Many companion animals are catered to in their day to day living. Owners promptly alleviate what stress they can as soon as they can. Gratification is instant. What happens then when an animal’s sum of life experiences are such that it has received what it wanted when it wanted doesn’t get its way? What happens when direct access (I see….I want it….I go straight to it and get it….if that doesn’t work my owner/well trained staff steps in and helps me get it) doesn’t work for this dog? The answer is frustration, often a fit, and a flood of neurochemicals associated with frustration and stress. Sometimes even adrenalin enters the scene. Sometimes aggression. How we choose to handle navigating the world at large with our canine friend influences the dog we end up with in the long run.
Well adjusted dogs have the ability to solve problems while maintaining a level head. This ability is not a trait dogs are born with (although some dogs are certainly more clever and/or more motivated than others), it is one that is developed by actually solving problems. With experience, solving the problems that life presents becomes no big deal (no reason for intense emotional responses). With experience and success, comes confidence.
Working on problem solving is really all about recognizing and maximizing opportunities. Opportunities are everywhere in our day to day lives with companion animals. Giving a dog time (without adding pressure) to work through problems and find success on the other side builds a thinking and intuitive dog.
Let’s start with a simple example. I have just taken a puppy outside to go potty. We are headed back inside….the puppy is happily following me back in. I open the door, walk through, and giving the puppy plenty of room to come through I stand out of the way and ready to close the door. The puppy (who in this case and this moment still wants to be with me…it is not distracted…it is not hoping to stay outside) stops short in the would be path of the door I need to close. Three possible courses of action cross my mind. 1) I could pick up the sweet, snugly little puppy and hold it while I close the door. 2) I could speak sweetly to the puppy and either prompt or lure the puppy through and safely out of the way, then close the door. 3) I could slowly, carefully, and patiently (inch by inch, maybe centimeter by centimeter, or even millimeter by millimeter) close the door….being sure to give the puppy an abundance of time to see what’s happening and figure out how to maneuver itself around the VERY slowly closing door to end up inside with me. Time permitting, I choose option 3 and celebrate the brilliance of said puppy as it completes this simple task….navigating around the closing door. More than that, when I’m outside and deciding when to head back inside, I allot time for option 3. I make time for option 3. Within a few repetitions of this particular scenario, I have a puppy who is sizing up this situation (reading the relevant context clues) and marching in and out of the way of the path of the door UNPROMPTED. This behavior will come in handy in the future when I’m coming inside with the puppy, my arms full, and I’m watching my 3 year old son while simultaneously holding two separate conversations with our 5 year old son and 8 year old daughter. Do I always have time for option 3? NO! I have 3 small children and a very playful husband. Our house is chaos. When I don’t have time, I opt for either option 1 or 2. BUT, because it is these kinds of option 3 experiences that build a stable, thinking dog and often what feels like an intuitive dog (which is what I ultimately want and what will save me time in the long run), I make it a point to make time for as many of these kinds of solutions to play out as I can.
In the above example, a small amount of stress is placed on the puppy. This is not a bad thing.
Every dog NEEDS and should have an opportunity to process stress (even if it looks like an emotional roller coaster) and come out on the other side successful and victorious. REPEATEDLY. With repeated experiences of this nature, dogs learn to size up situations and think through them without undue stress, distress, or panic. Delayed gratification becomes no big deal. We need to find and allow time for opportunities of this nature to play out in order for the dog to realize the benefits of sizing up a situation and gain the ability to maintain its composure and the ability to think.
A great way to help facilitate these experiences is to set up situations where the dog has a clear/direct line of sight to a “draw” (something the dog wants or someone the dog wants to be with) but it is only accessible via an indirect course or path. A great way to set situations like this up is to partially block access to the draw with something the dog can see through, but not go through…like an x-pen or woven wire fence panel. What typically happens when a dog is presented with a situation like this is that it first tries the direct access approach. I see it…I want it…I will go directly to it. When this approach doesn’t work, the dog gets frustrated. It may even come unglued as adrenalin kicks in. I wait patiently and quietly. Eventually, the dog settles down and then starts to look around….where upon it finds its way to the draw. Success! If I set up simple scenarios or take advantage of naturally presented simple scenarios and let the dog work through them, the dog gains the crucial experiences that help build a thoughtful, less reactive dog. It will be better equipped to process, handle, and work through more difficult scenarios that may lie ahead in life and in TRAINING. The dog not only learns how to learn and problem solve, but also how to maintain a level head…puzzles and problems no longer cause distress. When you help a dog become an efficient problem solver and prioritize building a partnership/a relationship/a bond/an optimism, you develop a confident learner that is (thanks to that budding partnership) willing and eager to work with and for you.
Be the good guy, but not the hero. If the dog stalls out before the problem is solved, consider reminding it of the draw or help as little as possible. Help the dog discover the solution, don’t solve the problem for it.