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When training, it’s okay to tickle the dragon’s tail


We got a new puppy! His name is Pinto, and he is a nut in every happy puppy way! So in honor of the New Year, and all the puppies out there, let’s resolve to do what I like to think of as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” The next time you see your young dog or foster pooch just lying near you calmly, you may be tempted to tiptoe around her, happy to get a little break from the nuclear puppy antics like mouthing, barking, jumping and nudging. Now I’m telling you to forget that ill-advised advice to let sleeping dogs lie.

Betsy and Pinto

Betsy and Pinto share a quiet moment.

Interrupting your pooch when she is being peaceful (aka tickling the dragon’s tail) will be a positive reward for quiet behavior and may be the most important training tool you have. Face it, most of the time, our dogs need to be comfortable just chillaxing nearby, but not interacting with us. But a lot of dogs, especially stimulus-starved shelter pups, don’t know how to do that. To many, even negative interactions (like being pushed away or hollered at) are better than no attention at all.

Is there any justification, other than our own desire for peace and quiet, to tiptoe around a quiet pet? I don’t know any indoor pets who get too little sleep. Furthermore, most dogs would happily choose a little action with their people instead of taking a nap. In extreme cases, too much lying around may be a sign of slight depression — not having enough to think about.

“Let sleeping dogs lie” has always set poorly with me — I’ve always been more of an advocate of positive change over acceptance of the status quo. So I was vindicated this month at a Petfinder Adoption Options workshop when Sue Sternberg,
an innovative shelter-dog visionary, said the “Do Nothing” trick is one of the most important skills to teach a dog.

The concept is simple. Shelter dogs (and most pets) are enrichment or attention starved. They crave interactions and often learn that the surest way to get it is to bark, jump, paw or nudge — in other words, be unruly and annoying. In a shelter, after a day of being bored and alone, a visit from a potential adopter often meets with a crazed, jumping, over-excited nut-case (like my new boy Pinto) who can, at the very least, be overwhelming and may even appear too rambunctious to take home.

Pinto on the farm

Life on the farm is fun for a rambunctious dog like Pinto.

You might wonder why I, the ultimate lover of senior (if not decrepit) pets, would ever, in a million years, get a seven-month old puppy. I find myself wondering the same thing almost daily! But we had already acquired a young dog, our super-smart pooch, Naughty Jake, and he was bored. As you know from one of my previous blogs, he made up for our insufficiency at amusing him by creating his own amusements. He didn’t chew on shoes, paw, nudge, bark or jump. He was an independent guy whose world is larger than just us.  Jake entertained himself by chasing chickens and horses, teasing the cows, escaping to the nearby dog park and opening our doors to throw wild parties in our house with neighborhood animals when we were gone.  He was always as crafty as he was sweet.  (This is the place in my story where, when I’m advising my closest friends, I interject my typical plug for dumb dogs — “Adopt the dumbest, sweetest dog you can find,” I say.)

So, in desperation and out of kindness to our chickens, we decided we’d adopt a brother for Jake. We hoped that being entertained in an appropriate way would allow him to cut down on his creative antics.

And, as if by universal design, Ed and I attended that Adoption Options workshop in Raleigh last month. Adoption Options are awesome training programs for shelter workers and adoption volunteers that Petfinder hosts around the county. I don’t usually get to attend these anymore, but they remain one of our projects I’m most proud of. Over half of the people who attend have never had the benefit of formal training before. This time, it was close to our farm, and I wanted to see our long-time friends that were our speakers and sponsors (like Petco).

Among the speakers was Sue, doing her shelter-dog training workshop. She is nothing short of amazing when it comes to training animals, and she gives an awe-inspiring demonstration of how you can train a shelter dog a few quick “tricks” and render him immediately more adoptable. (I’m so committed to her concept that we launched the Petfinder Foundation’s Train to Adopt program together so that we could gather data and prove that training shelter dogs saves lives.)

But back to my story. I walked into the training program, and sitting in a crate waiting to be used as a training show-dog was a speckledy youngster from Wake County Animal Center  and ReFURbished Canine Rescue.  He looked like family to me (like my sweetheart, Kobie, who I had in the early Petfinder days), so I noticed him right away.

As Sue began working with this enthusiastic seven-month-old puppy, I was transfixed. Remember that scary game you play with a toddler where you pretend to pull off her nose and really it is your thumb wiggling between your fingers? Well, with springs for back legs, this lanky puppy bounced repeatedly in front of Sue in an unwelcome game of “gonna get your nose.” As Sue, on her tiptoes, dodged and swerved in an effort to protect her face, she breathlessly described the importance of Doing Nothing.

I remember this advice from years ago, but my beloved Jim-the-hound-dog was a pro at doing nothing, and Jake has been very self-entertaining, so it never had much relevance to my own life. But in the context of making shelter pups more adoptable, or having our pets better suited for family member status, or for being able to have guests over without utter humiliation, Do Nothing is awesome. And may help keep pets happy in the home. It lets them know, “Hey, right now you are doing exactly what you should be doing and I appreciate it.” Wouldn’t that be a neat message for us all to hear?

It is certainly an important message for any new sidekick. Pinto, it turns out, has been extremely open to this idea. In the beginning, he clearly didn’t know what was expected of him, and his penchant for nipping at our noses for attention was nerve wracking. At this very moment, however, he is settling peacefully right beside my chair — no frantic games of “gonna get your nose” or mouthing my hands as I type. I suppose I should take my own (and Sue’s) advice and tickle the dragon’s tail.

Now, whom can I get to praise me for doing nothing?

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