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Monday, August 11, 2008

Quit Apologizing, Please!


Lonny adopted a female German Shepherd mix from the local shelter. Soon after, she displayed some serious aggression toward his visiting relative's dog. Lonny panicked and borrowed a shock collar from a friend. His intent was to teach the dog to listen to him when he gave a command like "Leave it!" or "Come," to try to prevent further incidents of aggression.

Not knowing any better, Lonny also tried the shock collar to get his new dog to "sit." He only zapped her once, and he immediately realized his mistake. The dog had a meltdown; she became overly submissive, very unsure of herself, and confused about what she should do. Lonny apologized profusely to the dog. He removed the collar and spent the next six weeks trying to make it up to her with gentleness and an over-abundance of affection.

When they started class with me a couple weeks ago, I noticed that Shadow stuck to Lonny like static cling. She adores him and wants very badly to please. Yet she displayed a lack of confidence and self esteem. Now, when he asked her gently to sit, she'd sit. But she'd also lower her head, lick her nose, and sort of hunch up, as if she was afraid to do what he asked. To make her feel better, Lonny would bend down to lovingly praise and stroke her. The more love he showered on her, the more hunched up and depressed she'd act. He wondered if she would ever "come out of it."

"She'll come out of it if you stop apologizing to her for something you did six weeks ago," I said.

Lonny's praise and affection, given when Shadow was exhibiting extreme submission, were actually REINFORCING her submissive behavior. It's as if Shadow was thinking, "When I cower, you praise me, so you must want me to cower."

My advice to Lonny was to "lighten up" in his praise, to act more upbeat and nonchalant, and to not make such a big thing out of every "sit." Some dogs thrive on praise, but some dogs can actually overdose on it. This was the case with Shadow. Lonny's guilt for having accidentally misused the shock collar was holding him back from becoming the strong, confident leader Shadow needed.

Cesar Millan, "The Dog Whisperer," reminds us that dogs live "in the moment." What happened ten minutes ago is ancient history to them. We humans are the ones who have a hard time moving forward and letting go of the past.

Dog are very "forgiving," although their way of doing it is to simply forget about the past. If only we humans could be as forgiving of ourselves as our dogs are of us! Quit apologizing and trying to make up for something bad that happened in your dog's life. The best gift you can give him is to help him move on.

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