October 13, 2015
The Power of Association for a Sensitive Dog
Despite looking rather forlorn in the above picture, Ruby very much chose to curl up in here and has been doing so more and more frequently of late, after having no interest in her kennel for over a year. Boca has always liked to nap in hers in the evenings, and now I'm finding myself with no sofa snuggle buddies! I believe Ruby's new fondness for her kennel has much to do with just a few training sessions in the last month.
Since Ruby barks at animals on TV, I have started asking her to "go to your den" when I foresee an extended dog or pony show, and feeding her yummy treats quite steadily while she is there. Her kennel is situated between two sofas, so although it faces the TV her view is mostly obscured. This has led both to more peaceful evenings when The Amazing Race contestants are racing through a polo field during a match as well as developing the positive association for her kennel - a place to relax and receive a steady stream of snacks.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Ruby has formed a mysterious negative association recently. I have laminate floors throughout my house, and in my bedroom this presented a problem for the dogs, since they had no purchase for their leap up on to the bed. This was solved by a lovely framed dog bed which I placed between the head of the bed and the wall. It's essentially a launch pad for the dogs and a deluxe king-sized bed for the cat, although Boca occasionally sleeps in it as well. Sometime in the last month, Ruby became hesitant to use the dog bed to reach the human bed.
I have no idea what happened - perhaps the cat told her off or she hurt herself in the process, but the important thing to note is that one bad experience changed a habit that was established for over a year. For a sensitive dog like Ruby (I call her my delicate flower), a seemingly insignificant event can have serious repercussions. I've noticed that the time of day seems to make a difference - she is less worried about jumping up in the mornings than in the evenings. Currently I'm working on recreating the positive associations by coaxing her to the launch pad using a series of "touch" cues and treats. It does seem to be helping but sometimes I go ahead and lift her up, since I feel this will build her tolerance for being picked up and she even readies herself now when I say "want a boost?" giving her the power of choice.
Ruby was my inspiration for learning more about positive training methods, dog body language and behavior. She continues to teach me the importance of patience and flexibility when working with a sensitive dog, and proving just how damaging negative associations can be, even if they are unintentional. This solidifies my commitment to reward-based training as I can't imagine deliberately causing pain or fear in a dog whose security is so easily shaken. Between Boca's Fourth of July bed boycott, due to associating the scary booms of fireworks with being in the bedroom and Ruby's new quirk, I have never worked so hard to get my dogs to sleep in bed with me!