I’m going to break the rules here and start by saying what this post is not: It is not a post about how to deal with an “impossible dog.” Or one who is “dominant.” Or one who is “aggressive.” Rather, it is a forum for us to have a good laugh about all time times any of us, whether knowledgeable pet owners, dog trainers, behaviorists or veterinarians, have been asked difficult dog training questions in impossible situations. I was motivated to write this by, ironically, a wonderful question from a wonderful dental hygienist, who asked me a good, simple question and gave me my mouth back so I could answer.
(For the record, her question was “Is my dog really being dominant when he puts his paw on my arm?” Apparently many of her friends had told her that her sweet, soft, loving and benign Golden was asserting his dominance when he sat beside her, dewy-eyed, and rested his paw on her arm. (Answer: “Uh, no”.)
Her question reminded me of all the times I’ve been asked difficult questions in impossible contexts, like the time a physician, who was busy sewing up a deep gash on my cheek, asked me what he should do about his dog, the one who had just bitten the neighbor child. I said “Mwwake aaayn awwpawwmen,” which was my best version of “Make an appointment.” But what I was really thinking was . . . well, never mind what I was really thinking.
There’s something about dog training that elicits both great interest and what I can only imagine is a certain amount of dismissal. On the one hand, people seem to be fascinated when they hear that I, and my colleagues, are behaviorists or dog trainers. “Oh, wonderful!” they say, their mind full of images of us romping in fields of daisies with Golden Retriever puppies. “That’s exactly what I’d do if I wasn’t a __________” (fill in the blank). This is a wonderful response though, right? I love it when people care deeply about animals, and are interested in our profession.
“But say,” they continue, “what do you think I should do about the fights between my two female dogs? They are litter mates and . . . ” This question was asked of me while I was inside a stall in a public bathroom. I gave her the only answer I could. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer now. I’m pooping.”
Thus, this interest is a mixed bag, motivated by something we all cherish–a love of animals, but sometimes accompanied by a misunderstanding of how complex behavior can be, and that serious behavioral problems can’t be solved with a one-line piece of advice tossed out on the fly. I should add that things are much better than they were: Dog training as a profession has made tremendous strides since I first started seeing cases in 1988, which is just flat out wonderful. I’m sure that will continue.
I should add that I learned years ago that the best answer to “just one quick question” is: “I’ve learned that quick questions rarely have quick answers. It sounds like this is important to you, why don’t we talk about it in my office?” (With obvious exceptions: As in, the “quick question” from my hygienist indeed did have a quick answer, and I was glad she asked.) I’ve also developed a lot of empathy for other experts, whether veterinarians, physicians, attorneys, plumbers, etc., . . . all of whom I’ve heard being asked difficult questions by strangers while trying to get on with their life. Like boarding a plane. Or at a buffet line. Or, perhaps, while pooping in a public bathroom.
However, people being people, we are always going to get asked “just a quick question,” and I thought it would be fun to share some of the most bizarre situations in which you’ve been asked for advice about a behavioral issue. I don’t want this to get snarky–there is no need for it to be. We can all have a good laugh about the difficult situations we’ve been put in, while being compassionate and benevolent to those who asked. It could be, perhaps, that you were the one asking a question years ago that you now realize was impossible to answer at the time. We’ve all done things we regret now, right? Don’t hesitate to include, if you’d like, stories about absurd attributions of dominance. Like the dog in the photo below:
Please send in your stories, they’ll give us all a smile or a laugh. Always important, and especially now, right?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, finally! It actually feels like winter here. I’m writing this on Sunday the 19th, looking out the dining room window at 5 + inches of snow and 5 degree (Farenheit) temperatures. It’s lovely.
I keep trying for a photo that highlights the beauty of shadows on snow. I haven’t gotten the one I want yet, but here’s a step in the right direction:
The downside, of course, is that it’s not great weather for working sheep. Maggie is not aware that our working days are over for awhile. Please don’t tell her. She’ll pout. So we’ll go back to trick training and chew toys and walks in the woods until it gets a tad warmer.
It is still dark much of the time up here, and so I’m especially happy with the bulb “garden” I bought from White Flower Farm (my guilty pleasure, along with King Arthur Flour). It’s in full bloom right now, and I get to savor it while I work. Here are a few of the flowers:
I know some of you are unable to enjoy the winter weather, because you got bombarded by snow and violent winds. (Or you just hate winter, perfectly reasonable, said the woman who often hates summer.) Here’s hoping all is well with you and yours. Do send us any stories you have about questions in awkward places (or those killer ‘dominant’ paws).
Be safe out there, friends, and have a wonderful week.