Introducing Your Dog to New Activities
Every owner can make mistakes; sometimes, our dogs forgive them.
Three months ago, I introduced Otto to canoeing. This was only a couple of weeks after my husband had unwittingly traumatized Otto by dragging him across some fast-moving streams on a fishing trip. When I briefly described that event in the August 09 issue, I don’t think I mentioned that this fishing trip happened when I was out of town; I didn’t learn that Brian was going to take Otto fishing until after it was all over. Brian tends to fish for many hours in a focused way; had I known about the trip, I would have tried to convince him that bringing the dog would be a distraction, and that
Otto would need support and attention on a new type of adventure. Otto has, on a number of occasions, shown himself to be a little anxious about new experiences. So I’ve tried very hard to introduce him to strange places or activities in stages, always leaving plenty of time to allow him to explore and learn to deal with novel situations at his own pace. And I don’t take him anywhere new without a lot of high-value treats on hand, so I can reinforce any effort on his part to be brave – and to classically condition him to enjoy trying new things. In the long run, I want Otto to be able to confidently and happily go camping, backpacking, hiking, fishing, and, yes, canoeing with us.
However, I think Brian’s view is that I’m coddling the dog. Despite his many years of proximity to Whole Dog Journal’s editorial office, he’s really not a “dog person.” On the other hand, he likes Otto! So he probably thought no further than to associate walking in the woods and by a stream with Otto (something we do all the time) with bringing the dog along on a fishing trip.
A fine point that didn’t occur to Brian: Otto likes wading quite a bit, but he doesn’t like to swim. He can swim; I’ve seen him paddle well when he accidentally steps into deep water. But he tries to avoid this.
So, anyway, it was a disaster. Brian had to cross the stream a number of times; the stream was deep enough (to a dog) that it involved swimming a few strokes; and it was fast enough that Otto was frightened and dug in his heels. Brian dragged him across, losing Otto’s collar and tags at one point – and losing Otto’s trust and interest in accompanying Brian out the front door for a week or two afterward.
Nobody is perfect
Fast-forward a few weeks; Brian and I had a free afternoon. He wanted to fish. I wanted to introduce Otto to our very long, wide, flat-bottomed, stable canoe. We decided to try to accomplish all our goals. This time, though, we had an alternate plan: If Otto was not happy in the canoe, I’d take him for a hike along the river instead, and Brian would fish from the canoe.
I brought Otto’s life jacket, a bait bag full of cut up hot dogs, a thick mat for Otto to sit or lie on, and two leashes, so we could both hold leashes, in effect “cross-tying” him (without tying him to the canoe, of course!). We put the canoe in the water, and I put the mat on the floor. I stood in the water, holding the canoe steady, and said, “Otto, here!”
I expected him to sniff and stretch cautiously toward the canoe, and maybe put a foot on the edge. Instead, he jumped in! And immediately looked at me for some hot dogs. And then sat on the mat and looked at Brian like, “What are you waiting for? Get in the boat!” He rode calmly and quietly, watching birds, and occasionally getting up to lap at the water over the edge of the canoe. It was as if he spent his whole life riding in a boat.
Late that night, still excited, I bragged via e-mail to Terry Long, one of Whole Dog Journal’s regular writers and an experienced trainer. “What?!” she teased me, “You didn’t break it all down into steps, by securing the canoe so it would rock on shore first, then doing some shaping to let him know where to sit, not to move around, how to get in and out?”
So, I’m almost as bad as my husband! I know a lot, but not as much as a professional trainer. Fortunately, the foundation of positive training that we’ve laid is sound enough that Otto forgives our occasional mistakes. But my goal is to make fewer in the future!