“Ready?” Using meta-communication to help your dog
A short post today, but I hope a helpful one. It’s inspired by the “mud luscious and puddle wonderful” nature of spring, and the need to wipe off Will’s paws as we enter the house when it’s wet outside. As I was drying Willie’s paws a few days ago, I thought about how much easier it is now that I say “Ready?” right before I pick up each leg. Since I started communicating my intention (“now I am going to pick up this paw”), he is beginning, on occasion, to pick up a paw himself, but more often he will shift his weight so that it is less awkward for him. (Yep, I could train him to pick up each paw on cue… also a potential solution, but keep reading for some potential benefits of a more generalized cue.)
Keep in mind that this is the dog who, as an adolescent, growled at me when I picked up a paw to dry off the mud. That was 3 years ago, and I remember saying something like “Oh, don’t be silly” and continuing what I was doing. He growled one or two more times, but we worked through it and I haven’t heard him growl at anything in years. However, he doesn’t enjoy his paws being cleaned, as most dogs don’t, and the process got me thinking about how little control a dog has over having his/her body moved around, even gently, without any say in the matter. That’s especially difficult if there is any pain involved in putting more weight than usual on one limb. I’ve always been aware of Will’s bad shoulder, and have always been extra careful about picking up the other paw, but a few months ago I started saying “Ready?” right before I picked up a paw, giving him a chance to shift his weight himself.
It’s made a difference to both of us. I lean down and put my hand close to a paw and say “Ready?” and he either shifts his weight or picks it up. Paw cleaning is not only faster, it feels like Will and I are moving down the same path, instead of trying to go in opposite directions. This is a cue that has so many applications; Will’s structural troubles require acupuncture and chiropracty, and he’s not the kind of hail-fellow-well-met who takes being handled lightly. I would bet the farm (and, hey, I have one) that handling Will with force and punishment would have created a severe aggression problem within a few months. In both cases, we give Will lots of options, using patience and communication during the treatments. He adores both practitioners, but he literally hides behind me when the greetings are over and it’s time for treatments. But we work through it, sort of like a dance; sometimes asking, sometimes quietly insisting, but always with an awareness that Will desperately needs to have some say in what is happening to him.
I know many others use cues like “Ready” for a variety of reasons. I’ve heard similar cues most often in obedience, meaning “Okay, time to start working together”. But I’ll bet there are many examples from your own experience of using a cue to communicate your intentions to a dog. I’d love to hear them. I think we’d all learn something from hearing about all the ways that concept can be used. (By the way, signals like “Ready” are called “meta-communication,” meaning “communication about communication.” A play bow is an example in dogs, meaning “Everything that happens next is in play, don’t take these bites and growls seriously!”
Meanwhile, back on the farm: The new fence is working beautifully (more on Will and the fence soon), the bottle lambs have learned to use the self feeder, though they still mug me relentlessly for more, and Snickers has stopped looking for her 3rd lamb, the one I had to take to a friend because 1/2 of Snicker’s bag dried up. The tulips and blossoming trees are in full bloom. Here are Tulip’s tulips, the flowers I planted over my Great Pyrenees grave, her body deep in the soil, nestled onto a bed of of hundreds of tulips, warm and safe in the small hill in front of the house, where she’d stand strong and tall, and bark out her great, white presence to the world.