Husbandry: Giving the dog choice and control

Flippa suddenly got an abscess on her nose, full of pus and discharge. Our guess is that she got stuck on something and that the wound was then unfortunately badly infected. At first, with the help of a friend, I tried to get pus out of the abscess and clean it, but that didn’t really help and I realized that I had to take her to the vet.

Flippa is four months old and a real popcorn puppy. She is alert and bubbly and she does not like to be held, so we practice that in a nice way on almost daily basis. When I had made the appointment at the vet, I immediately began training her to be able to sit still when I held her face. Her first instinct is to sharply pull her nose away if I take a hold of it. I most certainly don’t want her to have a bad experience at the vet at such a young age – there will be experiences at the vet that hurt, but preferably not yet. So, my plan was to put her in control of being handled, being able to say “yes” and “no”.

I began by shaping her to put her chin in my hand. When she began offering it, I began following her putting her chin in my hand with me closing my hand around her nose. I increased the duration of my hold, but in order for the learning process to progress faster, I added reversed luring. After all, I only had a few hours before the visit to the vet … If she didn’t offer the chin rest in my hand, I didn’t grab her nose – that became the rules of our contract. So, when I showed my hand, she could choose. If she offered the chin rest, she said “yes” to me holding her nose, which led to a reward. If she didn’t offer the chin rest, I removed my hand and waited a few seconds before trying again.

We did some training sitting in the waiting room and she happily offered the chin target to my hand despite the challenging environment. We were admitted into the exam room a while before the vet arrived, so we trained on the exam table and everything went fine there too. When the vet arrived, Flippa got a bit flustered and she wiggled like a little worm while the vet listened to her heart. That made the vet hold on to her a bit too tightly for a bit too long, which made Flippa worried. I finally had to ask the vet to let her go and let me hold her instead. When the vet went to look at the abscess, Flippa was a bit all over the place and at first, I wasn’t successful in getting her to notice my hand. By using reversed luring and having the vet back off a little, Flippa calmed down and offered the chin rest multiple times. At first, I was the one holding her nose, but then the vet could do it and Flippa held absolutely still. She did so good and I had to ask the vet to let go again because I needed to reinforce the behavior.

The alternative would have been one of us holding her until she “gave up”, and it might not have ended in a disaster, but the experience would neither have been positive nor calm. It would most likely have made her suspicious of the situation and even more prone to yank herself away from a situation she’s not comfortable in. This way of letting the dog choose whether they want to start a behavior or not is often referred to as working with a “start button”. The start button in this case is Flippa’s chin rest in my hand. I ask the question “do you want to” by showing my palm. She answers “yes” by putting her chin in my hand, or “no” by not offering the chin rest. Her behavior decided if I’m going to hold her nose. Working like this, you can’t ignore the dog’s “no”, that would ruin the entire concept of the dog being in control. So, if you must do something to the dog that the dog doesn’t want to do and you in that situation can’t respect the no, you’ll have to use another procedure. For example, give the dog a treat so that it eats while you hold on to it. Here’s a video of me first teaching Flippa the chin rest and then adding me holding her nose. I’m sometimes a bit too quick to grab her nose, but I think I improve by the end of the video. (Sorry about the weird angle, but I didn’t have access to a proper stand.)

In everyday life I have worked like this with all sorts of behaviors for years, because Tassla is a very special dog to handle. She simply does not like being handled (probably due to trauma when she was four weeks old and was severely bitten over the mouth – taking care of the wound was uncomfortable for several weeks) and as a result, she also dislikes being lifted. We have a contract, stating that I bend down, put my hands on her body, prepared to life, and tell her “lift”. If she’s ok with that, I’ll feel her push off from the ground. If she is telling me “no”, I’ll feel her tense up, making herself heavy in my hands – and then I don’t lift her up. If I must pick her up and in that particular situation can’t respect her potentially telling me “no”, I simply feed her while I pick her up and that’s never an issue.

A common situation where a great many use a start button behavior is with nail trimming. A lot of people who’ve had issues with trimming their dog’s nails testify that the problems vanished when the dogs got control over the situation, over when and how the nails are trimmed. But a start button really be used for anything.

We are going in to remove the drain today, and Flippa will get another chance to show off her skills. She’s cheerful and happy, on antibiotics and the wound is looking good. She’s demonstrated that one can run really fast even if one is wearing a cone and she’s mastered how to get up on the bed wearing the cone. But she’ll hopefully soon be out of it!

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