Let Your Dog Think
I’m baffled sometimes by the fact that we don’t let our dogs “think.” If it rings true that whatever our dogs are allowed to practice that that is what they will get good at, why don’t we let them practice “thinking!” It is a concept that I always try and instill in my students, but I was prompted to write about this topic last month when an incident happened with one of my clients where someone else took away her dog’s right to “think.”
The situation happened during a testing evaluation where the dog was being tested on 10 different skills. My student was taking this test for fun, to see what behaviors her 8 month old dog still needed work on. During the test, which took place outside at a park, some squirrels ran by chasing each other right in front of the adolescent dog. The dog naturally thought “oh, what fun, I want to chase too!” and she got out to the end of her leash trying to go after them. She pulled her owner a couple steps off her balance, but once the owner realized what was happening she grounded herself with her feet planted firmly into the ground and waited. What was she waiting for? She was waiting for her dog to think to “check in” with her, as she has taught her to do. Unfortunately, in that very brief moment of waiting, the evaluator’s assistant came running over and interrupted the dog’s “think time” by grabbing the leash from the owner and yanking the dog back so hard by the leash and collar that the dog fell to the ground.
There are a lot of other learning points we could discuss about the story above, but I want to focus on the “think” part. When this owner came to me for training with her dog, she had very little connection with her at first. Meaning, she had taught the puppy a lot of obedience behaviors, but the relationship was not as strong as it could have been and the puppy hardly had to think at all because she was prompted to do everything the owner asked of her and she never had a choice. What the evaluator’s assistant mentioned above did NOT know was that in six months of rebuilding the connection the dog had with the owner and allowing the dog to “think” about her choices and reinforcing the ones that the owner wanted to build on, she had helped transform the relationship with her dog and gave her dog the ability to use her well honed brain to think through her choices in life. Deciding to chase squirrels? For an 8 month old adolescent dog, absolutely a viable choice…..but in this situation the dog knew her options were limited by the six foot leash and had she been given a moment to “think” about the situation, the owner was confident that the choice the dog would have made would have been to check back in with her owner, as her owner had taught her to do. What I would have asked the assistant had I been there was what would have been wrong with giving the dog more than 3 seconds to think about her options given that no one here was in danger….these were squirrels after all, who at this point were already halfway up a tree!
Another personal example I can give with one of my own dogs right now is in the context of the new K9 Fun Nose Work activity I am doing. As he searches through boxes looking for a food scent, sometimes he gets frustrated and stares at me as if to say “come on Mom, help me out here!” In that moment, I am so tempted to help him out in some way, to show him what he needs to do. However, it is clearly instructed in this sport to let your dog “think!” In this context it is all about letting your dog think to use his nose constructively, but the principle is still the same….let them work it out and do not be too quick to jump in and intervene.
How often do we take away our dog’s right to think when we don’t need to? How is it that we don’t trust the scientific evidence and research that has been done citing the intelligence of a dog’s brain and cognitive function? We do not have to look very far to see that it is true. At the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s conference in Atlanta this year, there was a whole day devoted to canine cognition study by some of the experts in our field. Dr. Patricia McConnell has a great blog summary about some of the research that I would encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out on her website.
Bottom line…..let your dog think! And to help them, let’s be patient and get rid of our incessant need to micro manage or make every decision for them. Let them use that well honed organ called the brain!
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