I often imagine the dog training experience as a series of banking transactions - the visual really helps me to measure our work but also to gauge where we may have a deficit or where the dog has a need.
When we bring home a puppy, we often make a series of assumptions that can be quite harmful - how many times do we trainers hear "Oh, my dog is fine with that. I can [manhandle, groom, pick up, travel with, etc...] him and he doesn't care.". Every. Single. Day. We hear it every single day.
The challenge is this - there is a HUGE difference between tolerance and enjoyment and most of us don't actively seek out the difference in every moment we spend with our dogs. We take for granted, unknowingly, how tolerant our dogs are of our behaviour.
Here's the tip - your dog is going to tolerate it until he doesn't. It's always fine until it's not.
We dedicate one class in every puppy and basic level course to handling for the Vet and Groomer because this is a very typical situation that we take for granted until we find our dog is unable to function normally in the exam room or having to be muzzled for a simple bath and trim. This generally sneaks up on us and seems like an overnight behaviour concern. We trainers can see it coming from a mile away because this is what we're trained to see.
Let's look at our dogs for a moment and picture a little bank in the folds of their brain. How much do you have in there? When we provide a positive experience for our dog, we make a +$1 deposit into that bank. Every negative experience is a -$5 withdrawal. Now, here's the trick. Every neutral experience is also a -$1 withdrawal. Let me clarify so that we're on the same page.
- dog gets bath while eating peanut butter smeared on the side of the tub = +$1 deposit
- shy puppy goes to puppy class and plays well with another puppy = +$1 deposit
- puppy hears a dog barking and then he gets a tasty treat = +$1 deposit
- person sweeps floor while playing fetch with a ball-motivated dog = +$1 deposit
- a stranger picks up puppy, gives him a tasty treat and places him back on the ground = +$1 deposit
- veterinarian gives a vaccine, feeds a tasty treat and then plays tug on the exam room floor for 2 minutes =$1 deposit
- groomer clips nails and then lets dog play in his favourite daycare group = $1 deposit
- dog gets bath and is frightened by the water and noise = -$5 withdrawal
- shy puppy goes to class and gets barrelled into by a rough puppy = -$5 withdrawal
- puppy gets snarked on by cranky dog on a walk = -$5 withdrawal
- broom falls over beside dog, makes a racket = -$5 withdrawal
- scary stranger picks up puppy and squeals = -$5 withdrawal
- veterinarian gives vaccine = -$5 withdrawal
- groomer clips nails and cuts quick = -$5 withdrawal
- dog gets a bath = -$1 withdrawal
- shy puppy goes to an uneventful puppy class = -$1 withdrawal
- puppy passes a dog on a walk = -$1 withdrawal
- dog watches person sweeping kitchen floor = -$1 withdrawal
- stranger picks up puppy for a quick snuggle and places him back on the ground = -$1 withdrawal
- veterinarian checks dog's healthy ears = -$1 withdrawal
- groomer clips nails and places dog into cage until guardian arrives = -$1 withdrawal
Do you see how the positive experiences all had something fairly neutral happening and then something wonderful usually having to do with treats, play, or access to a favourite resource?
Do you see how the negative experiences are so common and yet so expensive?
And do you see how the neutral experiences still cost something because nothing wonderful happened but nothing terrible, either? These are all missed opportunities to put money in the bank and if dogs are left to their own devices, they have a fairly high chance of developing a fear or dislike of a certain person/place/thing if nothing great is associated. Why take that risk and have to modify their behaviour down the road? Why not err on the side of caution and take out some insurance? Put some money in that bank!
So let's say that tomorrow your dog has two positive experiences, one negative experience and one neutral experience, they're going to be in a deficit of -$4. (Who would have thought that math would be so relevant in dog training?!) It's easy to spend money. It's harder to save it. This much is true. It does take more work to create positive experiences, however when we see the cost of those negative or neutral experiences, it's hard to justify taking so much for granted.
Over time, those neutral and negative experiences build up and that's when we start to see behavioural changes - and not the good kind. We'll see the dog who barks and lunges at other dogs, who snaps at the veterinarian when being checked, who bites the groomer for gently removing a burr, who panics when he sees a broom or anything that looks similar, who is intolerant of being picked up or pet by strangers.
The good news is that positive experiences can build up as well! An abundance of positive experiences can cause what we call, "padding". This means that the dog has some insurance, some money in the bank, so that if they have a negative experience, they won't go into overdraft; they'll have enough to cover that transaction that day. So keep associating wonderful things with all those people/places/things and experiences because there's no such thing as "too much money in the bank" when it comes to your dog's journey.
Now don't get greedy! Don't assume that once you've done puppy classes and fed your dog a bunch of tasty treats at the vet clinic that he's good to go for life. When those negative and neutral experiences happen, it's a cue to you to patch things up and work a little harder to replenish that padding.