Un-Dog-Whispering My Brain

Little by little I am un-Dog-Whispering my brain.

Before we adopted Emma the Beagle, Hubz and I watched The Dog Whisperer to learn all about Man’s Best Friend.

Hubz decided pretty early on that he didn’t like Cesar’s way with pups — it seemed cruel, he said, but I kept watching. Then the day we adopted Ems, I landed on board with Hubz’s assessment. You see, the adoption manager at North Shore Animal League said we should never use Cesar’s methods to train Emma — no aversives, like choke collars, he told us. Emma was too sensitive. She needed to be taught using force-free methods.

But Cesar’s messages are so easy to remember, and he says them so often, that a couple of his ear worms got lodged in my brain. Up until recently they continued to dominate my thoughts. (See what I did there? “Dominate?”)

Un-Dog-Whispering Situation 1

Cesar’s message: “Never let your dog walk through a doorway before you. You need to show him that you’re the alpha.” 

Emma’s response: “Um, I’m just gonna sit here, cause that thing you call a doorway scares me, so I’m just gonna sit here and lick my lips and yawn.”

From day one Emma has been afraid of doorways, but not terrified. So when I learned in my Academy studies that when a dog is a little afraid, you can do something called a DRI (“differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior” to be exact, but we’ll stick with DRI, because wow… that’s a mouthful), I realized it could work for Ems. All it means is that you can teach the dog to do something else like sit or lie down, and then when you reward the dog with treats for doing that new behavior, the dog develops all kinds of happies for the thing she was once scared of.

Using this knowledge, I taught Emma to walk ahead of me through the door on the cue “after you.” It totally worked. Here’s what I did:

  1. With a sweeping arm gesture, I would toss a delicious piece of food out the door onto the front porch and then freeze in place. It took a while, but Emma would eventually walk through the door to get her treat.
  2. Once Emma was walking out with a happy tail and little to no delay, I did the sweeping arm gesture, but didn’t toss a treat. I’d give her a treat once she walked through.
  3. After a few days of this, when she was just nailing it every time, I started adding the cue. I’d say, “after you,” pause one second, then do my sweeping arm gesture, then give her a treat once she walked through the door.
  4. I kept doing that over and over again until Emma started “jumping the prompt,” as we say in dog training. She figured out that “after you” led to the arm gesture which always meant TREAT, so she’d skip the arm gesture and cut straight to the treat.

Now when I open the door, before I even have to say “after you,” Emma trots right on through on her own. She didn’t need me to assert authority over her, like Cesar says. Emma needed me to give her the skills and confidence to be able to do it on her own — I let her vote with her feet. Hubz and I beam with pride every time Emma walks through that door.

Un-Dog-Whispering Situation 2

Cesar’s message: “Always exercise your dog before you feed her first thing in the morning.”

Emma’s response: “I’m too scared to walk down the stairs and across the wood floors in the morning, because after lying in bed all night, my body’s stiff and sore from my arthritis.”

It’s common knowledge by this point that Emma has become afraid to walk in the house because of the stairs and the wood floors. She’s in pain. I get it. So in addition to therapies and medicines to help Emma feel better, we’ve been trying to counter condition her to the floors by giving her yummy chicken or hot dogs for walking across. This works fine during the day, but first thing in the morning is a toughie.

We started prepping Emma’s breakfast and then bringing it to the front door to lure her there. Then we’d put it up on a ledge so she couldn’t reach it so that we could get her out the door for that walk Cesar told us she needed to do before she ate. (As I type this I’m inwardly bashing myself across the head for being so effing stupid. I think you know where this is heading…)

This week it hit me: FEED HER THE BREAKFAST!!! Make that first trip down the stairs this amazingly wonderful incredible experience: RAW CHICKEN PATTY!!!!! Well, guess what? Now she sprints down the stairs for her breakfast. She eats, then we go for a nice walk where she pees, poops, and sniffs, and then she gets her Kong to work on while I eat my breakfast.

So that’s my story. Once again, I have proven myself to be a complete moron. At least I had the smarts to figure it out eventually. I wonder what other ear worms Cesar has planted in my brain.

As famed ecologist Marc Bekoff recently told me in an interview for an article I’m writing for The Bark, there are no one-size-fits-all for dogz. They are all individuals with their own needs and emotions and thoughts, just as we peoplez are. The next time someone says, “All dogs do this, so you have to always do that,” remember Emma. Our girl is one in a million, and every day she teaches me something new.


3 comments on “Un-Dog-Whispering My Brain

  1. When my dogs sleep inside, they NEED a ‘walk’ very first thing. I do to the loo, the dog goes outside.
    And they don’t have breakfast either. But then neither do I. I NEVER feel like eating first thing. When I was young and fit I used to go for a walk before breakfast (after the loo 🙂

    • Yeah, Ems needs to go out first thing too, but her fear of the floor overcomes her need to pee. Now she eats super fast and then goes out. Totally works for us!

  2. Tracy – I totally agree with you! Domination is not necessary. Training with love, play and patience equals a happy dog🐶. A great book to read is The Loved Dog by Tamar Gellar. Love her methods – I’ve trained 4 total different rescue dogs this way with great success!

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