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Prioritizing Behavior and Training:

A Path to Pet Well-Being

Behavior and training are priorities for me, especially where the experiences of my own pets are concerned.  Every experience results in learning and therefore influences an animal’s behavior choices in future situations. 

A Trip to the Vet

Albert lies calmly with his head on my arm as the veterinarian inserts acupuncture needles and the vet tech looks on.

At the vet’s office recently, while waiting in the exam room for the doctor to come in, I was chatting with the vet tech about our recent vacation trip.  My husband and I were there with our dog, Al, and the three of us had just returned from a road trip to the east coast. 

The vet tech was new and we had never met before.  I’m aware of my strengths and many of my shortcomings. As an animal trainer and a former vet tech with years of education and experience in behavior science, I actively advocate for my dog’s opportunity to cooperate with his care. If I’m not careful, I can sometimes come off as brash or demanding.  I focus my attention closely on my dog at all times to make sure he is having a good experience.  This combination of qualities with the care activities going on during a vet visit requires me to pay attention to everything that is going on, turn my politeness up a notch, and sometimes check any cocky responses that threaten to come out.

Conversation Choices

For instance, when the vet tech asked, “Have you noticed the hair loss on his back here?” I was thinking, “Are you insane?  Who do you think I am?  Don’t you realize we’ve been fighting allergies for a year?  Of course I have.”  Instead, I kindly but jokingly responded, “No – what hair loss?  Giggle, giggle.”

On a different visit to the vet’s office, Albert lies with his head on my husband’s leg as the vet tech removes acupuncture needles.

I explained, in an attempt to build trust and camaraderie, that we’ve been working on Albert’s allergies for over a year.  I wanted to acknowledge that she was new at the animal hospital, she didn’t know me from Adam, and had no idea about my dog experience or how important my dog’s well-being is to me.

We continued to talk about the vacation trip and my husband chimed in about what a good traveler Albert is.  The tech enthusiastically responded, “Oh, my dogs aren’t – they’re psycho!”

Dog Behavior Problems are Whose Responsibility?

Of course, she most likely doesn’t realize that her dogs are not “psycho” and that any fault with their poor behavior choices lies with herself.  She has no idea that I started purposefully training Albert the first day I met him at the age of 5 months and have not stopped.  He is a good traveler because I taught him the skills necessary for being a good traveler.  In addition to the blog post, “Road Trips with Dogs,” please check out our story about Traveling with Cats!

I work hard to help my students discover the power they have to teach their pets the necessary skills for succeeding in whatever situations they are likely to find themselves.  I don’t like when people call dogs or cats names because they haven’t committed to the well-being of their pets. Well-being, a.k.a. welfare, includes psychological factors like minimal stress, fear, and anxiety along with physical health factors.

Name Calling

I often hear people calling dogs “psycho” or saying they are “dumb” because no one taught them how to live successfully in a human world. It’s clear to anyone listening that a human calling a dog names is at the end of their rope and no longer searching for a solution to their problem.  Blaming others works like that.

Blaming

Dr. Brene Brown points out that blame discharges discomfort and pain and has an inverse relationship with accountability, based on research.  In other words, blaming someone else pushes accountability away from oneself.  Blame and accountability cannot exist within the same person.

Accountability

The vet tech in this story is a smart person, works with animals daily, and must know at some level that her dogs don’t have a clue about riding in cars or traveling.  But she chooses to blame them anyway.  The dogs are not accountable and pushing accountability away from herself through blaming does not make them so.  Blaming dogs doesn’t solve the problem but it blocks the exploration necessary to find a real solution.

Please Keep Your Hands to Yourself

This is my dog, Albert, showing off his “Bang” (drop onto his right side”) behavior at home.

Later in the visit, the vet tech wanted my dog to lie down on his side.  While she started to tell me what she wanted, she placed her hands on Albert, getting ready to pull him down to the floor from a standing position. Yikes! I know this “handling technique”. Back in the olden days, in the 1980s, it’s one of the first things I learned to do as a vet tech. But that was 40 years ago. Anyone who reads my blog or is familiar with my training, or even simply pays attention to the trend toward cooperative care and fear-free vet hospitals, knows this type of handling is not fair to dogs.  

It would have been nice for her to ask me if she could manhandle my dog.  It would have been even better if she had asked me to have my dog lie down.  But she didn’t, so I asked her very kindly to take her hands off of him.  (Yes, I was raising my arms in preparation for pushing her hands away from my dog.  LOL)  I said, “Down,” and after Albert laid down, I said, “Bang.”  He dropped onto his right side and remained there for his examination.  The tech responded, “I’ve never seen a dog do that!”  I get it.  But if you give me half a chance, you’ll see it every time we visit the veterinary hospital. 

The Possibilities of Politeness

I fully understand that most patients at this veterinary hospital don’t have the skills Albert does!  But how many might help out if given the chance?  Wouldn’t it be a service to the community to simply ask an owner if they are able to get their dog or cat to lie down?  It would open up possibilities, even if they said they didn’t think so. 

There really should be a note in my file pointing out that I train my animals to cooperate with veterinary care and that Albert and my previous dogs and cats that have been patients at this hospital over the last 20 years have all behaved this way.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who wants her pets to be treated fairly at the vet’s office, nor the only one who should have this note in her files. 

Mat training is a simple foundation behavior that directly benefits you and your dogs at the vet’s office.

Normalize Respect

Asking dog owners for permission to touch their pets should be normalized for two reasons.  First, it’s a safety concern; there is a social revolution going on to decrease dog bites by encouraging people to ask to pet dogs when meeting them rather than just reaching out to pet them.  Second, if animal care professionals ask permission to touch pets, it could spark a thought in people’s minds that they could actually work with their pets to be handled cooperatively. 

One problem is that neither average pet owners nor vets and their staff are well-versed in behavior and training and often don’t realize what is possible. It’s not that hard to give pets choices about being handled and make those handling experiences good ones.  Fortunately, there is something of a social revolution going on in the area of cooperative care also, from teaching pets to cooperate with grooming and vet visits to cooperative nail trimming, ear cleaning, and medication administration at home.

People Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

People don’t know what they don’t know; they tend to do what their experience leads them to.  Having a growth mindset can help encourage questioning along with awareness of one’s own behavior, including feelings and thoughts that can either facilitate or block changes one wants to make.  Examining the important areas of one’s life, asking the questions that allow deeper probing of what is actually happening for oneself and for pets, allows exploration that can lead to satisfaction and fulfillment.  Sharing those questions with others can create a synergy of possibilities among humans who share interests in pets and their well-being.  The final polishing of the process is carefully choosing the people you ask for advice and guidance.  

This visit to the vet’s office reminded me of why I prioritize behavior and training as essential parts of my life and the lives of my pets.  Mutual respect between pet owners and those who provide care for their pets is crucial, as is respect for animals in terms of who they really are.  My advocacy for my dog’s well-being requires that I create positive experiences for him so that he makes behavior choices in the future that work for both of us.  Labeling pets and people, either negatively or positively, serves to limit possibilities.  Normalizing respect for all species and encouraging cooperation opens up possibilities for everyone.  If our goal is to enhance the lives of pets and people and to create a safe and compassionate community for animals and their caregivers, we must choose respect, cooperation, and positive experiences.

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