When I first met Belle, I was pretty new to navigating the safety-latch of the kennel doors at the Potsdam Humane Society. The trick is to release the lever in one direction and carefully inch the door out just enough to get the lever in the right location for the door to swing in. Then the trick is getting into the kennel without the dog getting out. Belle’s a medium-size dog, but strong, and the door opening – in either direction – was the signal to try to scramble her way through it. From that point on, it was my legs blocking the way of a very determined dog as I tried to get into her kennel without her getting out. Once I was inside the kennel, I might as well have been on the moon for all the attention she paid me – getting out that door was her sole aim. In that moment, I would have said the photo above was an accurate portrayal of Belle: focused and impersonal.
But in our visits I’ve gotten to know more about Belle. For instance, I learned that she came to the shelter already knowing some verbal cues. She knows “leave it,” and she performs “sit” as though she invented it. She is highly treat-motivated and very smart: training is a game she’s eager to excel at. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t test the waters to see which behaviors get her what she wants.
During our first meeting she tried jumping up several times. There are different theories about why dogs do this and how to stop it. For my money, here’s the test any dog training theory needs to pass for me to give it a try:
Does the theory help me guide my behavior in a way that –
a) helps the dog understand and meet my expectations, and
b) does this in a way that develops rather than hinders our relationship.
Based on these qualities, theories that focus on dominance don’t interest me. In the case of jumping, the theory I like is, “dogs jump to get close to your face, because that’s how dogs greet.” Following that theory guides me to turn my back on the dog and say to her something like, “Nope, that’s not how to get what you want.” The reason I say this out loud isn’t so much that Belle will hear that I’m displeased, although I’m pretty sure she does, but that it will remind me of the message I want to convey – greeting me by jumping doesn’t work. That reminder serves as a way to coach myself to focus – and I’m convinced this focus helps me use more effective body language to get my message across.
Turning my back has worked well for me with some very committed jumpers at the shelter, and it worked well with Belle: she jumped up several times on our first visit, and only once since. To those who would say that dominance training would get a result on the first interaction, I can only shrug. I’m a teacher and I think repetition is the key to learning. I also think learning needs to happen on both sides. Belle’s response to patient repetition has taught me a lot about her, and she’s reminded me to keep my expectations high.
Of course, Belle’s still pretty excited when I go to get her from her kennel. But we both have a much easier time of it. And when we get back to the kennel, rather than looking for an opportunity to sneak back out, she does that perfect sit and waits for me to toss a treat for her. Things have changed.
Here are two portraits of Belle that are more like how I see her now:
Belle, as it turns out, is a pretty lovable dog. I’m glad I’ve had time to get to know her, and I hope that someone who can offer her a home – not just a couple of visits a week – will see in her what I see.
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