Handlers give commands, and dogs carry them out. That’s the ideal, anyway, and the benefits range from good behavior to ribbons and trophies. With well-timed rewards, praise, and practice, any dog can learn just about anything.
But what happens when a dog refuses a command? Traditional trainers say a good handler prevents future problems by enforcing every instruction. But what if the dog has a very good reason to refuse? And how can you tell?
Acute or chronic health problems – from spinal misalignments or torn muscles to the development of disease – are commonly to blame for the onset of performance failures in well-trained and well-conditioned dogs. Handlers must be aware of this possibility and sensitive to their dogs’ subtle body language and behavior in order to spare the dogs from needless pain and anxiety.
The most challenging exercise of their Courier level training requires Portuguese Water Dogs to jump off a rowboat platform, pick up a buoy ball with line attached, swim toward a marker 50 feet away, continue past the marker for another 10 to 15 feet, drop the ball at a signal from the handler, and return without the ball.
“This is very difficult,” says Marsha Dominguez of River Edge, New Jersey, “because these dogs have been trained since day one to bring things back, and it makes no sense to them to take something away and leave it. And they can’t always see the marker; they just have to go in a straight line toward nothing and wait for the handler’s command.”
Dominguez spent last summer working on this exercise with Jasmine, her nine-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, on land and in the water. Jasmine had already earned her Junior, Apprentice, and Working Water Dog titles. By August, when the Nutmeg Portuguese Water Dog Club in Connecticut held its annual water trial, they were ready.
In fact, they practiced so much the week before the event that Jasmine seemed overtired. Dominguez pulled her from the first day of competition and let her rest.
The next day, they entered the Courier trial. “Even after a day off, Jazz just wasn’t herself,” says Dominguez. “She didn’t want to retrieve the dummy in our warmup exercises. She went into the water, but away from me, then ran onto the beach to inspect a potato chip bag. I called her back and told her to ‘go boat.’ She got back on the boat but went off the platform, directly into the well of the boat, an immediate NQ (disqualification). When the steward rowed out to the marker to begin our test, Jasmine let me know she was not going to jump.”
Dominguez asked the judge to excuse them. When they got back to shore, the judge chided her for spoiling her dog. He said that dogs need to learn that they don’t have a choice about doing the exercises.
“I didn’t say anything,” says Dominguez. “Part of me felt embarrassed by this ‘failure to perform.’ After all, I am the Water Trial Chairperson, and Jasmine didn’t usually act like this. But if she didn’t want to perform, that was that.”
Two months later, on October 18, Jasmine visited the psychiatric unit of a general hospital as part of her work as a therapy dog. She rolled over, kissed everyone, gave high-fives, responded to all of the commands the patients gave her, and wagged her tail throughout.
But that evening, she vomited and her temperature rose to 106 degrees F. Dominguez rushed her to the animal hospital, where emergency surgery revealed numerous tumors. Her spleen and part of her liver were removed. Jasmine died five weeks later, on November 22.
“At the August water trial, she might have had the first debilitating symptoms of a terrible disease,” says Dominguez. “She felt well enough for normal activities, but doing all that work in the water was too much for her. I listened to my dog and respected her. Even if she hadn’t been sick, what right do I have to make her do things she isn’t comfortable doing? When our dogs refuse to do something they normally enjoy, they might be trying to tell us something important.”
A valuable lesson
Deborah Lee Miller-Riley had a similar experience with her own Portuguese Water Dog, Kohl. At an out-of-state water trial eight years ago, Miller-Riley begged Kohl to compete on a day when the dog seemed moody and uninterested.
“I felt frustrated,” admits Miller-Riley. “This water trial meant getting her advanced title, and water dogs don’t have many opportunities to take the test. When our turn came, Kohl seemed excited about going into the water. But on her third task, she refused to leave the boat. She turned away and stared at the bow. I pressured her to behave and told her to jump. She gave my face a good wash with her tongue. I told her to cut it out and jump. She jumped.”
Kohl’s performance troubles were not over. On the last task, the dog turned away again. “I begged her to try for me,” Miller-Riley says. “The look in Kohl’s eyes clearly said, ‘Okay, I’ll do this for you,’ and she did. Though she earned her title that day and I could find nothing physically wrong, her entire attitude toward her favorite activity had changed, and I wanted to know why.”
Consultations with three veterinarians followed, and by their visit to the third, Kohl had begun to show physical symptoms. “She had a crab-like movement when she ran toward me,” says Miller-Riley. “Her tail swung to one side, she would trip walking up a step, and she protected her right rear leg when she jumped into the car. She still ran with exuberance at home or at the park, but she had trouble keeping up with the pack. She chose not to chase the ball when we played group fetch and instead wandered off on a scent trail by herself.”
Kohl had suffered a spinal injury and had lumbar-sacral disease. “The last thing she should have been doing was jumping off boats,” says Miller-Riley ruefully. “She had tried to tell me it was causing her pain, and I failed her. I didn’t listen. I lived with that guilt for years until one day I noticed her daughter, Nikki, avoiding certain movements in our water work training. I immediately stopped and sought help. Unlike her mother, Nikki recovered. I realized that Kohl had taught me a valuable lesson.”
Listening to our dogs as though they are equal partners is a novel concept for most, but its rewards include improved canine health, reduced injuries, better behavior, and a deeper emotional bond.
Connecticut resident Mary Minard believes her first obligation to her dogs is to be both their guardian and advocate. “For example,” she explains, “it’s our job to protect them from trainers who use techniques that are too harsh. If a dog refuses a command, it’s our job to figure out why. Is he confused, frightened, or physically not up to the job? Sometimes we have to protect our dogs from themselves. Ella, my high-drive Golden Retriever, would retrieve until she dropped.”
After she recovered from a slight shoulder injury, Ella earned her AX (Agility Excellent) and AXJ (Agility Excellent Jumpers) titles. She started to accumulate MX (Masters Agility Excellent) and MXJ (Masters Agility Excellent Jumpers) legs but was often too slow by one to three seconds on clean runs.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” says Minard. “Nothing showed up on the videotapes – there wasn’t a head bob, she didn’t favor a leg, she didn’t take bars down, and she was well-conditioned and properly warmed up. Our veterinarian couldn’t pinpoint anything. But her weave poles were slower than normal, and on one run she slowed to a trot going into a tunnel. Her style looked different to me, more down in the front. I would pull her for the day anytime she didn’t look right, and I watched her so carefully while running the course that I ran into a few obstacles myself!”
Minard took Ella back to several experts, none of whom found anything definitive. One thought there was a problem with Ella’s C5 nerve (the nerve at her fifth cervical vertebra), another thought she might have arthritis in her thoracic spine, and she was tested and treated for Lyme’s disease. Minard’s friend, animal bodywork therapist, Lynn Vaughan, was able to find the ‘ouchy’ points better than anyone, and found that massage and acupuncture improved the way Ella carries herself. But because Ella has not completely recovered, Minard retired her.
“As much as it hurts to lose my agility competition partner,” says Minard, “I can’t ask her to keep flying over those jumps. Because she would.”
Cynthia Fox, Ph.D., a pet industry retail consultant, knows how important it is to notice behavior changes. She lives with Afghan Hounds, whose high center of gravity, growth spurts, and unique anatomy often produce orthopedic problems during development.
Victor, Fox’s Afghan puppy, loved to charge into the van, but one day when he was four months old, he stopped and simply looked instead of jumping. “Two vertebrae were out of alignment,” she says. “If that hadn’t been corrected, he would have compensated for it in ways that could have led to other joints being compromised.”
By noticing small changes, like a dog taking longer than normal to lie down or get up, stopping a familiar behavior, or starting a new one, Fox has identified Lyme disease, a bad hip, and other problems in early stages. In California, professional triathlete Eric Harr trains with an ideal jogging partner, his Labrador-Greyhound, Owen. “Dogs are fantastic motivators,” he says. “With Owen, my workouts take on a new level of excitement.”
Harr isn’t alone. “All kinds of people run with their dogs,” he observes, “but they seldom notice that the dog might be limping or exhausted. The worst are people on bicycles who pull their dogs along. It’s essential to our long-term health to tune into our bodies’ subtle cues, and stop if we’re exhausted or if we feel an injury coming on during exercise. We must learn to tune into our canine counterparts’ subtle cues and respect those messages, because if the symptoms are obvious enough to notice, they’re serious.”
Harr takes his dog’s condition as seriously as he takes his own. “I’ve grown so attuned to Owen,” he says, “that when his tail falls to a certain point, I know he’s getting tired. When he slows down, I know he’s dog-tired. At that point, I’ll walk all the way home, with stops for rest, even if my workout is far from over, because his health and happiness are more important than any contest or Olympic medal I could win. That stuff is important, but compared to a lifetime of love from the perfect dog, it’s fleeting.”
Pain and stress signals
“Happy, willing dogs who suddenly stop working aren’t being stubborn or disobedient,” says Deborah Lee Miller-Riley, who has trained water sport teams for 10 years. “Dogs who quit on you have a reason, and sometimes it is because they are in pain or are trying to avoid pain.”
Any of the following, says Miller-Riley, may be pain signals.
Behavioral changes: The dog . . .
• Avoids contact with other dogs (play can cause pain)
• Spends less or more time than usual with the family or sleeping
• Growls or snaps for no apparent reason
• Avoids routine activities like getting into the car or climbing stairs
• Suddenly becomes hyperactive, is unable to rest quietly, pants heavily, paces, or looks at or chews a body part
• During grooming, the dog pulls away or avoids being touched
• In training, the dog ignores the trainer, attempts to leave, distracts herself with the environment (sniffing, approaching others), simply shuts down and doesn’t move, offers a behavior other than the one requested, or offers appeasement gestures (multiple ‘calming signals’ such as licking, crouching, pawing, rolling over, yawning, or looking away)
Physical symptoms: The dog . . .
• Refuses meals or treats
• Vomits or eliminates more frequently
• No longer sits straight
• Develops hot spots or other skin/coat changes
• Limps, moves differently, favors one leg or one side of the body, seems stiff and sore, or displays any other change in gait or posture
“Vet checks are important,” Miller-Riley explains, “because the problem can be as simple as a cut paw pad, anal sac infection, tick-borne disease, ear infection, worms, or a minor sprain. Sometimes the vet can find the early onset of a disease or serious injury.”
And sometimes the dog is simply stressed.
“Dogs need down time,” says behavioral trainer Elizabeth Teal of New York City. “This is obviously true for dogs that compete, but it’s also true for family pets. Stress can make animals as well as people either sick or aggressive, but it’s a factor that’s usually overlooked.”
Extra vigilance for these dogs
Teal is one of the world’s leading experts on therapy dogs, whose stress signals (such as yawning, turning away from people, panting, shedding, or refusing to enter a room) are often ignored or misunderstood.
“Most of us work our dogs past their point of joy and thus burn them out early,” she says. “It’s so important to understand our dogs’ body language. Dogs constantly tell us how they feel, and we pretty constantly ignore them.”
In Teal’s experience, it’s unusual to find therapy dog handlers who pay adequate attention to their generous and friendly dogs. She describes these rare people as ‘brave,’ meaning the ones who interrupt nursing home visits to give their stressed dogs a break, or who put their dogs on a leave of absence before they’re exhausted and no longer enjoy being petted – even if TV cameras are coming, a party has been scheduled for the dog, or a facility has requested a special visit.
“I’m convinced that the therapeutic value of a pet visit is diminished if the animal isn’t having a good time,” Teal says. “The engagement of a joyous spirit is entirely different from the presence of an unhappy, disinterested warm body that tolerates being petted. What matters isn’t whether everyone gets to ‘pet a dog.’ What matters is the quality of the interactions.” Learning to watch
“It’s one thing to decide you’re going to pay attention to your dog,” says Lynn Vaughan, “and another to understand what you see.” In seminars, consultations, and in her video (Bodywork for Dogs: Connecting Through Massage, Acupressure, and Intuitive TouchTM ) Vaughan trains people to be better observers.
“Every dog has habitual ways of moving,” Vaughan says, “and if you take the time to watch, learn how to use touch, and connect with your dog on a daily basis, you’ll notice changes when they occur. Or there might be a change in the sounds a dog makes, or in the dog’s body odor. Some things may be so subtle that you can’t describe them, but those are just as important as obvious symptoms.
“Observing is both an outward process of watching, analyzing, and studying, and an inward process of developing intuition and letting your mind be still to receive information,” Vaughan continues. “If you think something doesn’t seem right, check with a veterinarian, veterinary chiropractor, massage therapist, trainer, or other expert, and start watching videotapes, reading books, and doing research yourself.”
Keep a record of your dog’s activities, behaviors, and symptoms in a journal, calendar, or file folder so that, when the need arises, you can report them accurately. Even seemingly inconsequential symptoms can be important.
“It’s a challenge to go to the vet’s office with a list of subtle symptoms,” says Cynthia Fox. “The dog looks fine and acts fine, while you stand there describing things that most people wouldn’t even notice. But it’s important to trust your hunches.”
Trust your hunches
Fox did that when eight-year-old Willy Wonka, another of her Afghans, developed a rumbling stomach and occasional reflux, and started jumping on and off the bed in discomfort. “It happened only occasionally, but it was enough to set off alarm bells in my mind,” she says.
At the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center in Norwalk, Connecticut, Wonka had blood tests and endoscopy. Nothing was found, but when the symptoms recurred, he had almost-fatal pneumonia. Again, endoscopy found nothing significant, but the pneumonia returned, and no one could figure out why.
“By this time,” says Fox, “I was so desperate and exhausted, I cried. I begged Dr. Berkwitt, our internist, to find the problem before it killed Wonka. His symptoms included only that occasionally rumbling tummy, the reflux, and his jumping on and off the bed, but I knew something was seriously wrong.”
It was. Wonka had a hiatal hernia. “Part of his stomach protruded into the chest cavity,” she explains, “and that led to his bouts of indigestion and discomfort. Then he would vomit and aspirate small pieces of food, which caused infection in his lungs, producing pneumonia. He had so much lung disease and decay from the recurring pneumonia that it shortened his life.” But thanks to Fox’s perseverance, the cause was discovered and could be treated, giving Wonka a more comfortable final year.
The rewards of slowing down
It takes time to train ourselves to notice subtle changes in a dog’s physical condition and behavior, and in our fast-paced world, slowing down isn’t easy.
“Paying attention can be exhausting,” says trainer and philosopher Suzanne Clothier, whose books and videos help the uninitiated understand canine anatomy, appreciate the dogs’ point of view, and work with dogs as equal partners.
These things are important, she says, because they not only prevent injury and improve performance, but also help people see their dogs objectively and adjust their expectations to more accurately reflect both the abilities and limitations of their canine partners.
According to Clothier, “The result can be as drastic as the immediate retirement of a dog (which has happened at my seminars), or it can be as mild as delaying a goal until you have resolved the dog’s limitations through exercise, veterinary chiropractic adjustments, or other therapies.”
Clothier’s latest book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs, describes that relationship as a dance in which, at its best, each partner is fully aware of and sensitive to the other.
“It requires being attentive every minute you are with your dog,” she explains, “gently and persistently shifting the balance toward one of mutual agreement and cooperation. It is the same as ‘the flow’ found in deeply creative moments, when your engagement is so complete that there is no sense of time or the outside world, and no fear, shame, or guilt to interfere with what you’re doing. When you are fully present in the moment, there is a sureness in all of your movements, thoughts, and responses to the other.”
Clothier considers the act of intense observation to be a sacred act of love. “To really know other beings, to really love them, you must learn about them – and we do this by watching and listening with love, patience, curiosity, respect, and empathy. If you learn to notice and respect your dog’s most subtle cues, just as your dog already notices yours, the result will be an entirely new level of communication between you. And you will begin the dance.”
A regular contributor to WDJ, CJ Puotinen is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats, and several books about human health including, Natural Relief from Aches and Pains, published last summer.