Permanent Hall Passes


My Border Collie Daisy is a consummate counter surfer; she hangs 10 with the best. The trainer in me sighs and acknowledges that I was not successful in getting the behavior to cease over 10 years (so she’s now had a decade of practice). The student of canine ethology in me watches in fascination at the opportunistic seeking and realizes this descendent of wolves has not succumbed to learned helplessness. The dog mom in me says “You go, girl!” and is filled with joy that this dog who was diagnosed with cancer over two years ago is feeling this feisty and that her spirit – and appetite – hasn’t been dampened by treatment.

Many years ago I had adopted a Border Collie-mix who arrived trained to leave a room whenever anyone sat down to eat (I was in awe and somehow naively managed to maintain that behavior). When she reached her elder years, the action wasn’t always as automatic and we would gently remind her to go to the next room. One day, during a visit with family, we prepared to sit down to a meal and began to ask the old girl to leave the dining room when a relative piped up and asked, “Isn’t she old enough not to have to do that anymore?” We were all happy to have her stay underneath the table where we could easily hand her snacks.

It’s not that I don’t believe we shouldn’t encourage our dogs to mind their manners, but I admit that I am fascinated by the times they decide not to. And maybe even more fascinating is why we might decide to let them have a free pass.

A good friend and fellow trainer worked for years to reduce her dog’s excited barking. That boy had a joyful bark and you always knew he was happy to see you. And then, suddenly, he rarely barked. His hearing had faded fairly quickly with age and things were suddenly a lot quieter, for him and everyone else. My friend found she missed his exuberant conversations (as we all did) and so, when he occasionally found his voice, she’d smile and let him sing out.

Sometimes stress can cause anxious behaviors and our dogs will find comforting ways to relieve the anxiety. A herding dog I know chews on sofa cushions; his mom shrugs and is thankful that shabby chic is in fashion. At other times, a behavior is so ingrained that it transfers in ways we might not imagine when originally training. Woody, for example, was paper-trained as a puppy and so later he was always given a free pass when he peed on the newspapers that had been left on the floor for recycling.

My sister has a Beagle … enough said? I’ll just add that his nickname is C Monster. She’s in school full-time and that means she studies a lot; she admits to allowing him to sneak up onto the sofa to sleep (and thus stay out of trouble) so she can hit the books – even though he’s not supposed to be on the furniture unless invited. Also, she has yet to try to tackle modifying his digging behavior; instead she secretly lets him dig to his nose’s content and then fills the holes before her husband comes home (hmmmm…not sure how secret this is now).

Another trainer friend of mine has a Belgian Malinois who opens doors. He rationalizes it by saying she always asks first (I wonder if she waits for a response?). This is the same dog who jumps up on top of the crate sometimes when he cues her to “crate up.” She knows what he is requesting, but she has him wondering admirably: Is she trying to demonstrate to him that she can distinguish that the cue can have two different meanings? After all she knows what “crate” is as well as the action word “up” and interpretation can be dependent on perspective – and what she is feeling like doing at the moment!

Fortunately many of us see things from our dogs’ point of view and embrace those perspectives. I’ll confess: my dogs are lifetime members of the permanent hall pass club. Good thing I have a get out of jail free card.

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Barbara Dobbins has been writing for WDJ since 2011 with a focus on veterinary and canine health topics. Her lifelong fascination with dogs has led her in many directions. As a youngster she would round up her dogs and horse for a day of adventure exploring and searching for buried treasure in the California hills. Inspired by Margaret Mead with a nod to Indiana Jones, she went on to study anthropology, archaeology, and museum studies and obtained a masters degree in art history. Then two new puppies bounced into her life, and Barbara launched into studying animal behavior and training and spent hundreds of hours volunteering in the behavior department at her local shelter. When her beloved Border Collie Daisy was diagnosed with a rare cancer, she dug deep to research all she could about the disease, and has written extensively about all sorts of canine cancer for Whole Dog Journal. Liaising between pet owners and veterinary practice, science, and research, she synthesizes these complex and data-driven subjects into accessible information. She continues to take inspiration from her two research assistants, mixed-breed Tico and Border Collie Parker.