The number one comment I receive when I post photographs of my dogs is how happy they are. The number two comment I receive is how expressive they are. And while some of this can probably be attributed to my camera, I think most of it was crafted. We put a lot of effort into making our dogs happy, and we sacrifice some to keep them that way.
I think it is fairly obvious that I believe very strongly in positive reinforcement training. I think it’s great, and it is has helped us immensely with all of our dogs. I spend literally thousands of dollars a year on trainers, books, DVDs, seminars and workshops to make me a better trainer and make my dogs’ lives easier. But this particular blog isn’t actually about training, it’s about not training.
Part of the reason my dogs look so happy in my photographs is because I make it a goal of mine to give them ample time to be dogs, which, as you may recall, they are. I didn’t use to, which I think may be part of why Shelby is generally a very worried dog, though she is getting better. When I first started going to Carolyn for rehabilitation for Shelby, she told me to take three weeks off of training. She said I was not to train with Shelby, not to cue her, I was allowed to reinforce calm behaviors with food and reward anything that I liked that Shelby offered, but I was not to actively train with her or ask or require her to do anything.
As it turns out, that was harder than I had originally anticipated. I thought I was going to get this awesome break in my routine where I would have time to catch up on some reading and bubble baths. Joe was excited too, he thought that our dishes might get done, and he may have clean boxers to wear for a few weeks.
This little experiment taught me a lot. I was constantly training with my dogs. But not only was I constantly training, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, I was constantly trying to control their lives. When Shelby jumped up, I said, “off” when Shelby ran away from me, I said, “come”, when Shelby barked, I said, “quiet” when Shelby sniffed, I said, “leave it”, when Shelby picked up a stick, I said, “drop it”, when Shelby wouldn’t get on the bed, I told her to “hup up”. For almost every behavior that Shelby could engage in I had a counter to it. Because I had taught all of these counters using positive reinforcement I thought that there wasn’t a problem. As it turns out, there was. I wasn’t allowing Shelby to independently exist.
Before I get a bunch of people barking at me and others cheering in triumph that they have finally won the argument that positive reinforcement training is detrimental to dogs, let me clear something up. What I did with Shelby can be done with any dog using any method of training.
The next time I went to Carolyn’s I confessed to her that I hadn’t before realized how much of a control freak I was. She smiled slyly and said, “I figured you might be.” How had she figured that? Well, anyone who spends more than about five minutes with me knows that I tend to worry, almost constantly. Joe has actually told me that my worrying worries him and that he is convinced if I don’t learn to let things go that I am going to have a nervous breakdown sometime in the not so distant future. He isn’t the only one who has told me that I can’t carry the whole world on my shoulders.
Part of what was going on with Shelby was that I was terrified of her getting into trouble. When we were outside, if she strayed too far, I wanted her to come back, because I didn’t have any control over what she was eating or seeing over there on the other side of the yard. What if she ran away? What if she ate something, and I didn’t know about it and she got sick? What ifs plagued me.
The other part of what was going on was that I was simply more concerned about what was convenient for me than what was good for Shelby. It was not convenient for me to play stick in the morning. It was also not convenient to have to get up an hour earlier, so I could take her on long walks just so she could get her sniff on. It was not convenient for me to wait for Shelby to get into the bed and get comfy, because she almost always tried to get into bed when I was almost asleep and then plop down unceremoniously on my pillow. So I made cues to turn off all of these behaviors, which I deemed “undesirable”. And it made Shelby just as neurotic as me. She was essentially in a highly controlling relationship. I basically did the same thing that dominance trainers do – I tried to control every aspect of her life. Except I did it for different reasons. Shelby doesn’t understand the reasons, and she doesn’t understand that I don’t think she’s dominating me, I just think she’s annoying. She just understands the results, and the results were that she wasn’t allowed to be a dog.
Do I regret it? Yes, absolutely. I wish I could turn back the clock and give Shelby her puppy years back. But I can’t. And I must let go and move on from that. So I have been, or at least I’m trying. I still catch myself doing it (and Shelby still responds, which is a testament to the foundation of the training and how committed I was to my program) but it’s much less frequent. As a consequence, Shelby is a happier dog. As an even better consequence, Panzer (who is neurotic to begin with) will never have to deal with the control-freak me.
So how do I go about letting my dogs be dogs and keeping them happy? It’s not just letting them do whatever they want and run willy-nilly around the neighborhood. Instead, I follow Carolyn’s $150 dollar rule and some rules of my own.
What are you afraid of? I’m personally afraid of heights. Take your fear and imagine someone exposing you to it over and over again multiple times a day. I can actually feel the muscles in my body tensing up just thinking about someone putting me on the cliff of a building every day. I would not be a happy camper. Well, my dogs are afraid of people, and I know, even when I work with them under threshold (that is the point where they are reacting and unable to focus/concentrate/learn), there is some stress involved. Maybe not to the extreme I used in my building example, but there is enough stress there to make them uncomfortable.
I think that’s going to happen when you’re rehabilitating a dog’s fear, to some extent. I try to reduce it and make them as comfortable as possible when I’m desensitizing them and am careful to always work below threshold, but I also make sure to not engage in desensitization lessons more than about once a week. I know a lot of people probably disagree and feel that if you’re doing desensitization properly you should be able to do a lot of short sessions as frequently as you want. I am not convinced. First of all, I’m not convinced that everyone knows exactly when his/her dog is or isn’t uncomfortable. Furthermore, at class with Panzer, he starts off doing well and seems comfortable enough, but as the class goes on, he gets more and more anxious. Is it because I started him out in a bad spot? I don’t know, maybe, but I believe his stress levels are growing because a very small amount of stress is compounding. We stop classes short if we have to, before it gets out of control, but he is still stressed, though he is making progress.
If someone put me on top of a building 10, or even 20 feet away from the ledge, I would be able to learn and think. I would be slightly uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t be debilitating. If someone gave me something to pleasant to do while I was there, I may even be able to forget about the unpleasantness of the height for a bit. But maybe the wind would blow and I would remember, or the building would shake, or the pleasing thing would get boring after a minute and I would think, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m on top of a building”. I would make progress, certainly, but it wouldn’t be something I would be ready and raring to do the next day. After the stress had gone down, however, and the pleasant feeling could really start to take effect, I would be ready to go again. This is the approach I take with my dogs.
Knowing Your Dog
I think it’s really important to watch your dogs and know how to judge if they are happy. Your dogs are not happy just because you love them. I’m sorry, they’re not. You could love them all day long and not feed them, and they would not be happy. Neither would you, I bet. I can tell when Shelby is unhappy because her brows wrinkle, and she gets worry lines on her forehead. She does this same exact thing when she is thinking particularly hard about, say, how to get that nice piece of chicken out of the Kong. So I know that just because her brows are wrinkled doesn’t mean she’s unhappy. But the wrinkled brows and whale eyes or sniffing tell me that she is uncomfortable. Shelby is the queen of displacement behaviors, sniffing being one of them.
Panzer, on the other hand, is much more obvious when he is unhappy. He submissive pees, he grovels, he tongue flicks like crazy, his ears pin back, his tail tucks. Panzer has about a million different signs to tell you he is unhappy and none of them are subtle. But Panzer’s signs are completely different from Shelby’s, and I only know that through close observation and recalling what signs they were displaying before they “lost it”.
Let Your Dog Stop and Sniff
I probably hate this more than you do. Trust me. I am not a morning person. I hate the mornings. I hate getting up. I am a sleep till noon, stay up till two kind of girl. Fortunately, that is not conducive with a nine to five. It’s also not conducive with having dogs, unless you’re super lucky and your dogs like to sleep in too (Smokey did!). Getting up at six a.m. to take Shelby on a smell walk is not a pleasant thing for me, and I resisted it for a long time. But after just a week of actually doing it, it improved Shelby’s behavior so much that I make it a daily ritual (mostly). The walk happens after she goes to the bathroom, and it isn’t rushed. If we only make it down the block, then so be it. Basically, all we do is walk. When Shelby stops to sniff something, I stop. I let her sniff it as long as she wants, and then we move on. It’s actually a great stress reliever (if you’re late for work, don’t try this, it will just piss you off, trust me).
We’re Working Dogs We Need to Run
I feel like if my dogs could talk they would constantly be saying this. We’re herding dogs, we need to run. Let your dogs run. Running is healthy for a lot of reasons. It’s obviously great for their muscles and organs, same as it is for yours, and it helps keep off the excess weight. Additionally though, running burns off cortisol, a stress hormone, and produces other hormones like adrenaline, that makes dogs feel good. Running makes dogs happy. I also really like to let my dogs run off leash, because they can run at their own pace and stop and sniff and wrestle to their heart’s content. In my opinion, the only thing that could corrupt running for a dog would be getting dragged around or forced to run, wait to make the stress free experience stressful.
Oh, but the other thing that would really put a damper on the dog’s play time would be getting hit by a car, so if you don’t have a fence, a long line, or some kind of way to keep your dogs in your yard, be reasonable. We don’t have a fence, and I let the dogs run off leash, but only because Shelby has a very reliable recall (which I try not to use just because I’m paranoid), and Panzer will always, always follow her. Also, Shelby and Panzer have both been boundary trained, so they never really leave our yard. But before all this training went down, we used a long line. So just be safe.
I make it a point to always say hello to my dogs as soon as I do any of the following: wake up in the morning, come home from work, wake up from a nap, come in from outside, come upstairs from downstairs or vice versa, come out of the bathtub/bathroom/shower. That is the first order of business. It’s a habit, and I don’t even think about it now. I don’t give extended greetings, I just say, “Hello Doodle, hello Bubba” and give them each a nice pat or scratch behind the ears. I have found that greeting them like this acknowledges their presence and makes our bond stronger. It also seems to get rid of some of that annoying attention seeking behavior like barking or pawing or growling or pushing toys in your face or jumping up or trying to eat whatever you’re focusing on at the time.
Every time I come into a room from which I’ve been absent, the dogs throw a party. Jeez mom, you were gone for a really long time while you were putting that book away upstairs, I sure missed you! The simple acknowledgement of, “Hi baby” seems to go a long way. I know I would feel pretty special if every time Joe walked into a room he said, “Hi love”. Granted, I’m sure he would feel pretty good if every time he came back into a room I ran up to him and threw my arms around him and told him how much I missed him. Well, he might actually think that was creepy, but you get the idea. Our dogs make us feel special, so we should take a few seconds to return the favor.
So for all of you who say I have happy dogs, thank you! And here are just some little tips to hopefully help you have happy dogs too! Happy Valentine’s Day!