Do They Really Like It?

“Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.” I was speaking at a career day recently with 6th – 8th graders.  I had Splash with me.   As I was talking with the students, every now and then the conversation would go to how do I know what dog to use?  Simple, you choose the dog that seems to enjoy things the most.  Splash enjoys career days and dog safety demos the most of my current dogs.

When I was starting out as budding dog trainer, over three decades ago, many of us assumed a great trainer could get an animal to do anything we wanted.   I still meet many people who feel that way.  Is this attitude in the best interest of our animals?

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Ravyn as a young show dog hopeful.  She would show and finished a UKC Champion title, but it was not “her” thing.

Over the years I have watched dogs forced to compete in various sports that they just appeared miserable doing.  Was it the training methods used?  In part.  Was it the dogs did not enjoy what was happening?  In part.  I have seen dogs trained using positive methods who just did not seem to enjoy the activity at hand.   I have seen various species expected to tolerate things I could see stressed them – things that the animals would not normally have to tolerate such as being friendly to everyone.  Not all pets are social butterflies.

Who determines what we like and do not like? Yes there are environmental influences.  What we are raised around helps develop who we are.  However, ultimately we determine our likes and dislikes. The same goes for any creature capable of thinking.  Yes we can influence our pets’ emotions.  We can counter condition and desensitize to things.  Though we must always ask ourselves “Is what I want to do in the best interest of my animal?”

I watched a man in a very dangerous situation with a cat. He decided the cat had to greet a very cat-friendly dog.  The cat did not want to greet the dog.   No matter what I said, the owner would not let the cat go.  Then the owner became angry when the scared cat scratched him. Forcing the cat into the situation was detrimental to the cat. Initially the cat was not fearful of the dog.  He was cautious.  There was potential.  It was not unreasonable to see if the cat would accept a laid back, cat friendly dog – given time and more appropriate introductions.  They way the owner insisted on introducing the cat and dog was not in either animal’s best interest.

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Rollo was reactive when it came to other dogs he did not know well. His owners insisted Rollo go to dog parks.  Rollo had two dogs he really liked.  One he lived with and the other often visited to play in a HUGE back yard.  Rollo did not need to visit nor did he enjoy dog parks. It was plainly clear.  Rollo was able to learn to handle controlled dogs while on walks.  We were able to desensitize him to them.  Even dogs who barked at him no longer elicited an outburst.  Rollo was attentive but as long as the dogs were at a distance, he managed them.  What he did NOT like was dogs (aside from his two buddies) in close proximity.

Against all advice, his owners continued to take Rollo to dog parks.  Though they were going at off-peak times, Rollo still did not like any dog park.  Rollo was now biting dogs at parks.  Some bites were severe.  He became increasingly reactive to strange dogs while on walks.  His owners realized what they wanted was not in his best interest.  His owners 100% stopped dog park visits.  We were able to get Rollo back to calmer walks in the neighborhood.  His dog walker was given clear instructions to no longer visit the local dog park.   The dog walker still felt Rollo needed that activity to be a whole dog. She ignored written and verbal requests to walk him only or play with him in the HUGE backyard.  Rollo went on to maul a sweet Golden puppy at the local dog park.

I do not determine what my pets like. I try not to force them into things they truly do not want.  For the things they need to endure (vet visits for example), I work to make them as low stress as possible through counter conditioning and socializing.  Yes recognizing likes and dislikes has meant ending the show career of a lovely dog.  Another one of my dogs was a very pleasant boy, but when it came to competing, well his head was not in the game.   When I found what he loved and was naturally good at (children – he had a high tolerance level and was very solid, so I had that foundation to build from), we created The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.  He excelled at demo work for years.

So maybe it is a good idea to stop, look at what your pet does and /or likes best and focus there.

Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.

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