Last month, while washing my favorite bed sheets, my washing machine bit the dust. There was water everywhere, and I was left not so high and dry with soggy laundry and the equally unexpected and unwelcome task of sudden appliance shopping. Then, the other day, due to a manufacturing error, I got a surprise full refund on a somewhat pricey product I purchased nine months ago. At a recent doctor appointment I was advised to have a little bump removed from my ribcage. My allotted 15-minute routine appointment became a minor in-office surgical procedure that affected the rest of my work day and left me with a bloody, not-so-tiny hole in my side. These are just a few examples of how life is full of surprises. Some are good and some are not so great, because life is also full of ups and downs. None of us know for sure how the story of our lives will unfold; the only thing I can guarantee is that there will indeed be some sort of bumps in the road.
Now that you are caught up on how my summer is going, you may be wondering exactly how this pertains to dogs … Oh, but it does, in so many ways.
If we have the knowledge that at some point life will throw us a curveball, it’s a very good idea to prepare for inevitable accidents and disasters. And even if we somehow manage to miraculously escape all misfortune, there are certain predictable unpleasant inevitabilities we must cope with from time to time. The same is true for our dogs. It’s our job to prepare them mentally for all sorts of situations.
Let’s start with predictable potential unpleasantries. Most dogs in their lifetime are going to have to cope with some handling they don’t enjoy: vet exams, vaccines, grooming, paw wiping, nail clipping, collar grabbing, etc. They will also be forced to tolerate equipment they may find uncomfortable or unpleasant such as The Cone of Shame, muzzles, harnesses, head halters, and holiday deer antler headpieces. We know dogs are going to have to deal with these things, so it’s in the best interest of everyone to acclimate our canine companions to them. We do this in our puppy classes. Ritualized early handling and exposure to common care and husbandry tools help young pups to not only tolerate these interactions and objects, but also, if introduced properly, they may learn to completely accept them or even enjoy them, bonus!
We use classical conditioning and progressive desensitization exercises to ease puppies to accepting all sorts of things because it works wonders. And an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the stress and struggle that generally occurs when you try to introduce the aforementioned unpleasantries in situ. Don’t wait until your dog is injured and frightened to get him used to a veterinary restraint hold and wearing a muzzle. Instead, teach your young puppy to enjoy brief moments of “hugging” by keeping things short and sweet by trading mere seconds of touches, grasps, and hugs for tasty morsels. Teach your young puppy to love wearing a muzzle by playing games such as poke your nose in and out for dinner, muzzle balance games for big rewards, or even teaching your puppy to retrieve a muzzle instead of a ball for game of fetch. Teach your puppy that a pat on the shoulder earns him a few pieces of kibble, while a light tail tug, paw hold, or collar grab earns a delectable chunk of cheese. Dogs look forward to such handling if it’s practiced without pressure and paired with great rewards.
There are also times in your dog’s life when he will likely need to be kenneled, crated, or confined due to some unforeseen emergency circumstances. Often this experience is paired with a vet visit. Or there could be some sort of family event such as an out-of- town wedding or a funeral, that takes you and all of your extended family and usual dog care support team away from home at once. With nobody familiar to your dog left behind to provide care, your pup will need to adapt to a boarding kennel at an advanced age, which is very stressful if he has never been away from home and loved ones in his life. Natural disasters are another time your dog will likely be required to be crated in order to make use of emergency housing. Or, dog forbid, he is rescued from an earthquake, fire, or flood and finds himself in emergency temporary housing. If you have taken the time to teach your dog to feel comfortable in a crate, this may provide much needed comfort under scary circumstances, rather than additional stress.
It is never too late for a dog to learn new tricks, and there are so many games you can play, and so many pleasant ways to teach your dog to enjoy the tools that help keep them safe and healthy. My late summer homework assignment for all of you out there reading this is to teach your dog to love something they currently hate or avoid; change their perspective to the positive.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by Jjborcean CC