Thursday, June 12, 2014

These Aren't The Droids You're Looking For

QUESTION: How many Zen Masters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
ANSWER: There is no light bulb.

This is the joke that comes up so frequently in my lessons. It's probably a mistake to include it in this post, it will never have that chin rubbing "hmmmm..." quality again (assuming you've read this of course) This joke helps set the stage for what I'm ultimately, really asking my dog owners to do and that's to think differently about the problems they're having with their dogs. I'm also trying to establish a dynamic where you the dog owner are expecting your dog to think and problem solve, to understand why their behavior results in one consequence versus another. One is compelling, rewarding, the other is not. 

I'm working with a couple with two beautiful little dogs. Levi, a miniature dachshund and Stanley, a beagle/dachshund mix. They are also expecting a baby and have concerns about how their dogs will adjust to the addition of the new family member. Levi doesn't like when John touches Felicia's belly to feel the baby kicking. Perhaps he views it as an aggressive overture, a preamble to conflict of some sort. He jumps, barks and nips at John's hand. Our goal was for Levi to reevaluate what this gesture meant to him. We wanted Levi to tell us that he wanted John to feel the baby kicking because ultimately, Levi's objections to this gesture could be symptomatic of broader misinterpretations which in turn can have a negative, even devastating impact on the human/animal bond. Conversely, it can lead to outright denial, which can lead to escalating aggression. There are ways to work through these problems with our dogs that often deepen the bond we have with them. Here's how we approached Levi's "What are you doing to Mom?" problem.

Stanley & Levi practice stay after hearing the doorbell.

The first step was to teach Levi and Stanley how great being on the floor is. This is not a semantic argument, this is Real Estate 101. Your dogs want the couch, they want the bed. but these coveted locals are off limits when there's a baby in the house, so our job is to convince them that these spots are not prime real estate as they believe, the floor is, their beds on the floor are. Resentment can fester into dangerous behaviors so removing conflict from the proceedings is a high priority, as it happens, it's also considerably more fun. I have another favorite way to frame this arguement, "These aren't the droids you're looking for." instantly relevant to fans of Star Wars Episode IV, Obi Wan doesn't massacre the inquisitive storm troopers, he changes the nature of the encounter in a way that is devoid of conflict. "I want to be up there on the couch!" , "Nah, you don't want the couch, what you want is the floor. The floor is awesome." "You're right, the floor is awesome, I love this floor. This is the best floor in the history of floors. Thanks for showing me." This may seem overly simplistic but that's it in a nutshell. The details of getting there with your dog may differ depending on their attachment to elevated perches and what they're compelled by but it's still about rewarding the floor while managing the couch and your bed. The elevated places are never bad which means they're not punished for being there, merely redirected to the floor where they're once again met with praise. Using things like Kong Wobblers or my personal favorite the IQ Ball is another way to use the food they'd otherwise be eating from their bowls (boring) into a game that unfolds on the floor (fun) adding further value to the lower elevations of your dog's living space. "But aren't some dogs fine on furniture? My dog's never acted aggressively on furniture" There's no question that some dogs are sweet as pumpkin pie in these situations, still, safety first. There's no down side to this exercise, quite the contrary. The dog owners I've worked with report that their dogs thrive in this modified dynamic because it's fun and they're getting more attention then they ever did before.  

Now that the two pups are very keen on being on the floor, we take to the couch where John, equipped with treats, presents Levi with an opportunity. Levi can have the treat, but only after John rubs Felicia's belly. Is this getting weird? No? Good, let's move on then. A quick rub, feed, another rub, feed, repeat. Now, ask Levi to sit. When he sits, John rubs Felicia's belly and feeds Levi a treat. "Levi Sit", Levi sits, John rubs Felicia's belly, feeds Levi, repeat. Here's where something interesting happens. We stop everything. If Levi understands his role in the proceedings, that one thing (sitting) triggers another thing (belly rub) to happen and that it ends with him getting a treat then,...wait for it,....Yes! Exactly! Levi will get things going again by sitting. He knows John's going to rub Felicia's belly when he sits, but now that's less important than the reciprocal effect of getting a compelling treat and now Levi is sitting on the floor to prompt a belly rub and a treat. 

This sets the stage for the sorts of things that happen once the baby is born. Feeding, changing diapers, playing etc. They can be predictive of a compelling consequence. No conflict, no yelling, no whaling and gnashing of teeth. Understood in these proceedings is that while troublesome, neither dog has a serious history of aggressive behavior. This approach is reasonable only when there is no such history. 

 Consequence changes behavior (Thank you Dr. Dunbar)