front hall? You run after him (chasing him), yelling at him (barking), and reach forward to grab it when he stops (play bow) – ta da!! Your dog has trained you to play his favourite game!

These are just a couple of examples, but smart dogs have lots of ways of getting their owners to do what they want us to do. When you think your dog is dumb, or stubborn, think about whether that’s really accurate, or if they are just making sure that you play by their rules, instead of vice versa.

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