By Linda Stein
As families merge and resettle within the American culture due to divorce or frequent changes of employment , changes in living circumstances arise. Pets are affected by this. They are moved in and out of arrangements where they have to accommodate to other animals and people that they’ve never encountered before. Often, rules have to change. As a dog trainer, questions occur frequently in my work about making transitions. As with most dog issues, the perceptions, expectations and behavior of the humans are going to make or break the situation.
Marjorie M., who owned a white fluffy bichon frise, had just remarried. Her new husband, James, owned a giant schnauzer, Wishbone. From puppyhood Jim had allowed the dog to finish leftovers from the dinner dish clean after supper. Marjorie found this and other bachelor habits disturbing and she wanted to change the “cleaning the dish” ritual (along with Wishbone’s custom of sleeping on the bed, playing with socks from the laundry, and general boisterous playing behavior in the house) Both Wishbone and his pal, James, were resisting the proposed changes. By the time I was called, Marjorie wanted to give away the dog (and I think James wanted to give away Marjorie). This was only 8 weeks into the marriage. To add to Marjorie’s upset, her dog, Fluffy, was “picking up bad habits” and was now just as boisterous as Wishbone. “We can’t have company without the dogs ruining the mood!”, she told me. The couple was quarreling often about their different philosophies about handling their dogs and how to remedy the differences. A wedding gift had already been broken when the dogs were wrestling.
Of course, any outsider, dog trainer or not, would probably be recommending human compromise, but this couple also needed additional experienced advice about what dogs were capable of learning, how quickly they could expect change and what humane but effective penalties to administer. Without specific information about canine abilities a comfortable compromise could not be reached by either party.
For instance Marjorie was relieved to learn that Wishbone could continue to clean James’ plate without Fluffy having to copy the behavior. James agreed he would wait till the meal was over until he placed the dish on the floor and that Wishbone could be stopped from drooling over their meals waiting for the delicacies. He could stay in the lay down position by James’ chair until released by the owner with the command of “Dinner’s Over!) Neither person had ever thought that this routine was possible after so many bad habits had been in practice for years. In fact, within a week of our lesson, the dogs were out of the way during, the meal. Wishbone and James had their after the meal rendezvous with the agreement on Jim’s part that he would do the dishes so Marjorie didn’t have to be present to watch what was so distasteful for her. Other issues were settled in the same manner. The common misconception that Fluffy had to act like Wishbone had been an obstacle to a calm discussion. Once we changed the human conception of the dog’s ability to change, each person felt less threatened. They were able to reach a very amicable solution.
Another example of family changes affecting and being affected by a dog came when Carly Ann, age 12, entered a shared custody arrangement with her newly divorced parents. Carly Ann’s cocker spaniel. Ginger, helped her through the tough transition of her parent’s separation and apparently Carly and Ginger were an inseparable team. It was a priority to everyone involved that Carly and her dog be allowed to travel from her dad’s house to her Mom’s apartment and have the dog in both places, allowing a more bearable transition. Unfortunately,4 year old Ginger had some habits not conducive to apartment living. The dog barked at each footstep crossing the door path just as she was encouraged to do in the blue and white shuttered home in suburbia. This was unacceptable to the other apartment dwellers and the parents were under the mistaken assumption that the dog would be too confused if they tried to teach different rules for different residences. They felt they were about to force Carly into another crisis of choosing where to leave the dog. Their fears were unfounded but based on the common misunderstanding that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. After the situation was explained, we taught the dog the word “Quiet” so that after a few barks in the house the owner could halt the barking on command. Once the dog comprehended that “quiet” meant stop barking, the command and behavior were able to be transferred to the apartment. By the end of the weekend, the dog was able to allow people to pass the door without thinking he was in charge of protecting the building. The dog associated the rule with the location and was good even when no one was home (attested to by the neighbor in the adjoining apartment.) Carly Ann was included in the training process of helping her pet make a transition just as she was doing .
Sometimes, dogs move into a home where there is a bird or a guinea pig or cat. The dog can be trained to be gentle with these other pets or leave them alone completely, depending on the owner’s preference. It is a rare situation where animals cannot accommodate.
Human guilt and confusion often contribute to making a new situation into a an unnecessarily complicated one. The deep feelings the humans experience are not necessarily attributable to the pet involved. Though dogs like consistency, they are often incredibly resilient (as we’ve seen many humans to be) Dogs that have lived as scavengers on the street can learn civilized manners in only a few days and the reverse has also been true. If people going through change are willing to assume their dog can adapt, then they merely need to find the right technique of communicating to the dog what the new environment requires. Pet owners should try to anticipate and discuss the changes a few days before they will be needed to be enforced. This allows the owner to have a calm demeanor instead of conveying panic and disorder to the dog.
Linda Stein of Stein-Way Dog Training is a trainer in Goshen who has worked with dogs for over 25 years teaching manners and obedience.