The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
I’ll never forget when my daughter, River, entered kindergarten. Kindergarten means vaccinations, which meant a trip to the doctor’s office. While sitting in the waiting room, she asked why we were there.
“You’re getting a shot.”
“What’s a ‘shot’, Mommy?”
“Well…. they take a needle, they shove it in your arm, it hurts, you cry, and then we go out for ice cream. Malley’s or Dairy Queen. Your choice.” I delivered the information with the same intonation and emotion I give when reciting my phone number. Meaning none.
“I choose Malley’s”, was River’s response.
She did indeed get a shot, she did of course cry for a few moments, and then we did indeed go get ice cream at Malley’s. Yes, it hurt me to see my little girl crying because something hurt her, but desperately trying comforting her wasn’t the answer at that point. I’d just be adding more energy to the situation. By me repeating, “Oh, honey, are you okay? Don’t worry the boo-boo will go away, here, look, do you want a lollipop? Please stop crying, okay?” all in a falsetto, all I’m trying to do is soothe myself. Make myself feel better for (justifiably) causing my daughter pain. If I had added my own nervous energy, my daughter would certainly pick up on those emotions. After all, I’m Mommy. If I’m upset, something must be wrong. Instead, I calmly put her on my lap, and quietly hugged it out with her. In under a minute, she was asking if we could go to Malley’s now.
So how does this relate to dog training?
Consider your last trip to the vet’s office. Your pet was scared (after all, there are dogs there who aren’t pack). So what do most people tend to do with their dogs? Coddle them. Stroke them. Pet them. The whole time using baby-talk to tell their dogs that everything will be okay. Is that how you normally act?
Dogs thrive on normalcy. The more normal (read: boring) a situation is, the more likely there is nothing to be afraid of. By acting differently than you usually do, you are adding stress to your dog. You are marking this moment as “abnormal”.
When Sparta was about a year, she suddenly started limping. I took her to the vet, who then placed her, side down, on the exam table, and proceeded to yank her leg back and forth. Sparta, of course, jumped up, fearful about what was being done. Of course my protective instincts wanted to take over! I wanted to jump up and soothe her, and make that “bad man” stop doing that to her.
But I didn’t.
I had complete faith in my vet. He wouldn’t needlessly hurt my animals. But he needed some help (after all, Sparta is roughly 100lbs.). Instead of coddling her, I negated her reaction. I essentially told her “no”. I used the body language outlined in the PAW method, and forced calmness into the situation by offering her nothing but calmness. It’s like actually pouring confidence and calmness into your dog. Their reaction of “fear” is acknowledged, but not acceptable at the moment because you are confident about the situation. Therefore they are too. I didn’t have to talk, I didn’t have to hold her down (which, in my mind, would be terrifying if it happened to me). Sparta saw that her Pilot (me!) wasn’t worried or concerned, and was okay with what was happening, and she took her cue from that. No, she wasn’t being a bad dog (don’t confuse “no” with your dog being bad)! She merely had a question that needed an answer. Namely, “Can I make this guy stop yanking my paw like that since it hurts?” I’m sorry, Sparta, but the answer is “no”.
I never stated it was an easy thing for me to do, but I definitely made it easier for her. Sparta’s exam was done in about a minute. Every time she looked like she wanted to move, I’d merely give her the negative, my heart breaking the entire time. But that’s the way I want it. I’d gladly swallow my wants at the moment to make a scary situation easier for her. As her Pilot, or leader, it is my responsibility to do the heavy lifting. When a pack member or family member is in distress, it is my job as leader to siphon the calmness from me into them. It doesn’t matter if I don’t feel calm. I give an Academy award winning performance of cool, calm and bored. I wasn’t pretending something didn’t hurt, or something wasn’t happening. I didn’t try to disguise what was going on. I acknowledged it, and then answered Sparta’s questions through my body language.
Mom, is the vet allowed to do this to me?
Yes, Sparta. It will hurt, you’ll whimper, and then we’ll go home and have a peanut butter Kong.