There are many reasons that I do not choose to use physical force in my training or as a way to assert my “dominance.” One of the reasons that I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned is that there will come a day when I would be working with a dog that I physically could not manhandle–a dog too large, too strong, or one not concerned about fighting back. All dogs have these white sharp and pointy things in their mouths called teeth… and these teeth can be clamped together with some very sizable muscles–and that can be quite ouchie. I never want to get into a physical confrontation with dogs because the fact of the matter is they are pretty skilled predators and I’m, well, let’s just say I’m not.
I’ve been reminded of this fact the last few days during my visit to my mid-day dog walking client, Bear. Bear is a young malinois who is from working lines who lives for playing frisbee. We play frisbee for his mid-day break and for the last two weeks he’s been great about dropping the frisbee until he gets too tired. But over the last few days, he’s been giving me a really hard time about dropping the frisbee. He will either hold on to it and run away (wanting me to chase) or will drop it and then lunge forward snatching it away as I reach for it. I like having all of my fingers so I really don’t like when he plays that game.
There are some trainers who would have the mind set of “he’s being dominant, you need to show him who’s boss and get the frisbee.” In their view, the way to do this would be to get physical with the dog by ear pinching until he releases, push fingers to the back of his mouth to make him spit it out, or grabbing his collar and essentially asphyxiating him until he spit out the frisbee. If Bear had dropped it and was waiting to lunge at it, they’d likely suggest “claiming” the disc by pushing him away or body blocking him from the disc. While Bear is a fantastic dog and has such a great nature, I would never want to give him a reason to bite me because, well, I like having use of my hands and fingers and I’d prefer not having facial reconstruction surgery.
I suspect that now that Bear and I have had a few weeks to get to know one another, he IS testing boundaries and he IS trying to be pushy and he IS trying to get me to play into his games (he is after all a malinois).
So how am I addressing the situation? Well my first attempt was to teach him an “out to my hand” (right now, if a person is holding the disc, he wants to tug and will not drop but will drop it on cue if no one is touching it), but he has a sensitive tummy and can only have more bland treats that aren’t nearly as valuable as the frisbee so he easily chose the disc over the food I was offering. I tried trading for another frisbee but frisbees not in his possession are of little value to him so he wouldn’t drop for another disc. So food wasn’t going to work and another frisbee wasn’t going to work, what could this clicker trainer possibly do then to regain some control? Oh Noooo!!
My solution is pretty simple. If Bear doesn’t drop when I cue it (one time), I walk away and do something else. I’m not playing games with him. I’m NOT going to tug, I’m NOT going to chase, and I’m NOT going to beg. If he wants to play frisbee he’s going to have to drop it and I’m not going to ask twice. If he dropped it and then lunged biting the disc as soon as I touched it, I walked away and stop playing (I REALLY don’t like this game, although he’s only aiming for the disc and there is no aggression or resource guarding what so ever in his behavior, I’d prefer him not accidentally getting me while trying to get the disc).
The first day with these strict rules in place he was a little confused and wasn’t sure why I wasn’t following him to get the disc, or tugging with the disc, or asking multiple times for the drop. He would walk away on his own then approach and I’d cue the drop and he would and the game would go on.
The following day I got a lot more push back. He stared demand barking, demand growling (this was not an aggressive threat, just an attention seeking behavior), and taking his frustrations out on his frisbee (gnawing on it). Each time he would FINALLY drop it, he’d practically THROW the frisbee at me. He probably only got in 1/2 the normal number of throws because he spent most of the time barking/growling, trotting away from me (wanting me to chase), and trying to rip apart the disc. But he got most of those throws in the last 10 minutes of my visit because he started dropping the disc more reliably towards the end.
We’ll see how things go today but it seems he’s starting to figure out that if he doesn’t drop it that I won’t play and that’s no fun. Once we get him back to a reliable drop, I have NO problem playing games with him and chasing and what not–those are all very fun and very reinforcing things. But I’m NOT going to play that game when he’s being a bum about dropping the disc because I don’t want to reinforce ignoring my cue to drop by then playing a game. Sometimes it’s hard because he’s such a pleasant boy and I know he’s getting frustrated BUT I’d rather have him work through the frustration than not be able to get him to drop the frisbee and potentially lose a finger with his “teasing” game (“here, you can have the disc–oh wait! No you can’t! I’m taking it back”). I’ll keep you updated, but if the last 10 minutes of yesterday’s walk is any clue, it’ll be a successful adventure–I’ll get the frisbees back AND get to keep all of my fingers!