Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Dog Hates the Rain and Snow

I have a client/blog fan whose dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is showing signs of what might be called weather aversion. Hes refusing to walk when the streets are cold and covered with snow and ice. This article is for him, but it’s also useful for anyone whose dog hates inclement weather of any kind.

My Dog Hates the Rain and Snow!
It’s been a pretty harsh winter in New York. And we’ve had it easy compared to the Midwest! A common complaint I hear from dog owners this time of year is that their dogs refuse to walk in the rain or snow. Some dogs can be perfectly well-behaved and well-trained, but any inclement weather changes things dramatically. A lot of people just accept this as part of their dog’s “personality,” figuring there’s nothing they can do about it.

Is that true?

I don’t think so. Do wolves refuse to go hunting when the weather’s bad? Do all dogs naturally hate the cold and snow and sleet and rain?

I got an e-mail the other day from a woman in Saskatchewan. Now there’s a cold weather spot! She told me that she and her husband found a shivering dog roaming around their neighborhood. They made a shelter for the doggie, who was initially very wary of them. They then spent several days offering her food until she finally took some from them. Then they put some more food inside the shelter so that she would go in there and finally come in out of the harsh prairie wind.

This took several long days.

So here we have the flip side of the belief that “it’s natural for dogs to hate the snow.” This dog was so wary of strangers she would’ve preferred to stay outside in the wind and snow rather than even be fed, at least in the beginning. Following some advice her new owners found on this blog, they not only fed this poor doggie but were able to teach her to play.

Here’s part of the last e-mail they sent me:

“Lee - thank you again for responding to my email. We will continue to take it slowly. Friday we are getting a larger pen, and that will allow her more room to run when we play with her. I read several of your online articles, and the more I read, the more it made sense. We've been using the 'tug-of-war' game to help build her confidence; she is getting happier and more willing to engage in play.”

Of course, I would like to see them be able to get this doggie to come inside the house at some point, but they’re now working slowly to simply get her to accept any human contact. They won’t even be able to take her to the vet until they can gain a lot more trust, get her used to having a leash and collar on, etc. However, in terms of the subject of this article, the point is that disliking the rain and snow is not natural for dogs. It’s purely a matter of context.

So what do you do if your dog hates the rain and snow?

Simple. Change the context!

One of the primary rules of dog training is that you can’t just train a dog in one environment with one particular set of circumstances and except to obey under any and all conditions. It’s true that initially you want to do your training where there are as few distractions as possible. But once a behavior is learned, you have to begin to slowly add distractions so that the dog can begin to cross-contextualize his lessons.

(This isn’t the same thing as “generalizing, by the way, which requires intellect. Dogs think viscerally and emotionally, not through intellectual abilities like abstract thought, which is one of the prerequisites to having the ability to generalize things. Personally, I think cross-contextualization is probably an evolutionary, cognitive pre-cursor to that higher level ability.)

Adding distractions doesn’t just mean that the dog sits, no matter what. It also means that you want the dog to be able to “weather” all kinds of stimuli. And the best, most positive way to do that is to make play a fundamental part of the training process. This is what my e-mail pals in Saskatchewan are learning. Their dog is becoming more and more comfortable with them because they’ve been getting down on the dog’s level and encouraging her to play. Food has been a great help, but it can only go so far. I think play is the real clincher.

Freddie Tackles a Green Bay Packer
When Freddie was a pup, and we went out for a walk in his first snowstorm, he hated it! And New York is an urban setting so there was also a lot of salt and other snow-melting chemicals on the sidewalks. He not only refused to walk because he was cold and wet, he actually cried about it, partly because of the salt, but also because he just didn’t like being out in the cold.

So what did I do?

Well, first of all I did my best to keep the area between his pads free of any icy build up. Every time he lifted one of his paws up and limped along on the others I bent down and cleaned his “hurty paw” of all the excess snow and ice. But I also saw the snowstorm as an opportunity to change Freddie’s outlook on all inclement weather; I took him to the park and played with him in the snow. And I mean I really played with him, I didn’t just stand there and wait for other dogs to show up. I ran around myself, teasing him with a stick, and encouraging him to bite the stick and come after me with all his might to get it.

Once I could see that he was crazy to bite the stick, I ran away. Then I zig-zagged, stopped and started, changed directions, faked left and went right, faked right and went left, threw in a stutter step, etc. I even fell down in the snow and let him jump on top of me. Then I jumped up and ran off again. I was like a running back for the Green Bay Packers (except for the falling down part; that made me more like one of the Detroit Lions). I did this for about 20 secs. or so, until he was absolutely crazy to catch me and sink his teeth into that stick.

Then I encouraged him to jump up on me and we played tug-of-war, then I threw the stick. He chased it, killed it, then lay down in the snow and chewed it into sawdust. No resistance to the cold and snow at this point. He was covered in it. In fact, he was lying down on it, with the “evil” snow right up against him, chilling his belly. But he loved it. He was in his “zone,” his happy place.

The next time it snowed a funny thing happened. He not only didn’t mind the snow coming down on him and getting his coat wet, he was also less affected by the salt and ice on his paws.

So as I tell my clients, it’s important for you to always set the emotional tone for your dog. No more thinking: “It’s snowing? Ah, crap!” Instead, you have to think, “Yay! It’s snowing! Let’s go play!” You have to think like a happy little kid, not like a grumpy grown up. And the same thing holds true for the rain, which is usually a much less pleasant experience for adults than being out in the beauty and romance of the newly falling snow. So I think playing with your dog in the rain may be even more important than playing in the snow.

I’ll give you an example of a dog who hated the rain, and how rolling around with him in the mud not only got him past his disdain, it actually improved his ability to obey in any weather.

Acting Insane in the Rain
It was an October evening, an hour or so before sundown. I was out with Freddie and Mack, a Jack Russell terrier, on the Great Lawn in Central Park. Mack and I were playing fetch and Fred was sniffing around. The leaves had changed colors and the sky was turning dark and ominous. A light drizzle started to fall.

I knew Mack didn’t like the rain, but I didn’t realize how badly until I threw the ball and he just watched it roll off into the grass. I shrugged and went after it myself. But when I got to it and turned around, I saw that Mack was on his way home. He’d apparently decided that he didn’t want to play in the wet weather and had just started trotting back toward West 85th Street—which is where he lived—intending, I suppose, to somehow magically cross those four lanes of rush hour traffic on Central Park West without getting run over. Yikes!

I gave him his recall signal and he turned and came halfway back before remembering that I didn’t have any treats with me, just a tennis ball. He turned around again and started for home. 

I called him again, this time he didn’t even turn around; he just threw a look over his shoulder as if to say, “It’s too dark and damp; I’ll catch ya later,” and he continued to trot home.

I realized that I’d been a little lazy with Mack’s recall. In the beginning I’d always used a tennis ball or a stick as the focal point for motivating him to come to me as well as a reward for obeying. But out of laziness I’d switched to using food rewards and now—in a crunch situation—Mack knew I didn’t have any treats with me and so he wasn’t interested in obeying.

I quickly remembered that I had never used food for training his down-at-a-distance command. I had always drilled him on it with his bite reflex fully aroused and subsequently satisfied.

By now he was about fifty yards away, with his back to me, totally intent on getting out of the rain. I shouted out the down command: “Mack! Go down!” He instantly dropped into the down position. Then I told him to stay, walked over to where he lay in the grass waiting for me like a good boy, and hooked him up to his leash. Then I whistled Freddie over, and the two of us, the sensible ones, walked Mack safely home across those four lanes of rush hour traffic.

The next week, during a Nor’easter, I took Mack out with a 50' longue line and a tennis ball and we played and rolled around madly in the pouring rain and mud and he chased the ball and re-taught him to come in the most insanely intense manner possible. Please understand that I actually got down on the ground and rolled around in the mud, in the pouring rain, encouraging Mack to jump on top of me. Why on earth would I put myself (and my wardrobe) through that? Because I knew that in order for this particular dog to come when called under all conditions I knew I had to teach him to not only tolerate the rain but actually love it, I had to use every technique in my bag of training tricks to make the experience as vivid and exciting for him as possible.

And it worked. After that insane day in the rain, Mack never showed the least resistance to his recall, in any kind of weather. In fact, a few weeks later we were on the Great Lawn again, and for the first time in his life Mack started chasing a squirrel. I had never seen him do this before so I just stood there, a bit befuddled. Finally, when the squirrel was about halfway to the nearest tree, which was a thirty yards or so away, I shouted his recall signal. He turned on a dime and ran back to me even harder and faster than when he’d been chasing the squirrel!

I had a pocket full of treats but wisely threw a tennis ball instead.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

By the way, it helps if you know some of my other tricks for getting a dog to play when he doesn’t feel like it. Some of them can be found in Jump Starting the Prey Drive. But the main thing is that you have to kind of piss the dog off, make him want to bite you. Most dogs won’t bite you, of course; they’ll want to bite the tennis ball or stick instead. But you have to behave as if you’re another dog who’s trying to get a reluctant playmate to engage in a game of chase. This may include getting down on your hands and knees and doing a play bow, or whatever other crazy-ass thing you can think of. But as my friend Jason often says, “If nobody thinks you're crazy when you’re doing this stuff, you’re probably not doing it right...” Other people will think you’re crazy, but your dog won’t.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Three Big Questions (A Dog's Job)

A bit of a departure today from my usual, lengthy posts...

The Three Big Questions
Whenever you’re training your dog, or even if youre just out walking or playing with him (or her) in the park, there are three questions you can ask yourself that will hopefully make you a better dog trainer, a better owner, and maybe even a better human being:
  1. What can I learn from my dog today about dogs and training?
  2. How can I tune into my dog’s energy and use it in teaching him (or her) how to obey me?
  3. Is there anything my dog’s behavior can teach me about myself so that I can become a better trainer or owner?
If you ask me, dogs are the real experts on training. Ive found that if we can just get quiet for a moment or two, get rid of our own agenda, and come down to their level, they will always show us what to do, and how best to train them. They’ll even show us how to be better human beings if we let them. That’s what they’re made for. That’s their job in life.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"