It’s c-c-c-cold today! Winter arrived rather suddenly two days ago and even the dogs aren’t that keen to go out. Well, they are happy to go out if we’re going to play, train or go for a hike. But just sit out in the yard? No thank you. Even Hannah and Kestrel, who typically are happy to sit out all day given the chance, are pawing at the door within minutes. They both have quite thin coats, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Ross and Mira have nice thick coats – Mira’s is very thick even if it is short, and Ross of course is a fuzzy bear. But they both prefer to be inside regardless of the weather. Both want to be with me all the time.
Mira has been a little less clingy of late, which is nice. She still doesn’t like going out unless I go with her. I feed them almost exclusively outside these days, which is reinforcing a more positive attitude about being out. And I am letting her in when she asks. I made the mistake with Ross when we first moved here to force him to stay outside, and the result is that he started to refuse to go out at all. Mira seems to have followed suit. The logic of much dog-training philosophy would argue that if I were to ignore their demands to come in, they would get used to staying out. This may be the case for some dogs, but with these two – who are nervous about being away from me – locking them out made them even more stressed. Once they learned that their requests to come back in would be ignored, they both became afraid of going out. So, against all conventional wisdom, I started to let them in when they barked at the door. The result: dogs who go out happily again.
I love how I still learn something new about dogs every day, even after twenty years.
Knowing how to change behaviour that you are not happy with in your dog is a constant challenge. I don’t know that there is any one, single training method that can be applied to all situations. I like the idea that there is a positive (i.e. without the use of any form of compulsion) solution for every case, but figuring it out can often be quite the trick. This is especially true with herding, when you are working with a dog’s intensely strong innate instincts.
I recently I took part in a discussion around whether or not submissive behaviour is tool dogs use to manipulate us into getting what they want. I think this is a very good question and I don’t have a definitive answer. I did think about it for a while, and my conclusion at this point is that yes, such behaviour is “manipulation.” But all interaction can be seen as such. Dogs (and cats even more so) are masters at “manipulating” us into doing their every whim: getting up at 5am to let them out, feeding them when they’re hungry, exercising or training them when their bored, petting them when they want affection.
But seeing the outcome of dog-human interaction as manipulation immediately sets an aggressive tone to the situation. Are Mira and Ross manipulating me into letting them get what they want? Sure. But at the same time, they are worried, and by me treating their behaviour as a struggle I must win (i.e. by ignoring their please to be let in), I ended up reinforcing their insecurity and making the situation worse. They were not trying to manipulate me for evil intent – they were uncomfortable and worried and wanted me to do something about it.
I think it is natural for dogs to try to set things up so that they can enjoy themselves. We could learn a lot from them, in fact. Being relaxed and happy in one’s life and work is a good thing. If the dog is not feeling this way, then I think it’s important to try and understand why. Hannah, for example, desperately needs to be right. She needs to know what’s expected of her and be sure that what she is doing is correct. If she is not sure, she moves slowly and carefully, checking in with me constantly. As her confidence grows, she gets faster and faster. When Hannah starts to shut down on me, she is not being stubborn or trying to get away with not doing what I want, she is simply uncertain about what is expected of her. I know this about her and so when I see her slow down, I immediately start trying to figure out what is confusing to her. It took me a long time to figure this out, and I’m grateful that she has been so forgiving.
Mira is a dog with tons if inappropriate behaviours that all stem from insecurity. Ross’s issues also seem to largely stem from this as well. In fact, I think that inappropriate dog behaviour is almost always the result of some kind of stress. It could simply be the stress of boredom, or the stress of too much pressure & expectations. Ruff Love, the method advocated by Susan Garrett and that I used to follow, involves keeping a dog isolated in a crate, and controlling all it’s food and toys, to get it to pay more attention to you. This method does work, but I wonder at what cost. If a dog is misbehaving because of some stress or other, keeping it lonely and hungry has significant potential to add to this stress, and perhaps do long-term damage to a dog’s self-confidence. A well-balanced dog should be fine and get over it, but one like Mira would just end up more neurotic. At least this is what I observed. I don’t think I’ll be using this method again.
It’s really impossible to know what’s going on in a dog’s head, but I think it is a good idea to look at unwanted behaviour and try and understand things from the dog’s perspective. I don’t think dogs try to manipulate us with any intent other than to make things less stressful and more pleasant. If we understand how to reduce the stress, then hopefully the behaviour will resolve itself. When I figured out that Ross was fighting with other dogs because he was insecure and frightened – and not because he was “dominant aggressive” or a “social climber” as many had labeled him – I was finally able to reduce and almost eliminate a behaviour that cost him four consecutive homes (and perhaps more before he was picked up by the pound).
I guess the trick is to try and understand the situation and figure out an approach to fix it. If you do not see results fairly quickly, or if the problem seems to be getting worse, then rethinking one’s interpretation is probably in order. This, of course, is not easy. But that’s what can make dog training so wonderful.