This morning I was somewhat hurriedly trying to get chores done. The rabbit room was really a mess, and clean up had taken an hour longer than usual… So there I was, sweaty, hot, covered with rabbit hair, feeling accomplished at getting a pretty big job finished, but also more than a little grumpy, grimy, and hungry too. Last on the list was washing rabbit beds, and then I could finally have a shower and breakfast…. But of course, while I was trying shove the beds in the washing machine, you know who came to investigate.
Now, as with most young dogs, and particularly with working breeds, Zydeco’s first response to anything interesting, smelly, fuzzy, crunchy, crackly, bouncy, novel–that also happens to be moving–is going to be to try to grab it with his mouth. I can only imagine that the aroma of rabbit plus the sight of me hurriedly shoving the fuzzy beds into the washer must have stimulated a pretty strong predatory reflex as well. Zydeco’s need to get things in his mouth, however, seems a little more intense than most, so intense I think I’m going to have to devote an entire post to parsing out all his different mouthing behaviors, what they might mean, and all the creative ways I’ve been attempting to work with it…. But anyway, true confessions, my first response this morning when he started jumping and snapping at the bed in my hands was to pull it out of reach with a reflexive LEAVE-IT! right on my lips…Hey, I was just about done with my chores, man! I wanted breakfast. I wanted a shower. I didn’t want to stop what I was doing right then and deal with silly puppy antics…. Plus, if I let him have the bed, wouldn’t I be reinforcing a bad behavior? And wouldn’t it be setting a bad precedent to allow him to access to dirty laundry? Shouldn’t laundry, socks, paper, people food, human skin, cloth, plastic–all these things simply be off limits? Period. No ifs, ands, or buts? In other words, shouldn’t I teach him in no uncertain terms that these things, (and biting in general) are all just a great big NO?
Okay. So these are reasonable dilemmas when raising a young dog. On the one hand, I am certainly very aware that if I allow Zydeco to snatch things from my hands, and that behavior continues to work for him, I’m going to get more snatching–which is just not an easy behavior to live with. But on the other hand, as I grow in experience as a reinforcement-based trainer, I am getting better and better at seeing that there is in fact a whole world beyond the word NO… and to my great good fortune as a trainer and as a human being, it is getting easier and easier go there–even when dealing with “hard” puppies like Zydeco.
That split second when Zydeco leaps for the bed, and I hold it out of reach is actually an excellent opportunity for both of us, more of an open doorway to better communication than a closed one–if I let it be. Zydeco’s behavior tells me loud and clear what would be most reinforcing for him in that moment, and there I am: his access point to that big thing he wants. In the classroom, we might call this a “teachable moment”.
Okay, so stepping into the world beyond NO for a moment, here’s what I did. I quietly waited for Zydeco to offer me some other more acceptable behavior than leaping and snapping. He’s been with me now for a few weeks and he knows the drill. When I hold still and look at him without saying anything, his job is usually to sit or lay down. I don’t tell him to sit. I want him to understand that in that context of me holding something in my hands –even a super enticing fuzzy bed covered with rabbit hair–sitting calmly is the behavior most likely to work for him… The tricky part is I have to live up to my side of the bargain too. Anytime I see him controlling himself, sitting, and waiting, it is my job to reinforce him with something. The best reinforcement of course is the thing he was telling me loud and clear he wanted, but if I had been holding my grandma’s heirloom quilt, say, instead of some shabby old rabbit blankets, I would have given him a treat or access to another toy instead.
So, in just a few seconds, we had shifted from a NO! moment to a lovely, calm, quiet, YES! moment instead. Puppy was sitting and waiting. The image of politeness. So, I thought why not? …And JACKPOT….dumped all the beds on the floor all at once. Whooee!! Did he ever have a ball with them! OMG! Just think about it for a second….highly concentrated rabbit scent, fuzzy material, small tossable fleecy shapes—it was puppy heaven! Our boy sniffed every inch of those beds, and then proceeded to repeatedly chomp them all over in ecstasy (without shredding them I might add). Then he rolled and squirmed all over them like a cat OD’ing on catnip, flipping them in the air and pouncing on them, and finally, best of all, began biting and shaking them, which sent hair flying in all directions–something I needed done anyway! I quickly ran him outside to let him finish the job so I wouldn’t have to sweep rabbit hair from the kitchen, and we proceeded to have a ball tossing rabbit beds around together in the grass. So, by saying YES! instead of NO!, not only did puppy get a huge reinforcer for self control, and a great enrichment activity ta boot, but letting him do behaviors that he was born to do like sniff, bite, and shake also gave him a very helpful job as well–a job that worked as a big YES for both of us.
So what if I had to take my shower and eat a little later? I mean, look at this video! How fun is this? Totally would have missed the opportunity if I’d stayed in the land of NO! instead of YES! Thank you, Zydeco, for the great reminder! 🙂