Dogs don’t get a day off—particularly in the time of Covid-19.

As someone who frequently interacts with working dogs and working-dog people, it is easy to divide the world of dogs into working dogs and pet dogs. Working dogs have drive and are intense; more importantly, they have jobs. Pet dogs, in contrast, are supposed to be happy-go-lucky, willing to hang out with their humans and accept life as it is.

The truth, however, is that pet dogs do work, every day of their lives—which for some requires a certain drive and grit all its own. Even when our lives are not turned upside down by a pandemic, pet dogs have work to do. For example, pet dogs offer quiet companionship for hours while we watch T.V.—even when they would much prefer a game of fetch because their human skipped walking them that day.

Pet dogs are close observers of their humans. They notice when we want to interact with them and when we don’t—indications that are often inconsistent and unclear. Many dogs are expected to stay away from the table while people are eating, but still understand that their human wants them to curl up at their feet when reading a book. Failure to learn subtle indications about their human’s mood can lead to a dog being relegated outside, which is hard on these highly social creatures, or in extreme cases surrendered to a shelter.

Pet dogs must learn a foreign language, and tolerate our frequent failure to learn theirs. “Go lie down” is “down” is also “off.” At times they are expected to be mind readers capable of complying with unexpressed expectations. Despite ambiguity in our cues and general communication, many owners still expect dogs to obey them instantly, regardless of the dogs’ own needs—a belief that is perpetuated when cues are described as commands. If we had bosses as mercurial and dictatorial as some dog owners, we would probably look for a new job. So, I am not convinced that the current meme about dogs being happy to have humans at home all day is universally true—although I’m sure it is for many.

To make sure that all this together time is good for both ends of the leash, ask yourself what is your dog’s life like during our global stay-at-home? Are his or her working conditions still acceptable or are reasonable accommodations to the workplace required?

To help you decide whether your dog’s needs are being met during this crisis, consider the following.

Time off. Does your dog get any time off now that you no longer go to work or even out to dinner? Consider that your dog may still need some alone time (which will also make the transition back to work go more smoothly, assuming we do go back some day). Make sure that your pet dog can retreat and rest away from kids and any other loud or high-energy aspects of your home.

Routines.  Dogs like routines. If your pet dog is underfoot more these days (or less), or is suddenly unusually destructive or is barking more than in the past, consider that your dog may be struggling to learn their new place in a household that never leaves.

Stress.  Covid is stressful. Many people are worried about losing incomes, homes, and jobs. We may have lost people we loved and we fear for our own health. We may not mean to let our stress impact those around us, but it is easy to do so. Dogs, like children, are particularly vulnerable. Dogs live their days entirely at the mercy of their humans. Ask yourself, would you want to be a dependent in your home right now? We all have moments when we fail to be our best selves leaving our pets to pay the price, but what is your primary temperament at home during this period of stress and fear? Could your dog be living anxious and scared? Or is your dog simply ignored and bored? 

My challenge to us all during this period of staying at home is to use this time to observe your dog. Create a stay-at-home routine and watch how it impacts them. Give your pet dog some space every day and see how this impacts their behavior. Notice what they like and what they don’t. Care enough to make sure your dog has access to at least some things they want and voluntarily choose to do every day. Think past dog treats. Treats are great and can certainly reinforce desirable behavior, but so can walks, playing ball or tug, or a long run outside. Joint activities build a stronger relationship and being active is good for both dogs and humans.

Dogs work hard to provide us with the companionship that we desire, but they don’t always know what to do to please their “boss.” You can help by making sure your expectations for them are clear. Instead of focusing on the things you don’t like, which does nothing to clarify what you want your dog to do, catch your dog in the act of doing something good—they will learn how to meet your expectations much more quickly. For example, when your dog walks up to the sandwich you forgot on the coffee table and simply lies down, tell him he’s wonderful and give him a belly rub (if he likes belly rubs) or grab the leash and take him for a walk. Your dog will appreciate that you noticed him doing the right thing and that his choice led to something fun. 

See how many things you can catch your dog doing right each day and how many different ways you can reinforce those good behaviors. Your dog will appreciate your communicating to them what you expect and giving them a workplace that is once again (or maybe finally!) predictable and manageable. Your pet dogs will welcome finally getting the “paycheck” that they have long deserved for all the work they do at home! In turn, they’ll work harder than ever at being good.

Who are you calling lazy?

Okay.  I know I said I was going to write next about searching as a reward, and I’m working on it.  But I just read a blog post that dovetails nicely to the previous discussion on rewards, although it’s not about dog training at all.  Instead the author, Mike Sturm, explores how we use laziness as a label for people who do not perform up to expectations.

Two points in particular caught my eye:

(1) accusing other people of laziness is intellectually lazy and

(2) helping someone to overcome perceived “laziness” requires actually “transferring  [your own] perception[s] and felt value[s]” to the individual whom you are trying to motivate.

Sturm’s first point caught my eye because it reflects how many, if not most, people speak about their dogs.  How many times have you heard someone say, or said yourself, “he knows better”?  At a recent dog event a woman, tears in her eyes, bemoaned that her dog had just thrown away all the many months she had spent training him.  All that time she had given gone simply because of her dog’s bad attitude.  It’s the he-just-won’t- ____-despite-all-the-things-I-do-for-him syndrome.  Maybe they’re not saying their dog is lazy or bad, but the implication is there.  This is sad because, as discussed in Sturm’s blog, the real problem is that we have we focused only on “how” and not looked below the surface behavior and questioned,  “why should he?”

It is so easy to point the finger at another and so hard to look in the mirror–believe me, I know.  According to an individual interviewed on NPR recently, a person whose name I did not catch (but am still looking for), science shows us that when we make a mistake, we explain it away as related to some temporary circumstance; whereas, with others, including our dogs, we attribute error to some inherent failing.  This means that, when we call our dogs lazy or bad or dumb, we’re failing to go through the same basic mental process or analysis that we go through automatically when the error is our own.  We are being lazy!  Worse, our failure to analyze what really happened condemns us to never change the behavior in question, at least not reliably.

This takes us to the second point.  If you want another individual to approach a task with “urgency” and gusto, you must do more than prod, nag, or bribe, you must actually transfer your perception of the situation to the other person or dog.  You must get your dog to buy into the idea that agility or scent work or obedience is fun and worth doing.  As Sturm points out, even people designated as lazy will move heaven and earth to find a bathroom–because they value the goal.

Perception transference also helps explain why a seemingly well-trained dog will appear to throw away all their training.  It’s not on a whim.  What you were asking him to do just wasn’t that important to him, or was not important enough under the given circumstances. You see it again when a trainer’s frustration taints an activity for a dog, despite liberal use of food and praise.  The trainer’s perception was transferred all right, just not as intended.

The catch?  Training this way takes work, a great attitude, perseverance, more perseverance, and a willingness to take responsibility for failures.  It also requires trainers to respect their dogs as independent, thinking, feeling creatures, and not as extensions to our own egos. It also takes forgiving yourself and your dog for errors, bad-attitude moments, distractions, and, yes, occasional laziness.

This can be hard, but it’s also what makes training rewarding–assuming it’s all for the love of dogs.

 

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Dog Days

Every day I pass a house that has a German Shepherd dog tied out beneath a pine tree. The dog has shade and I see what appears to be a water bowl.  The owners take the dog in at night.  In other words, its most basic needs are met.  When I think about the limitations placed on that dog’s life, however, how his muscles and mind are atrophying from the stationary existence he is forced to live out under a tree, I want to cry–and to steal the dog.  Yet, this dog’s life is better than lives lived by many other animals and, for that matter, many people.  I believe our society’s unthinking indifference towards animals feeds our mistreatment of the weak and the powerless of all species including our own.  Small things accumulate into large problems; most things fall apart slowly, one board or brick at a time.

The German Shepherd is visible, but many dogs languish in suburban boredom, at least Monday through Friday.  A few ideas to break up the boredom without derailing your busy schedule include frozen Kongs, you can even use them for feeding main meals; wet food can be stuffed in and then frozen, while kibble can be added and then capped with peanut butter before freezing.  “Grass” feeders;  working for the food gives your dog a mental challenge.  Puzzles for dogs also challenge the dog to think as they attempt to locate treats.  Canine fitness games can give you and your dog a fun, indoor training outlet when the weather is too cold for long walks.

What are you doing to enrich the lives of the living being in your care each day?