Even a minor Sherlock Holmes talent would easily read the tableau walking into my cottage. The blanket artfully draped over my new, albeit already long suffering sectional sofa predicts the weather; recent rain as evidenced by muddy paw prints on the blanket. Living alone, my dogs on the furniture policy can only be described as indulgent. My clever friend created a training solution to dogs on the furniture. Her requirement is one furry paw must remain on the ground at all times. She recently sent me a video clip of her rather cleverer dog carefully backing himself into a leather recliner while assiduously keeping one paw on the ground. One can see him surreptitiously looking at her to see if the maneuver will fly. Honestly, I don’t think she could have trained that better had she tried!
Moving further inside my abode, small crop circles of dog toys can be observed arrayed around a reading chair, the kitchen table or my Marin Humane office at home betraying my activity prior to departure. Even the porcelain throne boasts a semi-circle of small, plush animals. The toys speak of hope, boredom and a strong behavioral engagement program. Engagement boils down to asking the dog what he would prefer to be doing at any given moment. If the dog answers “anything with my person, no matter the location” then you have a top drawer relationship with your dog. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to walk out the front door into the world with our on or off leash dogs trotting nicely at our side noticing but not necessarily reacting to the environment? The crop circles of toys represent an invitation from the adolescent dog to engage in play. The older dogs let Dice do all of the enticement work, jumping in only when I acquiesce to a game break.
A student in class questioned an offhand remark I made about which obedience exercises I consider most important when training my own puppies. Since I want my dogs to always choose handler engagement, I just start by playing with them. In the process they learn to bite toys rather than hands or feet (avoiding the whole puppy biting issue), to release a toy on cue (out) or to wait in a “Sit” or a “Down” until I invite play. Impulse control or giving up a toy creates the reward of a new game. Thus, they have some control over the play game. They learn how to fetch using toys (see prior blog) and I encourage them to bring me anything they have in their mouths whether they are supposed to have it or not. Whenever they bring me something, they either get a game or a treat so I never have to chase anyone around the house trying to get a shoe back. Speaking of which, “chase dog with shoe” isn’t a good game to play!
On walks, I carry toys and stop often to take the leash off in safe places and play short recall games ending in tug play. The point of walks become “getting to the play place” as opposed to worrying about what other dogs are doing or running up to other walkers. I routinely ask that my dogs ignore other dogs on leash and dog parks aren’t on the menu. I am fortunate that I know a lot of people with appropriate adult dogs to help school a pup and the guided Marin Humane Puppies in the Park or Beginning Puppy classes are always fun. Remember, whatever you practice, is likely what you will have. If you encourage indiscriminate social contact with other dogs, even in the name of socialization, you may well end up with a very dog focused dog which can be problematic later in life.
I use play a lot when working with shelter dogs. The most strikingly successful example of play promoting behavior modification was during the Korean Meat Dog rescue. Marin Humane participated in a program where we accepted a dozen or so dogs rescued from Korean dog meat farms. The Korean government was encouraging meat dog raisers to switch to raising blueberries. Some of these dogs had been someone’s pet prior to residing at the meat farm and they came around quite quickly. But most had very specific socialization. They had been near people but they had been treated as livestock rather than family pets. These dogs only knew handling in the context of moving them from one pen to another. Since they had lived in multiple housing groups, they were generally social with other dogs.
The challenge was finding a relatable platform to increase the dogs’ trust and sociability with humans. We started with sitting outside the kennel and tossing treats to get them used to people. But, that wasn’t successful. Residing in a kennel was their “normal” and they were acclimated to the presence of people. They just didn’t want anyone to touch them. Sometimes shelter behavior work has to be more pragmatic than the strictly “purely positive” approach. In this case, I felt strongly that we needed to get the dogs out of the cage and outdoors where they had no prior associations with people and they could run and play. We could then bond with the dogs from a place of happiness.
We put a harness, martingale collar and a specifically designed drag line on each dog and left it on. This was admittedly stressful for the dogs, but once it was done all we had to do was reach a little way into the kennel and snap a long line on the drag line. Thus we eliminated the unpleasant trigger of people reaching for them. Then, I worked with Jiva, my female Belgian Tervuren partner to entice them to voluntarily exit the kennel, the only world they had ever known. Jiva went into each kennel and visited with the dog and when she left, they followed! The Korean dogs were on a long line attached to the drag line and the handler stayed 10 – 15 feet away. Soon, all of the dogs would readily follow Jiva out of the kennel. The outdoor world welcomed them!
The next step, at least for the younger dogs and puppies, was to hang out in my office with Jiva and me. When one of the Korean adolescents started to play with Jiva, I would slide down onto the floor thus forcing them to play around me. Jiva modeled no fear so I quickly became a benign but acceptable piece of floor furniture. Over time, I started to insert myself in the play. Thus, the young dogs learned to relate to me through the trusted presence of another dog. This play game didn’t work with all of the adults, but for the younger dogs and puppies it was nothing short of miraculous. Soon enough, I found myself with problematic Korean dog puppies from other shelters.
School teachers are well aware of the value of play in education and socialization. Let’s not forget about it for our young dogs and cats. You too, can have toy crop circles!