In our multi-beast household, an act as simple as dropping a pretzel stick on the floor can result in world war 3. But just the other day, I could only watch in panicked horror as that very thing happened, and curse my bipedalism as Dog and Cat raced from opposite sides of the room toward the salty portent of doom like some kind of sick algebra problem (if two animals leave their resting places at the same time and head 90 miles an hour toward the same treat, how long before fur starts flying?).
As Fortune would have it, I never found out because of the wonderful thing that happened next: Cat got to the forbidden bready finish line an inch before Dog, and Dog deferred to Cat, politely turned away, and sniffed another spot on the ground that clearly had no pretzel snack. I’m sure he didn’t understand why I was laughing and crying at the same time. He probably didn’t even think about it as he chowed down the handful of forbidden pretzels I fed him over the next several minutes, telling him how proud I was and how wonderful he is and smart and funny and handsome and, well, you get the idea.
While “Not Causing Mortal Injury to Fellow House Beast” certainly isn’t a lofty life goal, it is an extreme illustration of something we humans miss out on everyday: the simple act of catching your dog (or cat or horse or gerbil or fish or significant other) doing something Good.
Nevermind the poor grammar. Think about it; when was the last time you recognized your little buddy for doing the right thing even though you didn’t ask him to do it?
I’ll give you a moment ………
Sometimes people miss the subtle good, even great, things those around them do. Maybe we take that kind of stuff for granted. Yeah, Dog isn’t supposed to kill Cat, so he’s just doing what he’s supposed to do, right? Horse is trained to lift his foot for hoof inspection, so what’s the big deal? Husband was already planning to mow the lawn, so I don’t need to think about it, right?
Not really. Just because they’re supposed to do it or planned to do it or did it even if they didn’t want to, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal to that individual in that moment. When we take the time to recognize the costs that go into each action (I really wanted that and believed it was mine, I am uncomfortable with people touching my feet, I had other things I wanted to do this afternoon), when we recognize how big of a sacrifice it might be for that individual, then isn’t it more a question of how can we NOT respond and applaud that effort?
It’s Okay to Take the Easy Way Out
We humans really make training our companion animals difficult for ourselves because we tend to wait until there’s a problem to try to teach them what we really want. It’s strange because we don’t do this with children. We don’t wait until the child wants to become an accountant to teach him math. But we do wait until the dog is jumping all over Grandma and her brand new hip to decide we should deal with that behavior.
The truth is, humans specifically train a dog for maaaaybe 10 minutes a day (again, maaaaaaaaybe) and an hour at group class on Saturday, but dogs are always learning, even when we’re not in training mode. I imagine their little brains working something like this:
We tend to become laser focused on our dogs when they do something wrong. Dog chews up my favorite pair of Birkenstocks I should have stopped wearing 18 years ago, and boy, I’m gonna hop right up and survey the damage. Maybe yell at the dog. Maybe grab the dog and yank away the shoe. Wait, I’m more dog savvy than that; I’ll trade him the shoe for one of his own toys. Yeah! That’ll teach him!
But what really happened in every one of those scenarios? I rewarded the behavior. I just taught him if he chews on my shoe, I’ll get up and come interact with him, talk to or maybe even touch him, and give him a toy. Hellz Yeah! Now I have a furry little shoe shopper, and pretty soon nothing to wear on my feet in public.
But what if, say, two days ago, I noticed my dog was chewing on his favorite tattered half-stuffed monkey? What if, instead of smiling and leaving him to it because OMG, he was finally quiet!, or hardly glancing and looking right back at my iPhone, or going back to watching TV, what if instead I had walked over to the treat station I keep stocked full of delicious, non-perishable goodies on top of bookcases and dressers and other out-of-reach places around my home just for an opportunity like this? What if I had gotten one or two of those special goodies, walked to my dog, and told him how clever and handsome and wonderful and amazing and better than all the other dogs on the planet he was, and given him those goodies? What if I did that again later in the evening when he was working over that Kong? And the next morning when he got a stick instead of the hose? And when he got his squeaky bunny instead of the throw pillow? And his rope toy instead of the table leg?
Those moments count as trainable moments. They add up, without very much work from the human, and now I’m thinking I could still have those Birkenstocks and I could be wearing them and embarrassing the hell out of my loved ones. I hardly did anything, or so it feels. But really, I took every opportunity to teach him what I do want, and he never thought to do anything else because what he wanted to do was already working for him. He got to have his stuffed monkey and eat a treat too. And isn’t that all any dog wants?
Dogs are always learning, so we have to be cognizant of what we’re teaching them. Am I teaching my dog what I do want him to do? Am I setting him up for success? Or am I missing out? Am I making this hard on myself and terribly unfair to him by waiting until he screws up and then trying to fix it? When we are a constant feedback train and we lavishly reward what we want, and we provide quick cutoffs and redirect behavior we don’t want, who needs 10 minute training sessions every day? Not my dog, that’s for sure1.
At the beginning of this post is a picture of my dog moments after the most-amazing-pretzel-surprise-ever. See how happy he looks? And just to prove he really didn’t eat the cat, here’s a pic of her post I-didn’t-know-cats-like-pretzels snack. They’re only in the same room together because they both know surprise rewards might come for socially appropriate behavior near and toward each other (because it’s not like Cat hasn’t ever tried to eat Dog, too). They have learned to offer appropriate behavior naturally just in case I catch them doing something Good, and just maybe next time it will be another amazing jackpot of bready goodness.
- Naturally, when teaching a dog a new behavior, those 10-minute training sessions can’t be avoided.