Sunday, January 15, 2012
What Does the Dog Think?
I've found over the years that in spite of the language barrier, dogs are exceptionally good at expressing themselves if you are at all willing to listen. My first dog, a Greyhound named Garth Smart, could express a myriad of emotions just with his eyes. His favorite expression of all was the 'martyred sigh', which he had honed to perfection.
Murphy isn't given to such things as subtlety, and prefers instead to emote forcefully and oafishly through his life. There is no mistaking Murphy's opinions. I rarely have to wonder what he is thinking, and he's quite annoyingly-direct about his likes and dislikes. On some level I have been grateful for this tendency because Murphy is a service dog and it has helped the two of us to develop an understanding and cooperative working relationship. I've found some of his opinions to be both entertaining and enlightening, particularly his opinion of headcollars (both Halti and Gentle Leader).
I decided to try a headcollar after Murphy was attacked (full story here) and became reactive. I had trained Murphy first with a flat leather collar, and then moved into a prong collar after he learned manners and knew how to give to pressure and walk politely (see how that works? TRAIN them first, THEN use the stronger tools when you add distractions...just sayin'...). For him the prong elicited no more of an emotional reaction than the flat collar; it just 'turned the volume up' when we started working in more complex situations. It's like training a dressage horse: you work for years in a simple snaffle, and only use a double bridle on a fully-trained horse to refine the communication. Such is the nature of my prong-collar use. Even so, I was reading all manner of stuff on the subject. I trained Murphy with lure-reward and clicker methods, and many of the positive folks advocate head collars. "Sure, why not?" I thought to myself. It can't hurt, right? Well.....
So I did a month-long deal, teaching Murphy to accept the thing on his face. It took another month to get him to accept the pressure of a leash without completely freaking out (read: throwing himself to the floor in a dramatic fashion and pawing at his face). It occurs to me now (but didn't then) that if something takes that long just to be ACCEPTED, if it's that tough to deal with out of the gate, it may just not be a great idea. Nope; didn't occur to me then. We had to walk around with it for awhile, Murphy throwing regular tantrums (and breaking his first headcollar. Dummy-me went and got another one) and basically hating walks. Needless to say, it didn't help anything. I thought that by sparing any possible negative stimulation from the prong-collar, Murphy's rehab would be simpler and progress faster. Instead I turned my cooperative and happy dog into a dog that dreaded work, dreaded walks and pawed at his face any chance he got.
Fortunately, I had an epiphany. One morning I got out the headcollar for the morning walk and found my 100 pound dog trying to squeeze himself into the 8" or so space beneath my bed. Murphy had spoken, and I finally listened. The headcollar was made of soft straps; the prong collar looked scary and mean. Murphy wasn't fooled by appearances. The headcollar wasn't humane or kind, it was an aversive that he couldn't escape. A prong collar only activates when the pressure is needed. It made perfect sense to Murphy. Just wearing the headcollar was aversive. No matter how well-behaved he was, Murphy couldn't escape the annoying thing on his face. In his very direct and dramatic way, Murphy taught me something vital: If you want to know what the humane choice is, don't base the choice on your own emotional reactions; ASK THE DOG. How can you work cooperatively and with focus if your tools, by their very existence, create resistance and distraction?
A month or two after we had given up the headcollar experiment, we were walking along the sidewalk and encountered a woman walking toward us. She stopped to tell me that she was a pet-owner who had taken a class (oh boy! LOVE advice from random pet owners...) and she thought that my prong collar was mean. She suggested that I try a headcollar (I was glad that I was all incognito that day with my super-dark, Lennon-esque shades because I'm pretty sure I involuntarily rolled my eyes). I told her that we had, and that we had had terrible experiences. She shook her head knowingly and patiently, and told me that I really should have stuck with it. After an awkward conversation in which she suggested that "the more a dog resists, the more they need the magic of the headcollar" and I just kept saying "no", I asked her where her dog was. I learned that her Golden Retriever (oh really? you mean NOT a high-drive Doberman?...huh...) was at home. Apparently, she just can't handle him on walks so she doesn't walk him any more. Seriously?