Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Profound Metaphor of Significant Significance (but mainly dog training)

My dad came over this morning to do something mysterious to my stereo to make the classical station in Hutch come in more clearly. (And by "mysterious," I mean he stuck a piece of flexible, rubber-coated wire in the antenna port. The wire has a name, but I've already forgotten. Dad would want me to tell you that you should NEVER attach a wire coat hanger to your stereo. Not that I would ever consider that. Ahem.)

So, knowing that we were about to have company, I did what I always do to make Brewster more comfortable with visitors. The dogs got their harnesses on, and we went out for a mini-walk so we could meet Dad outside. Brewster is much happier to meet people outside on neutral ground than to have them come into his house. Bertie is always happy to meet new people so she runs up first to perform her official function as the Chez Furry Pants Welcoming Committee. (Obviously this special service is only for guests we already know are dog people and won't mind slobbery dog tongue.) Then in theory Brewster and I follow, Brewster gets to meet the guest if he's feeling brave enough, and then we follow the guest into the house so Brew doesn't feel like he's being chased. 

When Dad came by a couple of weeks ago, we did not do this very well. Or rather, I did not do it very well. Bertie ran up to Dad, and I held Brewster back to see how he would react. In the process of holding him back, I pulled back on his leash, putting tension on it. And there was the mistake.

The amount of tension on the leash makes a huge difference in how Brew reacts. When his harness is tight around his chest, he lunges forward and wants to attack. When there is no tension he almost literally seems like a different dog, a bit nervous and timid, but in no way aggressive or threatening. This is not just a Brewster thing. I learned in an obedience class that all dogs respond to tension in the leash by becoming tense themselves. Understanding this basic little factoid was what made it possible to successfully introduce Brewster to Bertie Sue way back when. 

So at Dad's last visit, when Brewster felt the tension in the leash, it caused tension in him, and he wanted to lunge forward. I knew that I was causing the problem, but I couldn't make myself stop doing it. I knew if I released the tension, he would charge up at Dad for just a second, and the image of snarling Brewster was just too much. I wound up holding Brewster the entire time Dad was at the house, afraid to put him down.

Today I was determined to do better--not that Brewster would do better, that I would do better. When Bert ran up to give Dad his hello kisses, Brewster and I kept right on coming. Brewster tried to pull forward, but I kept coming, too, so the leash was slack. And I swear to you I saw this thought bubble forming over Brewster's head: "You aren't going to pull me back? You mean I could actually run up and bite him if I want to? Um . . . I think I'll go check out this piece of grass over here. Here's a rock that needs to be sniffed. This dandelion must be peed on immediately." And Brewster spent the rest of the visit ignoring Dad entirely, which is fine because Bertie Sue hands out enough luvins for four dogs. I promise, no one has ever felt neglected since Bert came to live here.

Hence, today's moral. You've heard the saying that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it, or something like that. So it is with dog training: The trick to improving a dog's behavior often lies in the handler's willingness to change his or her own behavior. Brewster didn't do a single thing differently at today's visit versus what he did two weeks ago. I was the one who changed my technique to get different results. And, whereas two weeks ago, I spent my time restraining an angry little demon dog, today I spent my time reassuring a nervous but generally calm and certainly not dangerous sweet little angel of whom I am very proud. Worth it.

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