Vinegar or Honey?
Vinegar or Honey?
You know that phrase “you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar”? I was at a large dog show recently and when watching the group judging I was reminded of this phrase and why it is and has always been so true. I was watching the hound group judging and saw two primitive, independent, free thinking sight hounds in the group with similar body language and behavior. Both dogs appeared to be worried, anxious and not much into the group ring experience. Both dogs were looking around and hyper vigilant, both anxiously jumping on their owners for support or feedback. While the dog’s behavior was similar, the handler’s responses to the behavior could not have been more different.
One of the handlers could not have been more appropriate with her dog. She allowed her dog to look to her for support. The handler pet the dog, stayed connected and was gentle and understanding with the dog. The handler’s ability to not get frustrated, embarrassed or frazzled in any way was impressive. I thought to myself that I wish I could teach that level of calmness and levelheadedness, but that is something that can be difficult to practice, let alone master. It was almost as if the more anxious the dog got the kinder she got and the dog responded by accepting her petting and attention and relaxing into her touch. It was really nice to see this handler understand what her dog was trying to communicate to her and the response she gave the dog. They were working as a team and both of them mattered. As hard as it is to do sometimes, it is important that we try to remain calm, gentle and supportive when our dogs or our client dogs are anxious or worried. If the dog is anxious and we ignore that, pressure them or punish them we are not only damaging the relationship between the dog and the owner, we are also likely creating a long lasting issue with the dog having a poor association with showing.
The other handler handled things completely different. She appeared angry and frustrated with the dog. As she went to move the dog and he frantically looked at the judge behind him she corrected him harshly. The dog continued to be spooked and she continued to correct him and get frustrated, neither of which did anything to help the situation. When the judge wasn’t looking and she had the perfect opportunity to connect with him or play with him or simply be there for him, she ignored him. Let’s face it, if the dog is not showing well he is probably not going to get a group placement. Rather than be angry and push him, why not try to turn the situation around and see if you can convince him to trust you and relax? The dog never relaxed and the owner never looked happy with her dog or the least bit supportive.
Being angry with a dog for being fearful will never get you closer to helping the dog or being more successful in the show ring. People who don’t understand how to read canine body language will frequently blame the dog and label him bratty, difficult or stubborn when the truth is the dog is worried in the ring and can’t help how is body is responding. When an animal feels worried or fearful our only concern is getting safe. Dogs do not pretend to be afraid, but it is surprising and a bit sad how many people actually believe that this is the case. It is as if some people would rather believe that their dog would behave that way on purpose rather than accepting the fact that he is afraid and working to help him overcome it.
Some people also mistakenly believe that if a dog is fearful you should not comfort or support the dog as you would then be “reinforcing” the fear. This isn’t the case because fear is not a “behavior” it is an emotion. Emotional responses may include behavioral responses, however these responses are not learned from consequences like trained behaviors are. So, if your dog is worried or fearful feel free to support or comfort your dog, you will not reinforce the fear. At least one study on this topic showed that when fearful dogs were comforted their fear did not increase or maintain. In fact, after comforting dogs during a fearful situation they were not more or less afraid the next time. You may determine that since it wasn’t less the next time it wasn’t helpful to comfort the dog, but just because it didn’t impact the behavior in the future, it may very well have helped the dog during that fearful situation. By all means, be there for your dog just as you would for any friend or family member that was depending on you.
It really is true that you can get more bees with honey and you can get more trust, responsiveness and success by being understanding and kind handed.