When It All Goes Wrong, Abort
It's happened to all of us. Maybe you compete in agility, and halfway through the course, your dog takes off and runs zoomies, blowing you off completely. Maybe you compete in conformation, and for some crazy reason, your dog is extra stressed out, panting non-stop, resistant to well known cues. Perhaps you just wanted to go for a simple walk with your dog, and they lie down on the ground, refusing to move forward. Or the neighbor's gardener steps out from behind a car holding a weed eater, and your startled dog is sure that is really a motorized dog-eating monster. Most of the time, when these types of events transpire, the best thing we can do is abort. Get your dog somewhere they feel safe. Let them relax for a few hours. And give yourself time to recover from the inevitable disappointment. These moments are heartbreaking. We've been working toward them for so long, often spending lots of money to get there, and then... it all goes wrong. It happened to me today. Yep. I'm a professional trainer, and my dog said, "Absolutely not!" to my well thought out, beautifully trained, and (I had hoped) well executed plans. What were the plans? Dental surgery. And my dog said no. We'd been hanging out at the vet office. We'd eaten tasty treats there. We'd sniffed all the things. We'd been relatively comfortable there. We'd worn our muzzle there (and gotten lots of treats for wearing the "treat basket"), and we'd practiced our "hug" and our "shot" behaviors necessary for vet staff to feel safe while I restrain him, and so he will tolerate the intramuscular sedation injection. And we even had him on oral sedation medication prior to his arrival. So how did it go wrong?
My dog Hendrix is a special boy. He's not a fan of strangers, and he has very few friends. Additionally, while I've worked on training all these cool husbandry behaviors, there's been one critical missing element: The stranger. It doesn't matter how many awesome husbandry procedures I can perform on my own dog if he isn't comfortable with the approach of the veterinary staff. So we had two choices: Either use forced restraint to sedate him or turn today into a training exercise and walk away without performing the surgery.
The first option might be the necessary evil if the surgery were critical to his overall health and safety. In this case, he has a few broken teeth that need extraction. But truthfully, they don't bother him nearly as much as his concern over strangers. And if I were to allow a forced restraint that involved strangers, two things would occur: 1.) All progress toward accepting the presence of strangers in the veterinary setting would be gone, and it would be much harder to make progress again in the future, and 2.) There would be a very deep withdrawal from Hendrix's trust account with me, and I can't quite predict the ramifications of that, but none of the possibilities are good. So, because the surgery wasn't absolutely necessary right now, we opted to postpone it until further training could be done. I have an amazing veterinarian (shameless shout out to and promotion of Dr. Predmore and her assistant Tina at Village Oak in Modesto) who volunteered to work with me and Hendrix to help him feel safe in the presence of veterinary staff. Together, we've put a game plan in place to create a ritual (Rituals are predictable and safe!) involving his own private entrance, fun in the exam room, the presence of select staff for treat tosses and building trust with them, and gradually working toward completely voluntary husbandry behaviors with those staff members. Hendrix is a pretty extreme case, so I have some ideas I'm excited about trying to help everyone feel safe (Hendrix and the staff!) by providing opportunities for protected contact while giving Hendrix complete freedom of choice. I'll post photos and videos of the progress, of course. So while I was super disappointed that I couldn't make my boy's face feel better by having the surgery done today, I think today was a great day for us both. He had a mostly good day at the vet, and I got to have a real heart to heart with someone who cares enough about him to help me do the work we need to do to have a better veterinary experience. So we aborted today to prevent emotional damage and to work toward building that better future we all care so much about. And we learned. And we set up a game plan to fix what went wrong this time. And that, dear friends, is behavior. We try something. We don't get the consequence we wanted. We modify and try again. Can you feel how pumped I am to begin executing my new training plan? I'm bouncing in my seat like a child. This is going to be fun, and Hendrix is going to learn that his vet is awesome. Today's aborted plans were a total success, and I hope our experience can help you feel a little better when you find yourself in a situation where everything goes wrong, and you also need to abort. Sometimes quitting is the best possible training in the given situation.
Stay tuned for the followup.