September 11, 2012
Click It, Click It, Yeah That’s the Ticket
I’ve decided to use this installment of Mark’s Barks to advocate for something that is beginning to make our lives easier, and that I think might help other pet owners. It’s almost moronically simple: training! As a rescue animal, Chauncey arrived to our home with his fair share of emotional/mental baggage (so much baggage that he had actually been adopted before and returned after 9 months because his owner couldn’t handle him). Anyway, you very well may be thinking: “Mark, I know what training is. I know what kinds of dogs need it, and my dog is not one of those dogs.” Well, I used to think the same thing. When Chauncey first joined our family, we briefly worked with a wonderful trainer to help acclimate him to our home, and more specifically, to me. When he first arrived, Chauncey bonded with Julia very, very quickly, but was quite skittish around me. By practicing a few simple exercises, we solved this problem to the point where now Chauncey does not get out of bed in the morning until I do, and even then; he insists on a few minutes of something we call “Forced Cuddles” (wherein he collapses upon his victim – in this case your truly – in the chest/neck region until the appropriate amount of affection has been given to him before moving).
After several months of becoming more comfortable in our home (and also dealing with and overcoming a tape worm that we weren’t aware he had at the time of adoption), Chauncey’s behavior began to change. He stopped cringing every time I walked by, he learned to enjoy and even demand attention from me (although on his list of priorities, it still pales in comparison to Julia’s attention), and he carved out his personal space in our home. Eventually, the behavior pendulum actually swung so far that he became over-confident in his behavior while on a leash, and in his yapping at other dogs.
As luck would have it, Julia bid on and won a 90-minute session with a trainer at a silent auction at a charity event for One Tail at a Time. During our first meeting with Kiki Yablon, she showed us how clicker training could help speed up the learning curve and help Chauncey learn new behaviors to replace certain ones we had grown not-so-fond of. Although I had seen people use clickers with their dogs before, I didn’t really understand the benefit of using one until Kiki showed us. She explained that the clicker was a way to, in a sense, take a snapshot of a behavior the dog is displaying that you want to reinforce, and then follow that sound with a reward for maximum results. So, when we’re working on the “sit” command, Chauncey hears a click when he sits, followed closely by the delivery of a treat (which in his case means a small piece of dehydrated sheep lung. YUM!) I won’t get into the ins and outs of clicker training because I’m by no means an expert, but suffice to say, we saw immediate results. Small, incremental, but immediate results.
I can’t explain how liberating it is to think of a time when Chauncey doesn’t cry when he’s separated from us, or being able to trim his claws (both of which currently bring on major anxiety). With the steps we’ve begun to see him take, I have to no doubt that we can eventually teach him all sort of positive behaviors to replace negative ones that he currently displays. The time we’ve spent with Kiki, along with some of the very beginner-level pet behavior education I’ve gone through, has really opened my eyes as to how ignorant I was about this little life that I cohabitate with every day. The main message I’d like to share with other pet owners is: you don’t have to accept everything your pet does as “Just the way they are.” Dogs can learn (and un-learn) all sorts of behaviors, and they are constantly communicating with us. But we as owners need to learn how to be receptive to them. Just because your pet jumps all over visitors when they enter your home, or barks at anyone who walks past your fence, or pulls and barks constantly when on leash, doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. With the help of a professional (and possibly in some cases, and after careful consideration and consultation, with some pharmaceutical assistance), your pet’s behavior can improve in ways you hadn’t imagined. And the most important thing to remember is- you’re doing you dog a favor by training it! One of the major things we’re teaching Chauncey is how to calm himself. This isn’t an indulgence by owners who have too much time on their hands, this isn’t an extravagance we’re languishing on our pet because we’re crazy dog people (not that we aren’t Crazy Dog People); this is a vital coping skill that any animal should have to be happy, and that will greatly decrease his daily stress level and improve his quality of life.
I would encourage any dog owner to learn more about animal behavior and explore training options if they haven’t already; for their sake and for their pet’s. Even if your dog is a model citizen, it can benefit from the mental stimulation that comes from learning a new skill like scent training or even catching a frisbee. Trust me, your dog will thank you for it!*
*Thanks will not be in the form of verbal communication. Despite advancements in training, dogs still currently lack the ability to speak.