Monday, August 18, 2014
Positive reinforcement is an asset when approaching others about their dog's behavior -- or their own
No one likes to hear negative things about their dog's behavior, not to mention their own when it comes to engaging with their pet.
When our pets behave in a way that is less-than-ideal in a social setting (namely with other dogs), it usually doesn't slip through our radar to some degree, though we hope that it has in the eyes of others. Some social offenses are negligible, even funny. Others are, well, quite telling with regard to how our ongoing training is going.
But let's face it: some of us share life with dogs that just never get the hang of navigating some social situations, so it's understood that we need to pick our battles, right?
Picking our battles is something we can easily do when in the midst of other folks and their dogs, too.
I find that just as with everything else, there's no shortage of opinions when it comes to how a canine should behave or how their said human ought to handle a situation, and often it doesn't seem to matter how much knowledge the person really has is that is doling out advice, solicited or not.
With that said, it seems especially important for all of us to know when it's mindful or necessary to speak up when we are truly in the know, and how to do it. It's all about context. I often find myself in a situations that can be especially rife with vicissitude; it's never easy to talk to a stranger about their pet's behavior — or theirs — in public setting when I feel the need arises.
Identifying the motivation
I find a good place to begin is to ask myself what my motivation for speaking up really is. In other words, do I want to influence the other person's behavior, or is there a more pressing need, like protecting the dog that I am chaperoning? In essence, do I need to work the person, the the dog — or both?
Clarifying that can help set the course to more well-received dialogue with the person, or in some instances, effective action on your part to diffuse a potentially dangerous situation.
Effective approaches to use with humans
In most cases, the opportunity is there to work the person, and I find it's always best to start on a positive note, and as always, have a big pocketful of valuable treats. (Click here for a little on when it's best to work the dog.)
Let's say I'm accompanying one of my charges in a veterinary clinic waiting room and there's another dog that is allowed to approach my dog in a way that they find unfavorable. I might says something like, "Boy, your dog is quite friendly and eager to engage — wow, such gorgeous eyes — how old is she?" After the owner's response I might add that the dog I'm with is feeling a bit nervous, and while it's nothing against their dog, "I'm just going to move to the other side of the room (or outside)..."
In doing so, I've made nice with that person, and possibly given them something to think about while avoiding a potential skirmish. The same thing could work at a dog park or on a walk. (Click here for more on veterinary office waiting room etiquette.)
The point is that positive reinforcement isn't just for dogs. Humans respond well to it, too — just as they do when they are lead by a positive example.
That brings me to a couple of other scenarios that I often experience, and they can be handled similarly.
It's not uncommon for others with dogs to want to stop and chat if I'm out walking a dog. I may pick up on the other dog's inability to handle themselves in a social situation when their human doesn't recognize the anxiety that they are exhibiting. I find that the canine that I'm chaperoning may be perfectly fine, but the other dog is be clearly signaling that they are much too distressed by the close approach. To diffuse their discomfort, I will ask if I can offer some treats to the other dog as we are chatting, while keeping a safe distance, and toss them a couple as well as the dog I'm with during the exchange, which I always keep brief. Before excusing myself, I find a way to interject how well their dog seemed to compose themselves once they were given the option to have a little physical space and a healthy distraction since "...I noticed that Rex appeared very stressed with our initial introduction. Keep up the good work!"
Stepping in without stepping on any toes
Seeing a human handle a dog roughly is always a difficult sight, isn't it? One might see anything from an owner yelling in a dog's face when they don't feel like they are getting the behavior that they are looking for, or perhaps getting physical with them by way of jerking on the leash or worse. It's perfectly reasonable to have the desire to say something or to diffuse a situation like this — and in some cases, even have concern for the owner's safety as this may a repeated pattern with them and the dog might get pushed too far.
I've been faced with this, and as sad as it is, it's simply not my job to police the way that other people interact with their dogs — but I can keep the door of possibility open to influence them in a positive way, and I need not even mention what I saw.
The important thing to keep in mind is, just as in the aforementioned scenarios, people, just like their canine friends, respond better to positive reinforcement and interaction, and being empowered.
I'll walk up, a warm smile on my face and ask about their dog.
"Oh, I used to be a caregiver for a dog just like yours, but they've moved away... I miss her — is he a boxer? What a beautiful dog, please tell me about him..."
That disarms the human, sets them at ease and in turn, the dog often follows suit.
Then I ask if I can offer the dog a treat. If so, I might ask the pooch for a sit and when they do (this almost always happens), they get yummy treats and, fingers crossed, the human sees an example of how their dog can demonstrate desired behaviors, given the opportunity. The whole thing may go over the owners head, but the point is that I have the attention of them both at that crucial moment and got a favorable and hopefully, a resonant conversation rolling.
I usually have a pocket(s) full of treats, so I would also add at the end of our conversation, "It was nice to meet you, have a great time with Rocky today... oh, I have plenty of treats, would you like some for your walk home??"
If I simply march over and voice my displeasure about how abusive that sort of thing is, the person will block me out or worse. Be assured that next time they see me, they'll remember the negative exchange and avoid me. In using the suggested approach, I avoid overstepping a boundary or putting them on the defensive.
Granted, it can be a challenge to encounter cringeworthy situations with other dogs and their humans, but with a clear, meaningful objective, a little positive reinforcement and a cool head one can empower a misguided or frustrated human that is attached to the other end of a leash when it is needed.
Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as regular contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.