All week on Dogster’s Dog Training Guide we’ve been discussing reasons dogs might not respond immediately or appropriately to cues. We’ll finish this series today, although I may pick it up again in the future as this is by no means an exhaustive list of where and how communication breaks down between dogs and the people who love and live with them.
Your dog is unwell or uncomfortable.
If your dog has historically responded well to your cue and suddenly begins to refuse, it may be a red flag that your dog is unwell, uncomfortable, or otherwise in pain. Actually, pretty much any time your dog’s behavior changes suddenly and dramatically, go to your vet. Is your normally hyper Viszla suddenly acting lethargic? Call the vet. Your normally “chill” dog is suddenly pacing, whining, panting, with dilated pupils? Vet. If your dog is normally very well potty trained and suddenly begins having regular accidents in the house, it’s probably time to make an appointment with your vet. If your dog begins refusing jumps or weaves, go to your vet. If your dog won’t hold a “sit” for as long as he usually does, he may be having pain from arthritis or problems with his hips. Perhaps he has a sprain or a torn ligament. Perhaps he won’t offer his paw to “shake” because there is a laceration on his paw pad or his paws are sore/burned from the salt covered winter sidewalks.
Perhaps your dog isn’t exactly in pain but is uncomfortable.
Upstate New York winters are not for the faint of heart. Many of our Karen Pryor Academy students come from warmer climates and are in for a bit of a culture shock when outside in 10 degree weather with significantly lower wind chills. Many of their dogs are not used to icy, snowy, and sometimes salty ground, sidewalks, or parking lots. On one such dismal day, I accompanied a current student and his beagle mix outside to show him where he could take her for a potty break. After she eliminated, we walked back toward the classroom. A diligent follower of NLIF (“Nothing in Life is Free”), the client wanted his dog to sit to earn the opportunity to reenter the classroom. He’d probably practiced that behavior with this dog thousands of times in different environments – his dog was an experienced therapy dog and well-behaved. She refused his cue. He cued her numerous times, with her staring at him as if to say, “YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?!”
This dog had very short fur covering her body. I calmly asked the student if I could hold her leash. I’m quite sure he expected me to do some “magic training move” which would convince his dog to sit the first time I asked and hold the position until released. He watched me with anticipation. Calmly and quietly, I said, “Take your pants off and sit on the ice in your skivvies.” He looked at me, incredulous for a moment, before we both started cracking up laughing. I don’t even think it had crossed his mind how uncomfortable it might be to put a nearly-nude bum on the icy, salty paved parking lot. Needless to say, he didn’t comply with my cue. Not because he’s stupid, stubborn, or doesn’t “know” sit, but because a) I think the point had been proven and b) it would have been exceedingly uncomfortable (for both of us, in more ways than one) if he’d responded.
You see this with dogs that fail to respond to cues when out for a walk in rain, sleet, or hail. Dogs that don’t want to “sit” in a mud puddle, even when they’re asked. Can dogs be trained to do these things? Sure, if it is important enough to the trainer, the trainer is willing to take the time to do it, and the trainer is not asking the dog to do anything which may cause the dog physical harm.
Incidentally, before we finish up this series, I will say that discomfort and pain inadvertently “poison” many people’s cues (see yesterday’s entry for more info on poisoned cues). Dogs can be stoic creatures and hiding pain is a survival instinct. Many dogs will offer a “sit” in response to a well-taught cue even if they are uncomfortable – the behavior only falls apart when the pain is too much for the dog to handle. By this point, through no fault of the trainer, the cue has become poisoned – associated with discomfort. Frequent wellness visits to your veterinarian are recommended, as is keeping your dog at a healthy weight and considering using recommended supplements like fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin, to improve joint health and mobility – your vet should be able to give you information about brands, dosage, and frequency for these supplements if they are indicated for your dog. Your vet may recommend orthopedic bedding for support, massage, acupuncture or acupressure, laser treatments, anti-inflammatory medications, use of wraps, etc., depending on your dogs health. He may refer you to a physical therapist for strengthening exercises, aqua therapy, and range of motion development.
If you notice your pet moves more slowly on walks, tends to be a little stiff in the legs, doesn’t swim for as long as or jump as high as he used to, a vet visit may be in order to ensure your pet’s physical and behavioral wellness.