The Power of Choice
When my Australian Shepherd was about a year old, he went through a series of unfortunate events that resulted in several emergency vet visits. For anyone who has followed Havoc’s story, you know that we haven’t had the best luck in a lot of ways. He quickly went from being an incredibly confident and happy dog to an anxious mess in just a matter of months. One of the symptoms of that anxiety was his refusal to cooperate during any grooming or vet procedure.
A common saying in the dog world is “Every trainer gets the dog they deserve” and I think that’s true. Not in a way that a bad guy “gets what he deserves”, but we get the dog that is going to teach us the most. We always happen to get dogs that teach us a lesson we have yet to learn. With Havoc, that lesson was the power of choice.
Just a few months ago, Havoc would run out of the room if he saw me pick up any kind of grooming or vet prop. If there was no way out of the room, he would press himself up against the wall and do everything he could to look tiny and unnoticeable. This crushed me because I hated to see my sweet boy so afraid.
It took a lot time and hard work to get him more comfortable. I worked everyday for several months to get him comfortable with each area of his body being touched, with new props, and in new locations. We practiced when we went to the park, on our walks, and before bed. We took “fun” trips to the vet, and the groomer. And now, while we still have a lot of work to do, I can’t help but smile when he sees a syringe and his nub starts to wiggle.
I attribute this success to my decision to give him the choice to participate in his own care. First, taught him what we call a start-button behavior. This is a behavior that the dog uses to cue the owner that it’s okay to begin touching them. Havoc’s start-button is a chin rest on the floor, which signals that he is willing to start. As his chin stays on the floor, I continue working but when he lifts his chin, I stop.
Here are the rules I’ve made for our sessions:
Havoc must be well fed before the training session. I want him to want to engage and not just participate because he is hungry. When Havoc is laying down, with his chin resting, I can proceed forward. If Havoc lifts his head, I stop whatever I’m doing. I don’t click but I still give him a goodie. This shows him that he gets a reward not just for letting me work with him, but for also telling me when he needs to stop. This continues to show him that he has a choice and that there are good consequences for both choices.
I use the word “pants” before reaching for his rear end. It’s a very sensitive area for him and I want him to expect what’s coming. The reason I use the word “pants” is because he looks like he is wearing furry pants.
Sessions only last a few minutes and always end with something fun like a toy he doesn’t get very often.
He has access to other reinforcement in the environment. I set up treat puzzles and leave his mat out which he will get treats for going to.
Sometimes people ask me how I get him to participate when he can access reinforcement elsewhere. The magical thing about this type of training is that it’s fun, and if you are doing it right, your dog will want to engage with you. Occasionally Havoc goes to his mat instead of participating, but our next sessions are always especially energizing and productive.
Here is a short clip of one of our training session in preparation for an injection in his back leg.
We still have so much left to teach each other.
-Katie Genier KPA-CTP