This post is inspired by Katha Miller-Winder’s new book: Practicing Partnership: A therapy dog and his person. My favorite part of the book (definitely recommended for anyone with, or about to have, a therapy dog), is on page 7 and 8:
“If I’m being a true partner for my dog, I’ve given the dog the skills to recognize whether complying to a cue to sit is one where it’s important that the dog comply, or whether the cue is one that is at the dog’s discretion whether to comply. One way I do this is to consistently preface discretionary cues with “can you” or “will you.”
I LOVE this perspective, especially when working with a dog who is being asked to participate in work that could be frightening or stressful. I have seen way too many “therapy dogs” be pushed into situations in which they are clearly uncomfortable, based on their whale eyes, tongue flicks, etc. Asking dogs what they are comfortable with in these contexts is invaluable. Katha’s book advocates (and celebrates) having therapy dogs be true partners, which means they have agency and autonomy, rather than expectations of being “obedient” over all else. (FYI, I’m using the term “therapy dogs” loosely because it is so pervasive, and saying “Animal Assisted Activity Dogs” is cumbersome.)
Dr. Miller-Winder’s book just came out, and the timing made it especially interesting to me. I had just been talking to some new friends about my cues being either “Now! cues,” or “Sometime Soon cues.” Here, for example are Maggie and Skip responding to my “Stand” cue. It means “Stop moving and stand still. Now.” I use it when the dogs are working sheep, and sometimes as a safety cue, to keep the dogs out of trouble or danger. When I say it, I need them to respond right away. It wasn’t all that hard to teach–I said “stand” right before I stopped and froze myself when we were playing, and reinforced with more play or with moving up on the sheep.
But another cue I use with Maggie, “Leave it, House,” is never used in an emergency. I use it when Maggie is trying to vacuum up bird seed, which is not exactly great for her gut. Usually she’s been out walking, or playing with Skip, and she takes a detour to the bird seed before coming into the house. For awhile I expected a response the instant I used it, but she resisted. Besides going back to some good reinforcements for complying, I realized that this isn’t like “Stand.” I don’t need instant compliance, and if I just let her have one more sniff or lick, she’d come willingly. Now I say “Leave it” and “House” (come to the porch to go inside) and trust that she’ll comply soon enough. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t do it the instant I ask. You might note that I lowered my voice when I said “leave it,” which is another way of modifying what the cue means. In this case, “you really do need to leave the bird seed, but not this second.” (But, of course, if she was eating something truly dangerous I’d likely say something else, probably “Hey” in a sharp, low voice.)
This is another way of giving dogs “agency,” or the ability to have some control over their lives. Lives which are, if we analyze them, full so many constraints: Wait at the door, walk only on leash, sit for your dinner, etc., etc.
Both perspectives–asking versus telling, and expecting instant compliance or not, are important ways to give our dogs choices, and the feeling of some control over their lives. This is not trivial. Feeling a lack of control in one’s life is extremely stressful, and is especially problematic for individuals who have been traumatized, whether human or dog. We all, any individual with choice that is, wants to be able to use that choice, and not having any can lead to frustration and aggression. I love the increasing focus on giving dogs choices, when safe and appropriate.
What about you? Do you have an “asking” cues versus “telling” ones. Do you expect instant compliance in some situations, but not others? If so, tell us about it. Surely this is an important conversation for our village to have, yes?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Recently the dogs and I got to help do “set out” and “work the pens” at the Cedar Stone Trial outside of Cambridge. I was too busy to get any good photos, but was over the moon happy to be strong enough to work a short shift helping out, and say hi to some dear friends. I was pretty much a puddle afterward, but so grateful to be good enough to do what Maggie, Skip, and I love. Thanks to Merry and John for letting me work a short shift. Here’s Skip asking why I am not walking back to the sheep to get the next group: (Have I mentioned he is the most beautiful dog in the entire world?)
I also spent some time cooking, thanks to the bounty of our tomato plants and the basil and chard from friend Sally’s garden. First, my Sunday quiche made up of what’s in the frig–in this case, bacon, chard, and roasted tomatoes:
I made lots of pesto from Sally’s garden, which I freeze in ice cube trays for individual servings. (My early basil got tossed after contracting some nasty disease, the seedlings are just getting going, but I have high expectations in a month or so.):
Here are the carmelized, roasted tomatoes from our garden. I put on a little too much brown sugar this time, probably should call them tomato candy:
One crazy ass last thing. I don’t get manicures. I have lousy nails and short, fat fingers. But after getting silly manicures with daughter-in-law Rachel on vacation just for fun, I ended up doing this last Saturday. (Or, I should say, having some one do it for me.)
I keep looking at my hands and wondering whose they are. It won’t last, and I don’t care, because right now it makes me smile, and takes the sting away from all the things I can’t do right now. That’s a really, really good thing, yes?
What makes me smile in your world, and what ways do you use your cues to your dogs differently? Ask or tell? Instant compliance or “sometime soon?” I can’t wait to hear.