Rio and Deuce have finished eating dinner and as we do every night, I proceed to the laundry room just after having said out loud: “Does anyone here want a bone?” Immediately I hear hurried paw steps towards the laundry room in anticipation of “dessert”.
I have been trained well by these two and I proceed to give Deuce his pig’s ear followed by giving the patient Rio hers. Once again hurried paw steps are heard going away from the laundry room and into their customary chewing-spots. It does not fail. I can guarantee with 100 % certainty – and how often can we really say this? Where each dog will go to enjoy his or her chewy “in privacy”.
When I pay attention, I see routine behaviors or habits from the dogs. How they lay down, for example, Deuce always resting his butt down first and then stretching his long legs in front of him by sliding them on the floor. I also see patterns in how they run after a ball, what they will do when someone knocks at the door, etc.
Dogs, just like us humans, do things that make them comfortable, feel safe, and that works for them. These behaviors become patterns of comfort, safety, and predictability.
If we choose to be mindful and help our dogs in becoming more self-confident we can make use of these patterns to bring a sense of consistency into their lives. Think about it, if they choose to engage in a given behavior over and over again is because there is something about that behavior that works for them. When we are able to link predictability where there is chaos – or potential chaos, the dog can begin to relax.
Now, what happens when a habit is one we just can’t condone? One that might put our dog at risk or someone else? Or simply a habit that drives us crazzzzyyyyy? Think here a Border Collie with ball obsessions where either: a.) he carries his ball everywhere or, b.) he expects you to throw the ball for him at all times all day long no matter that you have work to do, eat, sleep, or to watch TV in peace!
The way to deal with customary behaviors as above is first to try and identify the motivation behind the behavior. In other words: why is the dog doing “x” thing? Sometimes it is very straightforward and obvious, but most times it is not. Besides, there can be many reasons for a given behavior. Either way, we make the effort.
The point here is to customize a different plan of approach that the dog can learn which prevents him or her from engaging in the behavior we don’t want and substitutes for something we can live with, will keep the dog safe and boost his quality of life and confidence. Or at the very least, not undermine his welfare.
Here is an example: Rio is comfortable with people once she has had the opportunity to sniff them at close range. However, she is conflicted often when meeting someone new. Yes, she wants social interaction, but she also appears to be overwhelmed by it. How do I know this? I don’t with 100% certainty but I can infer this by her overall attitude and body language. As such, we have now a plan in place that we follow whenever someone new comes by.
Our goal is to have Rio and the visitor as well, feel comfortable with the interaction. To accomplish this, we prevent Rio from dashing out the front door at full speed and barking in order to smell the person. No one likes to be greeted by a dashing & barking unknown dog! Besides, I want Rio to learn and literally exercise impulse control and learn muscle memory of calm approaches. So she comes out on a leash and we take time walking towards the person on a loose leash (most of the time) 🙂 while she is getting treats for walking nicely and quietly.
Once she has had a chance to sniff the person she can turn into a Velcro dog…but that is another habit altogether.
Observing our dogs and learning their preferences not only beats reading the ultimate detective novel, but it gives us a leg up in making them feel safe and thrive as well as replacing unwanted or dangerous habits for better ones. And if you ask me, it is at the center of any intimate relationship.