Ferrets, Pulis and Why -- Oh MY!

You must read Elizabethanne's excellent comment under yesterday's Blog before reading this or it won't make much sense -- but I hope you will follow as this discussion is very interesting (well, to me at least)! (Click Read more -- or the title -- to see the full Blog)

Elizabethanne shared a perfect example for our discussion and it illustrates the difference we have, and it is really mostly semantics. I do not view the ferret as the "why" but rather the trigger. To me, the "why" would be -- why is Charley, who is tied with Maize as the World's Most Perfect Dog, concerned about ferrets?! After all, he could take down a gaggle of ferrets with his Poodle Posse anytime he wanted -- so why is he so upset/concerned/whatever about a stinking ferret?!

Understanding the trigger is crucial  -- understanding WHY it is a trigger is really hard. So to me, a trigger is not the "why". The trigger is the antecedent - the "A" in the A-B-C process. The antecedent happens right before "B", which is the behavior, and "B" is followed by "C", which is the consequence.

This process happens so quickly that I am not sure that we always understand what consequence is reinforcing the behavior, but something is or it would not continue.

So what was the "C" in the ferret chain? The "A" -- or trigger -- was the ferret and it caused "B" for barking and other concerned behavior -- but what reinforced it? Is barking a stress-reliever and thereby reinforcing? Does the dog think, "I smelled a ferret, I barked, ferret attack averted" and so no ferret attack is the consequence of barking? Figuring out the whole chain is the key to changing a behavior, I think.

We all have an obligation to learn to "read" dog behavior, but likely none of us will read dog minds. At a recent agility trial,  Zoey and I were next in the ring and waiting at the gate. The lab running the course raced over to us -- tail wagging stiffly -- and he went after Zoey, who was just sitting there minding her business. Luckily, a very experienced dog person recognized/read that this dog did not have friendly intentions and faster than you can say, "BAD DOG" had tackled the lab -- but not before he snarled and went after Zoey, making contact with her.

No harm was done, except that the lab got in trouble and Zoey and I were a little flustered on our run -- but think about it -- is the reason the dog went after Zoey the same as the trigger that caused his behavior? I do not think so.

As Elizabethanne noted so well, we cannot assume Zoey (or the Puli in the Ferret Story) was the trigger -- it may have been that any dog at the start line would have caused it -- or it could be her color, her breed or the fact that she is beautiful and the lab is plain (okay, sorry ;). It would take a little investigating to figure out exactly what the trigger was for that lab's behavior.

But even if we establish the trigger, does that tell us WHY the dog responds as he does to the trigger? I do not think so -- it could be any number of things, and likely in combination, and I just do not know how we can really know what those are.

The danger in assuming we know is that if we are wrong, we can make things worse -- and certainly not better. This is true for both triggers and also causal factors -- not accurately assessing a trigger causes us to assume the trigger is a Puli when, in fact, it is an evil, slinky, menacing ferret. So if we are trying to solve a non-existent Puli Problem, we completely miss the real issue - and so it doesn't get solved!

And do we have to know why Charley, the World's Most Perfect Poodle, has such an issue with ferrets in order to address it? I am just not sure how we could ever really know why he has such a bias against fun, friendly, fuzzy ferrets - but it would be entertaining to make up reasons! And I could charge money to people for this -- I could make up reasons that dogs behave as they do, and then charge big bucks to the owners -- and how could they prove I was wrong?! They couldn't -- perfect!

So, the reason Charley has issues with ferrets is because when he was a puppy he was bitten by one. That is boring -- let me try again. The reason Charley has an issue with ferrets is because he has some insecurities and fears in general, caused by bad breeding and early weaning and a traumatic toilet training experience, and they are mostly hidden but come out when in the presence of ferrets because Charley was actually born in the Month of the Ferret in the Rodent Calendar. Oh -- I have a better one! The reason Charley has an issue with ferrets is because ferrets are frequently possessed by devils - but only certain dogs know this and clearly Charley is one. He is barking at the evil spirit because if you get too close, the devil jumps from the ferret to the dog owner, who then starts feeding Old Roy dog food, watching The Dog Whisperer, and investing in shock collars. Friends -- prove me wrong!

And therein lies the problem -- we cannot know the inner workings of a mind, and so you -- and dog trainers (and therapists) everywhere -- are free to make it up! Since I am both of those things -- well, clearly I am not achieving my full (income) potential ;)

I just want to say this -- sometimes I do look for the why's and think they matter. But in training -- usually not. As a breeder, I do. Why do Maize -- and Charley -- have such great temperaments? I want to know because I want more dogs like that, and so I try on all kinds of ideas -- genetics, upbringing, environment, etc. But even when I want to know, I cannot always have the answer -- and I think that is true for most complex things like temperament and cancer and so on.

Answers make us feel in control -- but those answers are usually just stories we tell ourselves (and others). I think life is about learning to both seek answers and live with the realities of questions/ambiguities.

And the moral of today's Blog: Avoid ferrets -- and Pulis are kind of strange, too.

2 comments

by Marti Simons on Thu, 08/18/2011 - 10:56

Hmm, I think Charley knows that ferrets want to be dominant. . . .so he is not going to give in to them or go near them. He clearly needs more exercise and to be exposed to ferrets while in a pack. Sorry I digress. . .

It is interesting though. I know Mav is afraid of the dogwalk because it is hard for him to do and he falls off sometimes. And sometimes when he falls off it hurts and is scary. So we have worked a lot on making the dogwalk easier (doing it at a trot) and being successful. So he is more comfortable doing the dogwalk and he runs the dogwalk (instead of trotting) and falls off and we start the whole crazy cycle again. Grrr. So now in addition to working on the dogwalk issue again we are training a trot command. :) That needs to be absolutely perfect every time even when he is super excited. Because everytime he runs the dogwalk he is in jeopardy. His running footprint is 16" and his trotting footprint is 9". Any words of wisdom on making this command "perfect"?

by Becky on Fri, 08/19/2011 - 10:37

I recently found your blog and have enjoyed reading it very much. And this topic is so very poignant to us! My 2 year old Berner is much smarter than I am and smarter than our almost 10 year old ever has been! And because of her smarts I am stubbing my training toes on a few things.

It is refreshing to read this topic and hear other experiences. It's nice to be reassured to listen to ourselves; we know our dogs the best. And not every training experience is a 'one size fits all'.

So often we (I) forget the fun, and our (my) own gut check. Thanks for the reminder!

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