Great Expectations

After a gap in my volunteer schedule for the past month, yesterday I got back into the routine training dogs at the local shelter. Jen – the talented staff member in charge of animal care for the shelter – asked me to work with four different dogs, each with his/her own issue. Changing names to protect the innocent, there is Lily (fearful of new experience), Tess (very aggressive toward other dogs), Oscar (frenetic with a short attention span), and Roxy (gravitationally challenged with poor mouth manners).

“Lily” is a beautiful, shy girl.

Training went smoothly for the first 45 minutes, as Lily, Tess, and Oscar all responded nicely to positive reinforcement. I know several of the staff and volunteers have good skills with clicker training, and it showed. The first three dogs I worked with responded nicely to cues for sits and downs, paying attention, and at least a bit of polite leash walking. Where behaviors were incomplete or awkward, they improved noticeably with luring and shaping. They had the additional advantage during my sessions of a low distraction environment and high value treats (factors not easily available for exercise and feeding routines at the shelter). I was very pleased, enjoying the dogs’ participation and my opportunity to practice clicker skills.

Then we came to Roxy – suffice to say our session was a challenge. She has a very hard mouth and no inhibition for using it, taking treats with a big grabby motion that pinched painfully several times. She also expresses impatience and frustration by clutching at loose clothing, easily tearing fabric before she can be redirected on her leash. Mind you, she’s a bright and friendly young dog capable of making a terrific pet for the right family. Like the others, she responded smartly to cues for several standard good manners behaviors. But she literally vibrates with energy, requiring far more daily exercise than she can get with the limited staff and resources of a shelter. What’s more, inconsistent rules and training skills employed by numerous volunteers serve to reinforce the unwanted behaviors on a variable schedule. That means that while mouthing and jumping are well managed to prevent reinforcement by some of the staff and volunteers, others with less knowledge and skill inadvertently allow or even encourage the jumping and mouthing. The lesson for Roxy – if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. You’d be hard pressed to set up a more effective protocol to train mouthing and jumping, and galvanize those problematic behaviors against being extinguished.

I’ll confess I became impatient with Roxy, muttering a few grumpy thoughts as she smiled and wagged and urged me to hurry up and give her another cue, jumping and grabbing my shirt sleeves and fingers to impress upon me the urgency of her desire for another treat opportunity. My mood was not helped by the 100+ heat index we had to endure for potty breaks before each session. And all the while she wiggled and offered several polite behaviors in rapid succession trying to coax me into a faster rhythm.

Here is where I needed to reflect on two different proverbs that apply to training dogs, which would have helped me to offer a better presence or at least avoid potential mistakes. The first proverb is, “If you can’t train with a smile on your face, come back later.” Training works best when the shared experience of dog and trainer is happy confidence. Naturally, sessions vary – some go better than others and we all have off days. But I’d have been wise to notice that my mood had gone south, and brought the session to a quicker conclusion, finding a good note to end on with an easy behavior for Roxy. Stubbornly, I pressed on well past the point where I could offer the patience and clear thinking needed to help Roxy learn a bit of her own self control and calmness.

The other proverb says, “The dog is never wrong.” Obviously that can’t mean the dog will always offer the behavior we have in mind, nor avoid behaviors of which we disapprove. I don’t know of any people who can claim that level of skill. It’s silly to expect as much of a dog. What it does mean is that a dog can be counted upon to behave in a way that is most likely to achieve satisfying experiences and avoid scary and painful ones. If I ask for attention while kitties in the play room walk the sill and taunt Roxy, she will turn her head my way only if we have practiced attention games to help her achieve success at gradually increasing levels of distraction. If I ask her to recall (come), she will do so only if there is a history of reinforcement that outweighs the tempting sights and sounds and smells available to her wherever we happen to be. Roxy’s jumping and mouthing is not wrong from her perspective. Those are behaviors likely woven into the fabric of her DNA, and have proven to be good ways of getting what she wants in the past. My being frustrated at Roxy might as well have been my being frustrated at gravity. She wasn’t jumping and grabbing to be difficult, she was doing it playfully to get what she wanted from me.

I cut our losses soon enough and went home. As perspective returned I decided to go back and help the shelter staff with evening walks. I worked with Roxy again, and she was much easier to manage, no doubt for being hot and tired herself. I shared some calm affection with her on the walk, giving belly rubs and a few treats here and there, then filling her water bowl and saying good night as she returned to her kennel.

As I write these words, I’m getting ready to go back and work with the dogs again. It’s a new day and I’ll have my wits about me a bit better for Roxy, letting her work on a tether and focusing on some polite greeting games after a bit more exercise. Will she suddenly be perfect, or even drastically improved? Of course not. But she’ll likely improve a little each day, and meaningfully over time, as may I. And taking the opportunity to change each other for the better, bit by bit, is a fine gift to trade between friends. That’s my expectation for today, to be Roxy’s friend.

Happy training!



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