Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Value of Preparation, Second Iteration

This post delves more pointedly into other aspects of preparation when living with a dog than my previous post. It is not a prerequisite to this one, but a companion piece.

When I was 15 years old, my best friend’s father taught us how to change a car tire. He wouldn’t allow my friend to get her learner’s permit until she had mastered that skill, even in the rain. On a warm summer afternoon, after both of us did it individually on his 1981 Corolla, he told us he was taking us to Sizzler for a steak dinner in a little bit, but first we were to put on our bathing suits and meet him back at the car. Then he turned the hose on, held it over our heads, and we had to change a different tire—from the beginning.

He wasn’t holding me against my will. It wasn’t torture. I could have left and walked home at any time, but he asked me the same question he asked her: “Do you expect that you will ever drive by yourself in your lifetime? And do you ever think you will drive in the rain?” I probably shrugged and nodded. He handed me the tire iron and smiled. “Wouldn’t you prefer to practice?”

I suppose I should have been thankful that the car was parked in a driveway, on level ground, and not on a busy highway. At the time, though, I probably rolled my eyes. The prospect of a steak dinner and not wanting to abandon my best friend kept me there, and of course I have used that skill several times, even in the rain, in the ensuing decades.

I am reminded of this frequently in my work with dogs and people. People tend to do the least amount of work needed, as a general rule, in any given situation. We like shortcuts, and we tend to avoid performing tasks that have no real or perceived advantage to us—short- or long-term. This conserves energy and often resources, and frees us up to participate in more things that we enjoy, so it’s not necessarily a negative. But when it comes to certain jobs, such as training one’s dog, there are no shortcuts. You will spend more time looking for them than the work would have actually taken. Not only that, but the work itself has great merit, both for the human and the dog.

“If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.” ~Pat Parelli

One of the problems I often hear about are situations that could have been prepared for, should have been prepared for, but weren’t. In the owner’s eyes, their dog didn’t need that skill or that confinement or that preparation, because their immediate situation didn’t warrant it.

Crate training is one of the most common areas of this. I meet someone with a puppy or dog who is not using a crate (there are several reasons people may have for this, but I want to focus on just the one right now). They are not using it because their dog “doesn’t need it.” He is not destructive. He is fully housebroken. He just hangs out while they are gone, and someone’s usually home, anyway. Ergo, they think he doesn’t need to learn how to tolerate confinement, because they cannot envision a situation where it would be needed.  But this is a common misconception, and it can make life quite frustrating for the dog and his humans later in life:

My dog Yukon Cornelius injured his leg and
needed crate rest for several weeks. 
  • They take a road trip—a long one—and the dog is nauseated, or otherwise stressed, the entire time
  • They stay in a hotel, and cannot leave the dog in the room because he barks at every sound, or suddenly learns how fun chewing pillows can be. The hotel stay triples in price.
  • They arrive at their destination, a friend’s house, and assume the dog will be fine to just roam the house like he does at home—but the dog, in a new environment, becomes destructive (or forgets his housetraining). 
  • They leave the dog at home and hire a petsitter. When she arrives, the dog is hiding and will not let her put a leash on him to take him for a walk
  • They must move to an apartment and the dog will not allow the maintenance people to enter. He bites one of them and his owners are threatened with eviction. They then start using a crate, but since he is unfamiliar with it, he cries all day and wakes the neighbors, who complain to management.
  • The dog ruptures his ACL, or suffers any malady that calls for him to be kept very quiet and still for days or weeks. Imagine trying to keep an active dog calm in a crate for that long when he has never been required to be crated at all.
  • There is an evacuation order due to an upcoming weather event, and they must leave their home and find shelter. The dogs are allowed, but only if they are crated (if you live near the ocean, this will probably happen to you at some point).

Crate training is valuable for many reasons, but one of the most valuable is that it helps prepare the dog for confinement both now and later. It can, done properly, have a great calming effect on the dog whenever he is placed in an unfamiliar situation, where misbehaviors are most common due to the stress of change. If you don’t prepare your dog for dealing with stress when you have the time to do so, you may not have the time later—and the older he gets, the longer it will take. A dog who is taught how to deal with frustration and confinement is a dog who is always easier to live with. Why wait?

Having a dog who walks nicely on leash is another task people with yards often neglect. Since they have a yard, they never teach the dog how to walk nicely, because they don’t see the need for it. But walks are beneficial for most dogs, even those with yards. And no one wants to walk a dog who drags them down the street, or lunges at people, or gets underfoot, or sits down and refuses to walk. Why not fix this common problem when the dog is young, or right when you acquire him? It is a win-win for both the dog and the human. Even if you have a yard, you will need to take your dog to the vet, at the very least. And since walks are a big part of mental stimulation and socialization for your dog, by not walking him, you are denying him something he needs to thrive.

I had an email a few days ago from a man who got two dogs fairly young, and never leash-trained them. Now they are 4 and 5, and pull terribly. This wasn’t a problem when he had a yard, but guess what? He had to move to an apartment, and now they must be walked multiple times a day on leash. He cannot control them together, so he spends twice as long on walks as he needs to, and is now suddenly quite motivated to get them trained. I told him I can absolutely help him fix that, but done correctly, it won’t be a “snap your fingers” fix. It will take some time and patience to do it right so that it sticks, because pulling on leash is rewarding to dogs until they learn otherwise.

How about some other examples?

Teaching the young pup or dog that absences are a part of life will help to inoculate him against future separation distress. This means, in part, using confinement and “forcing” some independence when you are home. It also means you need to stop fondling your dog so much.

Teaching the young dog to allow himself to be physically handled by humans is a huge benefit when he goes to the vet or groomer. Lots of owners hate vet visits as much as the dogs do because they have very little control over their pets and it’s embarrassing or frustrating to go to the vet. But if the dog tolerates being handled for exams, having its teeth looked at, having its nails trimmed, being brushed, and being picked up or carried (for smaller dogs) by others, the visits to the vet or groomer’s become much less stressful. Having a dog that has no problem being pilled or medicated ensures that treatment will go more smoothly, and may be cheaper. The dog that tolerates grooming will save you money, and will be healthier and happier because he won’t be matted or suffering from too-long toenails (which can hamper movement and cause gait problems).

It is unlikely that you will live in the same place, in the same house, forever. It is likely that you will change jobs, change partners, or add children to your life at some point. Your schedule may change. You may fall ill and experience having to cohabitate with family or friends because of financial difficulties. Your home could be made uninhabitable due to a natural disaster and you may need to seek temporary shelter. Life happens to all of us, and the more resilient our dogs are, the more likely they can stay with us and help us through the tough times—as best friends do.

You do your beloved dog zero favors when you don’t prepare for the potential future. In the same way you’d gas up your car before a road trip, you can “gas up” your dog to help him adjust to the bumps and falls in life. Make hay while the sun shines. Better to have the knowledge and not need it than to need it and not have it.