What better way to begin blogging than to start with an apology…to a Basset Hound named Abby?
I woke up this morning with a heavy heart and I’m doing what I usually do when something either bothers or excites me (and don’t dare call anyone at 5:30 a.m.): I write.
Yesterday, I violated every principle that I founded West Coast Pets upon: I caused pain to a dog and forced her to endure a procedure (toenail clipping) even though she was clearly (CLEARLY) terrified about it. I took advantage of her good nature not to bite me. Instead, she kicked and screamed. I caused trauma and violated any trust she had in me.
Veterinarians and groomers may read this, laugh, and shake their heads. My good friends and colleagues may read this and “unfriend” me. I only have myself to answer to–that self is far more critical. Then there’s my own dog–I answer to him more than to any God. Dramatic writing? I hope so.
I have gained the trust in my closest circle of positive reinforcement training friends to handle my own and their pets with the most advanced, humane techniques known I have set the bar for myself much higher than most pet owners do, on purpose. I want to be different. I want to be extreme. It’s not about me; it’s about them. I hope that taking this stance is infectious and spreads to other caretakers of animals.
What is positive reinforcement training? Rather than provide a full explanation here that has been written about extensively in many books by some of the best I will keep the focus on Abby.
However, check my website in the future as I try to condense the subject for beginners to break it down into enticing bites. If you’re more ambitious, try reading “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor or visit her website http://www.clickertraining.com. Do you have a background in psychology? Pull out your textbooks and refer to Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.
In short, I spend an unimaginable amount of time training animals to accept unpleasant procedures using gifts and rewards for good behavior rather than forcing them to tolerate things that frighten and more deeply entrench their reactions. I’m trying to set them up for a lifetime of good treatment by anyone who must handle them.
So, what were the factors that would lead me to owing Abby an apology?
- Lack of a written policy.
- Assumptions about typical owners.
I’ll integrate all of these into an ideal scenario.
Someone hears about “The Great Saratini” in San Diego. The Ms. Doolittle of her small world. If you know me, you would know this is pure sarcasm…my dorky idea of humor. Sometimes I think I receive a little too much credit from people. The credit goes to the real stars, the teachers and researchers who developed these techniques as well as the heroes who are the animals themselves. I remind myself daily that it is a gift and a privilege to get to work with and/or care for them–not the other way around.
So, based on a recommend (or maybe a pet owner has simply heard that I “groom dogs”) someone decides to call me and set an appointment to have their dog groomed. If this dog and their person know about positive reinforcement methods and my commitment to them, no problem. We take the time to set the environment and proceed in a way that provides maximum benefits for their pet.
If not, I am currently in a dilemma. The average person who takes their pet to a groomer expects low cost and fast service. They may not even realize what happens to their dog or cat after they leave a salon, vet, kennel, etc. Explaining what I do, in detail requires a lot of wind. I want to be nice. I don’t want to disappoint. And that’s how I ended up letting Abby down.
So, back to my ideal scenario.
Phone: Ring, Ring.
“West Coast Pets may I help you?”
“Is this the real owner of Ranger? I’ve heard so much about him!”
“Why, yes it is. I’ll let him know he has another fan. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Well, I’ve heard that he shacks up with a gal named Sara who incidentally knows how to cut and shape fur, trim toenails and the like and that she uses fully positive methods to achieve this. I read her website thoroughly and understand that this approach takes some time and is more costly initially than just going to a regular groomer who is often under intense pressure to groom as many dogs in a day as they can. In order to do so they may crate dogs for, sometimes, an entire day and force them to cooperate…or else.
“Yes, that’s true. Anything else today, Sir?”
“Yes, I have read her website and am prepared to do what it takes to help my dog. I would like to stay and watch and, perhaps, work alongside her to train my dog as she works. Is this allowed?”
“Oh! Well, this is Sara and I am very pleased that you called and are prepared to go the distance. Yes, I know how to groom dogs and cats…it’s a nifty talent and
obsession skill . I apply science-based training techniques to help dogs handle things that normally might make it uncomfortable for them and/or dangerous for a handler.”
“Great. I would like to schedule 4 appointments and see how it goes.”
“My pleasure. The first appointment is 2 hours long–I use the time to become acquainted with your pet and to assess what approach to take and answer questions. I will try to teach your dog a new handling-related behavior (such as offering their paw for sanding toenails). The second appointment is where I normally expect to see the pet voluntarily offering the behavior I have taught. Appointments 3 and 4 are where we practice and make bring it all home to, hopefully, solidify the new conditioned responses and behaviors so that your dog is confident and comfortable.”
“And I can watch?”
“In person and in real time.”
“Goody. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Neither would I. $425 is the total cost.”
“A bargain. Book me.”
A more real-life scenario.
“Hi, can I book a grooming appt? My neighbor says you groom dogs. I heard you’re cheap.”
If I’m lucky, it’s somewhere in the middle or better.
So, what about Abby?
Abby’s sweet human came to me after adopting her new little malti-poo, Brady. A long-time client and friend told her about my very first grooming clinic. At the clinic, she scheduled an appointment for her other dog, Abby, to come in for a nail trim.
How much does it cost? $10/nails. $12 if I use the Dremel. That’s the short answer, which is what I normally only have time for. The caveat is that these are the prices for dogs who can cooperate.
What do I need to do for the real scenario to become my ideal scenario?
1. Prepared materials. I need to take the time to finish my website and create a handout about the philosophy, methods, and policies of West Coast Pets. I think it is now writing itself as I type.
2. Resist assumptions. Abby came in. She was nervous. My first mistake–I made the assumption that her owner wanted the job done quickly and cheaply and that if I told her about my business that she would think it was all a bunch of hyped-up, overpriced tosh.
3. Resist pressure. I have prepared myself that West Coast Pets may only have one customer–my own dog. If the company survives, then a) it’s a selfish win for me.
I’ve concluded that I’m nearly unemployable in traditional office environments because I’m usually crying inside from boredom or frustration or having a panic reaction to interpersonal politics.
I have always envied, yet never understood how a person could arrive at work looking fresh, bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to work. How come they aren’t as gripey and resentful as I?
They arrive early, aren’t trying to avoid their job, and stay late. How come they stay until the job is done and actually care? I’m usually pretty good at whatever job I’m given, it’s just that, for some reason, I am not invested and am clearly more motivated by “the stick” than “the carrot.”
Doing what I do best is very selfish. I love it. I feel guilty (and so grateful) admitting that I’m having fun. I’ve assumed that everyone would want my job. Surprisingly not. Often clients remark, “Oh, I just do NOT have the patience for that.” Really? Yay! I guess I’m that ideal employee when put in an environment that is like running in a field of bon bons for me.
How is it that I have endless patience to wait for desired animal behavior or can fixate on trying to get one piece of fur trimmed ‘just so’ and, yet, enduring a corporate meeting to celebrate the details of a quarterly success can prompt me to call a doctor to find out just what in the heck is wrong with me?
b) Luckily, for the animals, this fascination benefits them.
So, what about Abby?
I pulled out a pair of clippers and Abby certainly reacted…by screaming. I hadn’t even taken a hold of her foot yet! The argument goes, if she’s screaming anyhow and I haven’t even hurt her, how about if we just ‘go for it’? She screams in protest and I’ll quickly and carefully clip.
Well, the result of that was that Abby became a wild 70+ lb. animal who was screaming, kicking, and pulling. Unfortunately, I’ve had previous experience with wrestling animals in my youth. It came naturally to me to engage in a struggle with the resolve to ‘win.’ It’s seductive and addicting.
I got on the floor and had her in a tight hold. If you were standing outside you would have heard a heck of a racket. Her toenails? Still extra long. No, we didn’t accomplish a thing. Just holding, screaming, and when I’d try to get the clipper onto her toenail, she had an amazing ability to kick it out backwards and make it impossible to get the clip.
If I HAD been able to clip, most likely I would have cut straight into her quick causing her pain and bleeding…which would lead to, guess what? Less cooperation, more fear, and a future of more struggling (hopefully).
Why hopefully? Because I would almost rather see the animal keep up the fight than to become crushed and defeated. I may live to regret those words. I’ll think about them some more, but some of the most difficult animals to help are those who are so shut down from defeat that they are barely trainable with rewards.
Her struggling, in some ways, shows that she is still very alive and persistent. This is smart! It may be that this very dog escapes in the event of a fire. She doesn’t accept defeat.
If I’m lucky, I can direct this persistence in a way that benefits her.
To my small credit. I know when to stop. And stop I did. Almost any grooming shop will charge a small amount to get the job done. And they will…even if it takes 3 people to muzzle, scold, and hold down even a dog as small as a Pomeranian during a full-out battle of the wills. They may also give up and recommend that an owner take the dog to a vet to be anesthetized for such a simple procedure. This is hard on an animal and very costly. Imagine doing this monthly!
Usually what happens though is that the owner gives up and the nails grow long again. If professionals give up and/or get scared, the owners are normally even less confident to do the job themselves when they experience the struggle and/or cause their dog to bleed.
Who suffers? The dog. Long toenails are literally crippling to an animal. It forces their toes to bend sideways when they walk. Still other toenails will curl around and grow right back into the skin. I have had countless experiences of digging a toenail out of a dog’s own skin. Unhappy face. 😦
As an update to the story, Abby just came in for her first lesson this morning. We filmed her and I am so pleased with the results! She will be coming in tomorrow morning again for her follow-up training appt. I can’t wait to review the film footage and post the results to my website.
That darned website!!! Yes, I could have had a website up and running by now, but I’m such a perfectionist in some ways that I it isn’t ready because I’m insisting on building it myself using purely a CSS model, created by me from scratch (tech nerds know what I’m talking aboud).
So, the website gets updated as I plow my way through a complicated “How To” CSS book.
Thank you, Abby for giving me another chance. I’m publishing this article, your film footage, and then challenging myself to write a “West Coast Pets” grooming policy that clearly outlines the process and the costs. Thank you for helping me to get it right.
Where does all that ‘extra’ money go? Right back into the business. It also goes toward free things that I offer to the community to include: A free class to educate people about the differences between positive and punishment based techniques…how to tell the difference.
I’m writing how-to instructions for teaching dogs to detect low-blood-sugar to, hopefully, prevent the “dead in bed” syndrome known to diabetics. I think this needs to be widely available and free (or nearly free).
Sometimes I simply have to give free services where I see a need. Having lived in a trailer park, I have seen that nearly every RV owner has a pet. So often these are people who cannot afford training at all, let alone advanced trainers who go above and beyond. I simply hate to watch these animals get traumatized on a daily basis for “being bad.”
Also, to provide the best of the best (hopefully), I constantly challenge myself to read, attend lectures, achieve titles, etc., etc., which is far more costly than just using the old force and punishment methods, which are completely intuitive.
So, thank you, thank you, thank you for reading. Thank you , Abby for coming back in and giving it another go. You are one smart cookie and a good example of showing us humans a thing or two about forgiveness.
Thanks for helping me to do better. It’s a process to find an effective way to resist pressure and, even better, to find a way to turn it around
West Coast Pets
San Diego, CA
p.s. Stay tuned for Abby’s video!!