A Different Approach

Two dogs at the veterinary hospital. Two different approaches to training.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

We recently found ourselves at Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston with Dory, our 12 year old Standard Poodle. She was there for throat surgery and her humans were nervous, to say the least. It was tricky surgery and post-surgery might be challenging, too.

We were directed to the bright and spacious waiting area to await our appointment. It was our first time at this impressive facility and Dory was quite cheerful – I believe she thought she was at a human hospital and she was about to do some therapy work! I wanted to be sure I kept her happy, though… I didn’t want her to pick up on our trepidation.

When we entered the waiting area we saw a stunning young Weimeraner sitting with her human. Her eyes were gentle and her ears perked forward inquisitively when we approached, but she was held tightly by the collar and the rest of her body was curved, tail tucked as if she were trying to find a fetal position while in a sit. The bright yellow rigid plastic second collar on her had so much excess strap that it stuck up stiffly from her neck, reaching for the ceiling.

“Gertie, Sit!” her human said sternly, shoving her haunches towards the hard floor when his dog squirmed a little. She ducked a bit lower, still gentle eyes, looking in our direction, tail tightly tucked beneath her. I make a point of not allowing on-leash interactions between dogs (Dory is very grateful for this!) so we kept a respectful distance from Gertie and politely declined an offer of a doggie greeting by Gertie’s human (it was so very nice of him to ask!).

She was 6 months old and there for spaying, her owner said, and he was taking advantage of the opportunity to work on off-leash obedience. She was wearing a “training collar” which delivers static shocks when remotely triggered. “Just little reminders for when she’s doing something wrong,” said her owner. “It doesn’t hurt.” “Sit!” he bellowed again when Gertie fidgeted up into a stand. She dipped her head. He shoved her butt down. I didn’t notice that she was getting any “corrections” as she didn’t show any signs of physical pain. Her emotional distress was palpable, however. I felt so bad for her.

Dory, in the meantime, was engaged in a fun “find it” exercise. I’m a clicker trainer; I use food and treats and rewards in great quantities while training and working with dogs, but food wasn’t an option right then – Dory was fasting in preparation for surgery. It didn’t matter one bit. I didn’t need it! Because of treat training, however, the pure FUN of finding the hidden quarter put a lot of bounce in our senior dog and was enough reward it inself. She performed perfect stand-stays (sits are more difficult these days with achy hips) and retrieves, coming back and depositing the quarter in my open hand each time. Her tail was up, she was having fun. She was comfortable. Drew, my husband, helped out with the logistics so that Dory stayed on leash but could play the game when I hid the coin at a distance.

“Wow, you are showing us up,” said Gertie’s human, who was still trying to get Gertie to maintain position and obey his orders. Gertie continued to display emotional distress. My heart ached for her. I could feel her pain.

We weren’t “showing off” - I wasn’t in any competition with anyone. My only goal, my only care, was to keep our Dory happy and to keep myself occupied while we waited. Playing a game with my dog wasn’t about competition: it was communication, connection, love. It was very much like engaging a child with a game. Would you try to focus your child on a new calculus exercise when he’s nervous about waiting to see the doctor? I would hope not. I would hope that you would do something fun. On the other hand, if calculus is fun for your kid, it might be perfect! If Gertie had been trained positively to do "obedience" exercises, she might love to practice then and there. But she wasn't.

Gertie was clearly not having fun. When I asked if I could take a photo of her, her human instantly popped up, eager to put her through her paces. All I wanted was a photograph of her emotions, but he wanted to show a sit. Luckily, they were called in before I had a chance and they went off, Gertie, unleashed, hesitantly following her owner, getting reprimanded each time she looked around. Her body language did not change one bit. Tail tucked, back hunched, she and her human walked away.

Is a waiting room in large veterinary hospital the appropriate place to train off-leash skills? Is it in our dog’s best interest to disregard their emotional needs for our own sense of achievement? Our dogs are learning every instant of their waking life. What was Gertie learning? What was Dory learning?

[Dory’s unilateral tie-back surgery for laryngeal paralysis was successful and she’s rapidly recuperating. Two weeks post surgery we’re almost ready to go back to off-leash romps with doggie pals.]