Sunday, May 3, 2009

Use Your Thumbs Wisely!

We humans rely on our fingers for a lot of things: gripping, grasping… um, gesturing. Our dogs are often on the receiving end of our handiwork. This is usually a good thing. Lacking thumbs, they need us for the important stuff like filling food and water bowls, opening and closing doors, attaching leashes for walks, throwing favorite toys and much more.

Our thumbs are very powerful tools. We should remember to use them wisely. And responsibly – especially when dealing with our canine companions. Unfortunately, this is where we humans often get a bit full of ourselves and mistakenly think we can wield our thumb-loving power without giving sufficient consideration to the lasting effects our actions might have on our four-legged friends.

I teach group classes and private lessons. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a client say, “My dog lets me (fill in the blank: touch his feet, take his food bowl, look in his ears),” I’d, well, be using my prehensile thumb to grip a big ol’ pile of extra dollars! It seems as though we humans are somewhat drunk with power when it comes to thumbs. Because we can, we’ll grip a dog’s foot and examine his nails, fish the hotdog wrapper out of his mouth or thrust our hand in front of his face and into his food bowl while he’s eating. So long as the dog doesn’t appear to react, we assume there’s no problem. After all, he let us do it.

How is the dog considered in this handiwork? Why is it that we just expect him to lie there calmly (or passively accept being restrained) as we handle his feet, ask him to relinquish his favorite chew bone without pause “just because,” and not bat an eye at the fact that, in the middle of his meal, we decided to loom over him and shove our hand in the way? Don’t get me wrong. I can do all of these things to my own dogs without incident, but not just because. My dogs remain calm and unconcerned when I need to pick up a prized chew bone, because I’ve taught them that the bone will return, if not right away, then eventually. And I’ve made it pleasant to relinquish other prized possessions by trading for treats and sometimes still giving the possession right back. They aren’t threatened by my presence near their food bowls as they eat, because I’ve taught them that having me nearby means a tidbit of turkey might suddenly appear on the floor next to their bowl. I can, if I ever need to, spontaneously interrupt their eating by asking them to sit, and they’ll do it, because the majority of the time, I make it worth their while with more turkey. In short, I try very hard to limit the amount of times I use the power of my thumbs just because I feel I can.

Much of what we need to do to dogs on a regular basis, can and often does, feel worrisome or threatening to them, even when they let us do it. I can totally relate. I’m often anxious while sitting prone in the dentist’s chair, but I still let him do what he needs to do. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate his stress-reducing gestures of frequently asking how I’m doing or if I need a break. You could probably even condition me to LIKE being in the dentist’s chair if you repeatedly fed me M&Ms while I was there, but I don’t think that would go over too well with the dentist! Maybe a free-flowing supply of $10 bills? OK. Back to the dogs… but that reminds me, I DO need to schedule a dentist appointment. (Insert author’s slightly increasing pulse, here.)

The problem with relying on the fact that a dog “lets” us do something is that the behavior can quickly deteriorate under stress. The dog that seems not to mind having his feet handled under normal conditions, may, when in discomfort from being stung by a bee, suddenly feel quite differently when you ask him to sit still and not protest as you try to discern exactly which pad on his limping food is harboring the stinger. The dog who lets you handle his feet at home may suddenly become far less cooperative when he finds himself on a grooming table, at the hands of people he doesn’t know in the neighborhood grooming salon.

So what do you do?

That’s where training comes in! Rather than coast through life with a dog who seems to “let” you do things, teach him to associate what needs to be done with something he really likes! Food is your best friend in these situations, because nobody had to teach your dog to like food. All dogs are born knowing that food is good, but they have to learn (usually very early on in the weeks before they join our families as young puppies) that things like petting and toys are also good. Whenever you practice “doing” things to your dog (like body part handling, grooming or asking him to relinquish prized objects), make a point to pair the activity with a really tasty treat or two, or even five (go ahead, be generous!). It’s classical conditioning, which can help lodge “warm fuzzy” feelings of goodness deep in your dog’s brain. Pair an exercise with food often enough, and the exercise itself can start to elicit the same happy feelings as the food! Now, even under stress, you have this arsenal of classically-conditioned goodness upon which your dog can unconsciously draw to help prevent or lessen an emotional or behavioral meltdown. Thank you Dr. Pavlov!

(Images removed upon request.)

Sure, it takes patience, practice and an investment of time, but really, isn’t it a small price to pay, knowing it can greatly reduce the stress your furry friend experiences? Since just being with a dog can help reduce our stress level, the least we can do is attempt to return the favor. Or consider this: dogs under extreme stress – all dogs, under ENOUGH stress – are capable of biting. This classical conditioning training just might make the difference between a dog who squirms under protest, and one who frantically bites the hand (yours, the groomers or the vets) trying to help him. And really, in the big picture of animal training, much of what we need to teach dogs to willingly accept is easy compared to some of the animal training challenges out there. Imagine training a 3,400 lb. walrus to willingly accept having a giant needle inserted into his back, next to his spine, all while completely unrestrained! Trainers at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA. did just that. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Kathy Sdao, former trainer of E.T. the walrus, shares some of his training here. It’s a beautiful story about the need for patience and the power of positive training. Plus, I dare you not to smirk, at least a little, as you conjure up an image of a walrus that size masturbating in front of the underwater viewing window in his exhibit!

It’s no secret I’m a fan of dog training. But here’s the thing. I’m willing to bet the entire handful of extra dollars I mentioned earlier, that at least one reader of today’s post is thinking, “Hey, I can handle my dog anywhere, anytime, under any conditions and stick my hand in his mouth while he’s eating… and have been for his entire life… so there!” Trust me, I don’t doubt for a second that it’s true. Some dogs are like that. You can poke them, prod them, fall on them, pull their tails and do whatever else the situation calls for, all without incident. Good genetics go a long way toward producing a dog with such a stellar temperament that he seems totally and utterly bomb proof. No doubt that those dogs are out there (they make great therapy and crisis response dogs!), and if you’re the proud owner of one, good for you! Not all dogs are like that, or if they are, they don’t all stay like that. And even if yours is, just consider that it may not always be fair to do things just because you can. The best relationships (even dog-human ones), after all, are two-way streets, not power struggles where one party is constantly exerting dominance over the other.

And speaking of dominance… Now THERE’S a big ol’ can of worms within the dog-owning and training community! Stay tuned. I’ll use my prehensile thumb to open that can in the next post.

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