A Precarious Place to Be
I asked my students what new experiences their puppies had had over the previous week.
“Frannie got a bath,” one student stated. When I asked how it went, she said, “she was fine. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t struggle too much.” You can substitute “went to the vet,” “met a toddler,” “got his nails clipped,” “got a boat ride…” or any other event, and we might say the same thing, “she was fine.”
“Fine” is frequently the descriptor we use to indicate “nothing overtly bad happened,” but that’s a pretty low bar when you think about it. It marks the summit of a slippery slope potentially leading to “not good… or worse.” Putting a brake on the emotional descent is crucial as it’s very difficult to reverse this momentum.
When you think about it, we use “fine” all the time, and its meaning is rather ambiguous. “How are you today?” “Fine.” It doesn’t actually convey any clear information, and in fact, seems to insinuate neither good nor bad. “Fine” is “excellent” when we are describing wines and restaurants. How did that happen?
Emotions are intrinsically tied to every experience and to every interaction. It’s a continuum, and if we tune in to how our pup is responding each tiny step of the way, we can carefully calibrate the experience to tip in the direction of positive.
“A Pattern of One”
The true sign as to whether or not that experience maintains its “fine” status without negative consequences is… the next time. Even though “nothing bad happened” from the human’s perspective, it could very well have been stressful for the dog and left a semi-permanent emotional scar.
Dogs’ observation superpowers are remarkable. They notice and remember patterns that are meaningful to them, patterns that lead to good stuff or bad stuff. They make note of the small, subtle steps that pave the pathways to good stuff or bad stuff piecing together the tiniest of clues that may hint at them taking shape.
A pup needs just one exposure to a pattern for him to lock onto its significance and file that information into the growing mental file of “relevant patterns.”
But we did what we needed to do. That counts, right?
“Getting the job done” is a low bar for gauging success, but it’s certainly a common one. This approach fails to take into consideration how the learner feels about the event, and this failure can result in serious consequences.
Let’s say, for example, you love to swim, and you are interested, albeit fearful, about diving. Your friends, wanting to see you dive for the first time, physically drag you to the high diving board and force you to dive off. You are terrified, the dive is not well executed, and it was painful. To add insult to injury, your bathing suit falls off, too.
Did you dive? Yes! Mission accomplished! Will you want to do it again? Probably NOT. Will you trust your friends? Again, probably not… I sure wouldn’t consider them friends after that.
We can imagine a host of deleterious side effects as a result of the diving scenario, from a loss of trust in our friends to a negative association with diving in general or even swimming in that pool. Our pups are no different when it comes to this collateral damage.
Where is that “fine line” and what does it look like? Where is the tipping point?*
There are many possible signs that will tell us that our dog is unhappy about an experience. They include:
• Signs of fear or aggression
• Refusal of food
If we refuse to respect the subtle signals our learner is giving us expressing discomfort, we have stepped right onto that slope.
How to avoid the Slippery Slope
• Practice the 3-Second Rule! [http://dianalogan.com/blog/three-second-rule]
• Break the process into teeny, tiny parts… then break it down some more.
• Add GREAT STUFF to each part and repeat.
• Don’t advance to the next step unless your learner is eagerly participating in the current step.
YES, this takes time, thoughtfulness and constant observation to be sure your learner is happily on board, but it will pay off in dividends for a lifetime. It is well worth the effort. If you don’t do this, the struggle will increase each time, and you will end up spending more time trying to get the job done than you would if you invested this time. Worst of all, your pup will be distrustful of you, and trust is at the core of all relationships.
* Unfortunately, there are some situations, particularly emergency medical situations, where getting the job done is paramount, regardless of how a pup feels. But these are exceptions, and with lots of good practice in other areas, the stress of even these experiences can be tempered.
Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine
www.dianalogan.com | 207-252-9352