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What Really Matters (*published in the April, 2008 issue of "Dogs,Dogs,Dogs!")

By: Joan Weston

In this space, we normally find a question about a dog’s behavior and how to alter it to fit our demands.  People write in about their dog barking or digging.  Not this month.  This past week, our dearest boy PotRoast lost his ongoing battle with illness.  Many of you have seen Potty performing with The Superdogs, waddling through a tunnel or backing up with his butt high in the air.  Others may have seen him on the cover of Dogs In Canada for February.  He was a character, he was full of confidence and he was the joy of our lives.

When you get a dog, you sign on for heartache.  We all do.  We raise fur kids for 5 years, for 8 years for 13 years if we’re lucky, but they all leave us heartbroken and we’re never really ready.  They come into our lives for a reason, and when they leave, they force us to take stock of ourselves, as a person and as a parent.   If you’re really lucky, you get the lessons that they were sent here to teach you before they go, and after they’ve left, you hold onto those parables as shining fragments of their love left behind in all the heartache and pain.

PotRoast was sent to us to teach us what really matters in our relationship with our dogs.  It isn’t sit, down, heel or stop digging up the %#* pachysandra. Because on the day you lose them, rarely will your thoughts turn to whether or not they lay down the second you asked. You won’t care that they didn’t quite hold that stay for one minute, or that they jumped up on the couch after running through said pachysandra.  The things that matter, brobdingnagian in your relationship with your dog and with yourself are as follows: 

    • Treat your dog with respect not just love.  If your dog is curled up on the couch in a sound sleep, once in a while, resist the urge to go pet them.  Just admire them from where you are and respect that they, like you, should be able to nap unaccosted. 

    • Just because something works, doesn’t make it right.  Remember that there are more important things in the world than absolute compliance.  Things like love, silliness and personality. If you want a dog who does everything you ask the moment you say it get an Aibo by Sony.  I’ll take my boy who sometimes heels beautifully and sometimes bites my shoe as I’m trying to walk.  I love him when he does that, just don’t tell him, ok? 

    • Spend some time with your dog curled up on the couch either beside you, on top of you, or above you on the back.  Just watch a movie and know that it is enough to sit with your arms around them feeling their breathing and wincing every time they fart during the good scenes.

    • You’re going to make mistakes when you train or parent. I can’t think of a single stronger moral argument against correction based training than that.  When you make a mistake, your best friend shouldn’t have to pay for it with a sharp pop of a leash or a prong poking them in the throat. The only way to truly learn is to be free to make a mistake without fear of pain or retribution. If it’s true for you, then why on earth shouldn’t it be true for them?

    • Can we not get past the Dominance thing once and for all?  There is no scientific or academic corroboration for applying dominance theories of behavior to domesticated dogs.  None.  Dominance should finally join its brethren the dreaded hair growing on your palms if you uh, overindulge and not forwarding this e-mail will condemn you to eighteen years of bad luck. Let’s clarify this once and for all and get all the charlatans out of the limelight.  Playing tug of war will not make your dog aggressive.  Letting him win will not result in him killing you in your sleep.  Dogs don’t particularly care who eats first, so long as they eat at some point.  They want to get through doorways first not to establish control of the household finances, but rather just to get the hell outdoors fast.  Sleeping on your bed, cuddling on the couch and sitting on the steps looking down on you means they like being under the covers, the couch is soft and they can see stuff in that order.  That’s all. They’re not that deep. Get over it.  

    • Teach them manners and be fair when you do mete out punishment.  Take care that punishment is non violent and unemotional, and don’t use an elephant gun to kill a mouse.  If your pup is jumping up on you, start using your evolutionarily advanced psyche to move beyond the knee jerk reaction of knee jerking.  How about you use that whole other layer of brain that we have to figure out a way to set the dog up to succeed rather than keep letting them get it wrong and then blaming the dog?

    •  If you wouldn’t do it to a toddler, don’t do it to your dog.  Research in cognition has shown that dogs function at approximately the level of a two year old human.  If you actually think about your dog, that should seem about right.  Two year olds are incredibly self centered, they want what they want when they want it, and they aren’t afraid to throw the odd tantrum in front of company to accomplish an objective. Having said that, when’s the last time it occurred to you to throw a choke chain on your two year old’s throat, or put prong collar on their neck so that when they act out, you can just snap on it while you reassure your horrified neighbors that it doesn’t really hurt them?

    • Your dog forgives so much.  That time you yelled at them when it was your husband who knocked over the flowers.  When you let some child run up and grab them about the neck and squeeze them, and then scolded the dog for growling at the rudeness.  Or the time that you were working on that project late for a few days, and so the most real exercise or one on one time they got with you was an on leash walk at your snail’s pace around the block.  Remember when they wanted one more treat and you said no, because you know, they should just do stuff without getting treats, all the time, right?  Never mind how her eyes lit up at the thought of cheese, or how warm you felt watching her gobble up a piece of liver that you’d just given her.  You can’t just give her a treat every time she does something or else… Or else what I now wonder; she’d be too happy? She’d pay too much attention to you?  She’d enjoy the work too much?  You’d have too much fun training? 

We’ll never be able to massage PotRoast’s toes again.  We won’t be able to watch him skootch backwards in joyous anticipation of dinner, or watch TV with him lying upside down on top of us snoring too loudly to hear the dialogue.  I won’t be able to teach him obedience like his formal heel, his stays and his tricks, all of which he loved to practice with élan. While we regret our loss of this wonderful boy, we are so very thankful that we don’t regret anything we did with him in the name of training.

This was his lesson to us – this was his gift.   We thought that we were the smart ones.  But in the end, he taught us what really mattered.

*[Joan Weston is not only a fellow contributing writer for the newspaper for dog lovers, "Dogs,Dogs,Dogs!" but owns and operates FANGS BUT NO FANGS Canine Behavioural Consulting Services in Caledon, Ontario. Although she specializes in aggression, she works with all types of training and behavioural issues in dogs. As the founder of BIG ON BEAGLES, I never hesitate to refer frustrated beagle owners to Joan. She shares our philosophy and our compassion. To put it simply, we think she's the beag's knees!]


Here's an excerpt from "On The Couch" - Joan's regular column in Dogs, Dogs, Dogs!
We love our little beagle Daisy 99% of the time.  The problem is when she has a bone or she’s eating, she turns into the devil dog from h – e – hockey sticks!  I’m afraid that she may bite my 6 year old.  We’ve heard a lot of advice, and I feel overwhelmed. Can you clarify what we can do or if we can fix this?

Dubious about Daisy


Dear Dubious;

Possession is, thankfully, one of the simpler things to work through, especially in the early stages.  What’s difficult about it is changing the family’s attitude towards the dog and her things and respecting her space.  Here are some of the Do’s and Don’ts to try to help you exorcise the devil dog and learn a little along the way.  

  • DO – When your dog is eating out of her dish, leave her alone. Let her eat in peace.  If you have kids, it’s a good idea to feed the dog in the crate, which will help to keep her safe while she eats, quiet and rested afterwards and reinforce that the crate is a good thing.

  • DON’T -  It is very important that children are taught NEVER to touch or talk to a dog when she is eating.  The same applies if the dog has a bone or a toy.  Teach your child that when a dog has something in his mouth, they are to always stay away unless the dog brings the toy to them to play. 

  • DO – While Daisy is eating her meal, cut up some cheese into chunks.  Walk over, say ‘hi’, drop a chunk in the bowl and walk away.  Do this 10 times or so during a meal.  It’s important that you do NOT linger or touch her.  Just approach, drop the goodie in and leave. If she growls or snaps as you approach, start by saying hi and tossing the goodie to her at a distance, until she is calm and happy about you approaching.

  • DON’T – Do not ever take a food bowl away, stick your hand in the dish or pet her while she’s eating.  If you aren’t sure how obnoxious and bothersome this is, try doing it to your wife when she is eating dinner.  Twirl your index finger in her mashed potatoes, take the plate away suddenly as she goes to stab a piece of roast beef and caress her lovingly while she attempts to eat peas.  If you come out of the encounter with fewer than two scars, she is a better woman than I.

  • DO – when Daisy has a bone or high value toy, cut up a hot dog and randomly go over and give her a piece of hot dog while she’s chewing.  Again, don’t bother her, don’t pet her, just add the hot dog and then leave her be.  For young puppies, this should be started as soon as you give them chew toys.  Sit with them and randomly reach in and give them a goodie while they chew. 

  • DON’T – Don’t let your ego run over your empathy.  People can get very hung up on the idea that I should be able to take anything away, my kid should be able to do anything to the dog and my house my rules.  Tyrannies are only fun for the tyrant, for the peasants not so much.  Respect that both you and your dog have boundaries and teach your child to do the same.  

  • DO – Play tug with your dog.  When the dog is playing, say ‘Out’ and shove a very yummy treat in his mouth while you stop pulling on the toy.  When he takes the food, take the toy away and wait until he finishes eating.  Then ask for a simple behavior like sit or watch me and play again.  Playing tug will help your dog have fun while he learns that he can give things up and get them back.

  • DON’T – Corner the dog, chase them under a table or confront them in an angry manner when they have something they shouldn’t.  If you become aggressive and violent, they will respond in kind, and they will be right.  If they get something they shouldn’t have, roll up a newspaper, hit yourself on the head and say ‘why wasn’t she supervised?’

  • DO – When your dog has something that you would rather they didn’t, (our Pugs find underwear particularly enticing…even better when they parade in with panties when the Rabbi comes to visit) just calmly tell them ‘Out’ and trade for a yummy treat.  The most important thing, especially in front of clergy, is not to lose your temper and appear to be an irrational member of the congregation.  If your dog is a retriever type who puts everything in their mouth, just teach them to retrieve, invite them to you with the thing and trade for a treat.  Sometimes it’s easier to evolve than to create. 

  • DON’T – push your dog past her limits.  When you are working with her, the dog should always be able to take the treat calmly and happily.  If she won’t take the food, or she looks stiff or hard as you approach, back off and work from farther away. 

  • DO – If you are at all unsure, book an appointment with a positively based behavioral consultant.  To check, ask the trainer if they will use corrections for this problem.  If they say yes, flee faster than a Chihuahua at the annual Doberman Pinscher Club Fun Day. 

Hopefully these tips will get you started.  With kids in the equation, it’s never a bad idea to get a behavioral consultant in to ensure everyone’s safety.  Good luck with your little flower, and with patience and respect, she’ll soon blossom into a wonderful family companion.