“Bad dog!”

"Who, me?"

Could that sweet face do a single bad thing? Of course. She’s a dog, and what humans consider bad, dogs consider normal parts of society, culture, and growth. Canine culture includes many things humans aren’t fond of: barking, digging, guarding. It’s how the human interprets and corrects the behaviour that makes the good dogs. There are no bad dogs, only bad trainers.

Tonight, Peach was very excited. It was raining and snowing out and she wanted to take a third walk in twenty minutes to run in the slush. I had the genius idea to take her Kong, and fill it with peanut butter to distract her. Of course! Give an excited, frustrated puppy her favourite exciting thing! It was a dumb move, but I at the time, I thought a distraction was a great idea. I was wrong.

Within a few minutes, peanut butter-loving Astrid was trying to share the puppy’s Kong with her. The cat meant no harm, and often actually shies from sharing food with others, but Peach was already in a state of heightened arousal, and the cat sniffing at her Kong was just too much. She growled, barked, and chased Astrid a few inches away from her Kong, and then went back to it.

We interrupted her, and I quickly formed a plan of attack. Kong, kitty, and pup were taken into the kitchen. I tried to recreate the scene to no avail: now that Peach had let off some steam, she wasn’t inclined to tell her feline friend off. Nothing I or Astrid did caused Peach to react. In fact, Peach backed off of her Kong at one point and let Astrid have a go at it. I wanted to know precisely what had created the moment, to avoid it in the future. I posed the cat. I played with the Kong. I had the cat play with the Kong. Nothing!

So I began to “rough up” Peach. I admit, I played dirty. I ruffled her feathers and poked her and took the Kong straight out of her mouth without warning. These are things I am generally not wont to do, nor things that the cats would ever do. It took about five minutes of me shaking and fluffing her for her to react, and it was nothing more than a growl. “Hey, STOP it!” she was saying. I immediately stopped what I was doing with my hands on her, and told her, “No, thank you.”

Within a moment, she got her Kong back. Next time, it took me specifically ruffling her head to have her react, and it was turning her head towards my hand with an open mouth, as if we were playing. I repeated my freeze-frame and she made a pitiful sound. Again, “No, thank you.” And she had her Kong back. I was unable to get her to growl again with her Kong or with peanut butter at all, although she did repeat the growl with a different treat about a half an hour into our experiment, mostly because she dropped a piece and was unable to reach it while I ruffled her.

It was all frustration. Frustration at being unable to let out steam outside, frustration at the cat trying to take her thing, frustration at being ruffled while trying to snack, frustration at being unable to reach her snack.

So I took some training treats and began to rough her up, and she got a treat for each ruffling, getting rougher and rougher. Then I’d ruffle her while she was still snacking. She became accustomed to the ruffling and sat back when I had no more treats. By then, it had been so long, she had to go out again to have a pee and play in the snow. Ultimately, Peach got everything she wanted, and more, but we both learned something.

Peach learned that growling is a good communication tool- it gets people to stop doing uncomfortable things- but also that she has less need to do it than she thinks. I learned that being a soft-natured dog doesn’t necessarily make Peach a pushover. It means that her threshold for rough handling and frustration is lower than a harder dog, and so she’ll need to be managed to make sure she learns to retreat before she reaches critical status.

I’ll be repeating further desensitisation exercises with her over the next few weeks, getting her used to rougher handling than she’ll normally experience in our home, as well as some frustration tolerance, so she can back away when something happens that she doesn’t like.

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