Here is an all too familiar scene:

A puppy or young dog is being trained for the show ring and decides that he is not comfortable with a part of the exam. He goes to a handling class and resists having his bite examined. The well meaning, but not trained in behavior instructor advises that the dog must get over this and attempts to check the bite again. This time the dog, having already communicated his discomfort the first time, resists further and growls this time. The instructor insists that they must do this and get through it and that he shouldn’t “get away” with that. They attempt again and the dog snaps. Insisting that they must “end on a good note”, they push further. At this point, sometimes the dog gives up, giving them the false impression that he is now fine with it. Other times the anxiety increases until it is made clear that the dog needs a break and someone has enough sense to back off and approach things differently. And, sometimes, no one listens or advocates for the dog and the dogs escalates his defense to a bite. He is then labeled all sorts of things from unsound to aggressive to spoiled to manipulative. Who did this end it on a good note for? Do we really believe that forcing, pressuring and intimidating a dog to cope with something he is uncomfortable with makes him truly okay with what was being done? Do you think that this dog will be better the next time someone checks his bite?  No, usually not, in fact frequently, his anxiety about it starts earlier the next time around.

I have worked with dogs that were pushed in this way for the entire exam, for the bite exam, testicle exam and even for just being touched. Force never makes someone comfortable and relaxed about something. I have seen dogs at shows clearly communicating discomfort with something only to then have people do that very thing over and over and over to make him “get over it”. This does not help the dog learn to feel more comfortable, it teaches the dog to not feel safe and trusting of his owner.

I have seen situations like this impact dogs in a very big way, even to the point of ruining a dog’s show career or causing owners to spend months trying to teach the dog to be comfortable with the exam again. I have seen people put the work in to turn it around and others decide that it isn’t worth it. It is important to remember that every single event in an animal’s life matters and is filed into their mind and becomes a part of their life and learning history. All experiences count and ones that are particularly good or particularly bad can count even more.

If it isn’t bad enough that we have now created a potentially big problem with the dog’s perception of the exam and the show ring, but many times the relationship between the dog and owner has suffered because the owner allowed this to happen. In other words, in the dog’s eyes, the owner did not keep him safe.

I have seen so many variations of this scenario that it would make your head spin. What makes me really sad is that many times the owners felt uncomfortable with what was happening but didn’t have the courage to step in and protect their dog from further force and pressure.

You may be wondering what the right thing to do is. What if the dog doesn’t want you to do something? Shouldn’t you “make him”? How do you deal with this. The answer is that if you want the dog to TRULY feel comfortable and relaxed with anything you must desensitize and counter condition him to whatever it is that he is not comfortable with. Sometimes the dog is fearful, other times he is more defensive or frustrated and many times they simply are not prepared and don’t know what to do. We can train them to be comfortable with this so that they don’t mind and hopefully even enjoy having it done.

We start off by introducing the trigger at a very low intensity level and pairing or just following that exposure with something of very high value to the dog, usually food. The intensity level can be upped or lowered by changing the closeness of it, the length of exposure to it, etc. The exposure is always followed by removal of trigger at first so that the dog has a release of pressure very frequently. Handling it this way does several things, 1) it allows the dog to actually become comfortable with the trigger so he is okay and not just coping or holding it together like a pressure cooker waiting to blow, 2) it respects the comfort level of the dog and takes his well being into account, 3) because you are teaching the dog to actually be relaxed and comfortable he will look relaxed and comfortable which is much more “showy” than a dog who is doing something out of fear and the inability to escape, 4) it makes the entire show experience a good experience, 5) it preserves and supports the relationship between the dog and owner. Forcing a dog to do something he is not okay with, especially if he is worried about it is extremely relationship damaging. You are your dog’s advocate, you are responsible for making sure he feels safe, comfortable and free from harm.

The process takes as long as it takes. While there is a basic formula for the process, how quickly you can proceed depends on many factors including the individual dog, his learning history, his genetics, the skill level of the owner and many other things. Some dogs progress extremely quickly and confidence grows quickly as they learn that they have some control over their bodies and safety.  Others, particularly those that have had a bad experience that taught them not to trust, can take longer, but they all can learn to feel better about things.

I strongly encourage people to begin to look for answers that not only get you results but that also make things better for the dog. I don’t want dogs to just “knock it off”, I want them to actually feel okay, comfortable, relaxed and enjoy the showing experience so that they have fun, are more successful and are more competitive.


Vicki

Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.