Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Dog Days

We're having an interesting challenge in our house these days.

It has to do with my dog.

He's a great dog, for sure.
We got him almost by accident- we were at the shelter looking for a cat, and this puppy looked at me and let me know he was my dog, and ready to come home with us.
At the time, we were not "dog people."

I mean, I liked dogs and all, and had had a dog a time or two as a kid (although never for long, for a variety of reasons), but we were firmly and sincerely cat people.

Then my dog came along and taught us how to be dog people, too.

For one thing, he's a very smart dog. I didn't know such a thing existed.

He's a dog.
He thinks like a dog.
He acts like a dog.
And he has dog priorities.

When he was a puppy, we took him to a series of puppy training classes at the nearest pet store.
Fortunately, the person teaching the class was kind of awesome, and their focus was on positive reinforcement.
We were told not to use the word "no!" in an attempt to discipline the dog.
We were also told not to ever use the dog's name in a negative way, not to yell it at him to try to get him to stop doing something.
Instead, we were told to always use his name in a loving way, along with rewards of attention or treats, so that he would associate his name with positive things, and therefore, be happy to come to us when we call him by name.

Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. 
If, some of the time, his name is yelled at him and followed by disapproval, any sort of punishment (and to a dog, who is very sensitive to the emotions of his people,  anger and disapproval and lack of touch ARE punishments), and then, other times, you call his name and expect him to come running… it makes no sense at all.
Just like little kids who can easily learn that being called by their full name means they are in trouble… dogs figure that out, too.

So, in our household, where we were being told to treat our dog pretty much like we try to treat each other, with love and respect, things moved right along in a happy, comfortable way. It took a little bit of learning about dogs, and how their minds work ("if you don't eat all the food right away, and leave some on the stove or table, clearly, it must be the dog's share, right?"), but for the most part, has been awesome and trouble free.

He's kind of an old dog now. He's a larger dog- a shepherd/rottweiler mix, as best as we can guess. He loves EVERYONE and everything. People, other dogs, cats, toys, everything.

Over the past several months, he developed a habit which makes perfect sense to a dog, but is kind of annoying for people.
He likes to steal cat food cans out of the recycling bin.
And chew them.

This is not a good thing.

Besides the obvious "chewing a metal can is not the best choice for healthy teeth," issue, he ALSO often knocks the bins over, spilling all the recycling, and THAT is something I get tired of cleaning back up fairly quickly.
And then, with the bins "out of the way," he can jump up and steal not a cat food can, but the cats' food, itself. Bonanza!

He's a dog.
From his perspective, there's no problem.
From my perspective, I'd rather not have to put recycling in the bin more than a couple of times, you know?
I'm sure the cats would prefer not losing their dinner to the dog, and having him do so is expensive!  It adds up!

So we've been trying to find the best solution for this.

We've tried changing where the cats are fed, but that hasn't been a complete solution.
We've tried feeding them less at a time, so they finish everything before moving away from the bowl, meaning nothing to steal.
We've tried moving other things around to make it more difficult to get to the food, to no avail. Big dog has no trouble "rearranging" things.
We're working on taking the recycling away more frequently, but haven't been so great at that. Not the dog's fault, for sure.
We've even gone as far as gating the kitchen at night, to keep him out of there, but it made him so SAD, and feels uncomfortably restrictive to me, so don't intend to keep that.

We're still working on it.

And now, we have a new situation.
One I hadn't anticipated in quite this way.

We have a new, part time, pack member.

My daughter has a boyfriend.

He's a great guy, seems like, don't get me wrong.
I enjoy having him around, and appreciate how well he treats her.
I love how he brings out her playful side.

He grew up in a household that was very different from ours.

As have most people, to be fair.
We're not exactly mainstream here.

He has started doing something that none of us have ever done, and it is both startling, and an interesting challenge to figure out.

He yells at my dog.
Yells his name, and "no!" and "Bad dog!"
Tries to shame the dog for his behavior, in an attempt to make him stop.
Things we never do.
Things the dog has zero context for.
He doesn't understand "no."

The dog understands being a dog. Doing dog things. Having dog thoughts. Playing dog games.

He doesn't understand being yelled at.
He doesn't understand having a whole lot of intense, negative emotional energy directed at him.

The first, most noticeable thing that has changed, is that my dog- who loves everyone- doesn't want to be around the person who yells at him. He has started to spend time elsewhere in the house. Where before, he'd want to be right in the middle of what folks were doing, now, he'll come find me when I'm in a different room, and stay with me. If I'm in the same room, he'll often choose to go outside, to get away. This behavior change happened nearly immediately.

The challenge for me, now, is what to do about this.

It isn't as simple as telling the person not to yell at the dog.
I know that he isn't doing it to be "mean," he's doing it because he DOESN'T KNOW ANY OTHER WAY.

In his world, he has only seen this sort of "discipline."
He has no concept of any sort of positive discipline, of helping someone change their behavior by understanding it and supporting them in the change, rather than by trying to force it from the outside.

He only has an authoritarian model.
Top down.
The person with power decides and enforces.

So… as a family, we're choosing to model this sort of approach, not only with the dog, but with the person.
We're focusing on calm, loving interactions.
On being proactive, rather than in a rush to stop something after it happens.
On solving the problem, rather than asserting control.

And we're working on doing our part of getting the recycling out of the house, so the dog isn't tempted. :-)

Hopefully, this will be enough to shift everything, in a process of discovering a new way of interacting with a dog, or anyone perceived as having less power.
If not, I may need to have a discussion about the concept of positive reinforcement.
We'll see.

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