Why Can't You Be Good?

Why can’t you be good and do just as you should? …Oh why can’t you behave? (Ella Fitzgerald)

“Should we talk about Otis?" asked one of the shelter volunteers. Just before that question had been asked, I had mentally begun to think about wrapping up the day long training session at the shelter. As soon as the question was hanging out there, I spotted an unusual number of glances that shot back and forth between members of the group. It was as if everything that had gone on before this moment were just appetizers; "Otis" was clearly the entree. No one from this group wanted to go anywhere until the situation with Otis had been resolved. "Sure", I said. Then I asked the volunteer to fill me on Otis. 

Several trainers and I had offered our services pro bono for a day to this particular shelter and had traveled to the shelter from Indianapolis earlier in the day.  Accordingly, we were providing on-site training for a group of staff and volunteers at their small, limited admission shelter. The shelter coordinator had indicated that there were a number of "problem dogs" at the shelter and there was disagreement in their group about how these particular dogs should be handled. A few in the group had concluded that most of the problem dogs were "dominant" and had resorted to using harsh methods of handling the dogs. Another faction was not convinced that these methods were wise or safe but lacked an understanding of how to work with the dogs more humanely and effectively. Otis seemed to be a dog that was symbolic of the differences in the groups. 

Warren and I had each been working with a group of volunteers and Tom was moving between the groups providing roving support. The group I was working with was in the back of the shelter where the dogs were housed. This section of the shelter was cooled only by a series of large fans that were all turned to “high” in response the rising heat and humidity of the day. The noise created by the fans and barking dogs meant that any kind of meaningful human-human conversation was pretty much futile. So the group I was with had worked a number of dogs and then periodically debriefed in the quieter, air-conditioned lobby the shelter.

As the volunteer who had asked about Otis led our group to his indoor run, I wondered how Otis came by his name. The name Otis conjured up the image of the beefy, disheveled character on the old Andy Griffith show that would lock himself in the town jail when he had too much to drink. The canine Otis seemed to be a Lab-Newfoundland cross and his long, jet-black coat gave him the tousled, unkempt look reminiscent of this television namesake. It turned out this Otis' had the reputation for being two standard deviations below polite when on a leash, and as a result there were only two volunteers still willing to walk him. Hardly enough exercisers for this boy. 

Otis had a second habit that was also not winning him favor with those at the shelter. Specifically, once Otis came back from being walked, he was often reluctant to return to his area. This was really pretty understandable given that Otis’ “suite”, like those of the 40 or so dogs that lived around him, consisted of a 6’x8’ concrete space with a chain link fence on the front of it and no direct access to the outdoors. Otis used the "vote with your paws" method of resisting going back into his suite. Specifically, Otis would stop quickly from a walk and collapse onto the floor as dead weight. To deal with Otis when he did this, the shelter staff and volunteers had been using a variety of techniques. These techniques that ranged from combative (i.e., having 2 people grab Otis’ legs and drag him) to pleading and luring with food. 

For the first part of the hands-on session with Otis I had decided to address his leash manners. So, with Otis leashed, we moved to the outdoor exercise area. Once outside, however, Otis briefly sniff around and then rather blankly looked back at all the people watching him. A few in the group voiced disappointment that Otis was not showing me all his rogue behaviors and this was offered as evidence that Otis was not only dominant but cunning and deceptive. I suspected that Otis' was not showing me his full repertoire of leash habits because the heat index must have easily reached 100 degrees. At any rate, I explained that when a dog does not do an undesired behavior 100% of the time that is actually a good thing! The chances of modifying an undesired behavior increase if the dog is able to show what is referred to as behavioral adaptability or flexibility. Judging from the reactions of those in the group, I doubt my explanation changed the mind of any of Otis’s critics. 

When it came time to return Otis back to his area, he placidly sauntered back into his suite. Once again, the detractors of Otis voiced disappointment that Otis was not demonstrating what some of the shelter folks had wanted me to see. To reinforce the idea that "dogs learn from consequences" as soon as Otis had returned to his suite, I reattached his leash and walked him back into the aisle. I wanted to help Otis understand that the consequence of loading cooperatively back into his suite was that he may earn the opportunity to be let out again. So, for several minutes, Otis and I made a little game of his going in and out of his area and Otis being provided with treats, attention and more freedom in exchange for his cooperative behavior. Most of the volunteers seemed to be sensing the utility of this approach and Otis appeared to be having a great time as well. 

As a trainer you learn that there is an art to knowing when to end a working demonstration with a dog. On the one hand, you want to provide enough trials so that the human learner(s) have an opportunity to see some progress in the dog. Additionally, with each additional trial you are, ideally, building rapport with the dog and strengthening the dog's understanding between the desired behaviors and reinforcements provided. On the other hand, if you work a dog too long you risk having the dog lose interest or fatiguing. This was exactly what happened with Otis as he quickly went from "cookin" to "overcooked". Otis ended our game by unceremoniously dropping to the floor. With Otis outside of his suite, I was now in the same position that the shelter volunteers had been in numerous times. I knew that the group would carefully watch how I responded. Hmm...what to do?

With the pause in the action, I took a moment to look around. Warren and Tom were engaged with the other group in another part of the shelter. When I looked back at Otis, I had the benefit of doing so with fresh eyes.  I almost laughed out loud at how utterly comfortable Otis appeared to be as he lounged like a czar on the floor. The concrete aisle had just been mopped and large fans were blowing air down the center of aisle. The black dog with the long coat that had just been out exercising in the sun chose to cool off on the wet concrete where there was a breeze. In making his choice of where to lie down, Otis picked the coolest spot in the house. Smart dog! And, although I couldn't be sure, it also seemed that Otis knew that all eyes in the room were on him and he was enjoying the attention immensely. 

After savoring the moment of watching Otis, I moved down the aisle and turned off the fan that was directing air at Otis. My intent in tuning off the fan was not to be mean-spirited to Otis, but I did need to do some short-term management of his environment. As the fan came to a stop, Otis pulled his head off the floor and looked around. He seemed to be less comfortable with the fan off but he didn't budge his bum from the floor. Otis watched as I then began moving toward the collie that was housed across from Otis. Pausing at the gate I have the collie a moist meat treat to reinforce the behavior of sitting quietly by her gate. I then moved down the aisle to another dog. I lingered there a bit longer to give the Rottweiler mix a few more opportunities to be reinforced for soft eye contact. By this time, Otis had moved into a perky “sit” and his head was swiveling around to watch what was going on around him. 

When I got to back to where Otis was still sitting in the center of the aisle, I simply ignored him and kept moving down the aisle in the other direction. I gestured to two of the volunteers who were nearby and asked if they would join me in reinforcing dogs in their suites for quiet behavior. Otis was now on his feet and moving briskly to his dog suite. He stepped in to his suite and sat down crisply in just enough time to get a treat as a volunteer was coming past. Otis looked like a school child sliding into his seat at the last possible moment to be counted as "present" on the attendance sheet and thereby avoiding a trip to the principal's office. A few of the volunteers had the good sense to cheer for Otis. Yeah, I admit it, I sighed with some relief and then I too made a fuss over Otis. 

In reflecting on the exchange that had unfolded with Otis, I wondered what has prompted him to move into his dog kennel on his own. Had he simply cooled off enough after being in the sun? Did he want to get in on the food distribution that seemed easy enough to earn? Did the fact that all the other dogs were getting reinforced and he was not have any bearing? It seems likely that it was some combination of the above, but of course, it is impossible to know for sure. Here is what I do know...

First, I know as humans we are quick to resort to using physical and often harsh methods of handling dogs like Otis. Not only does all this pushing and straining take a lot of energy, it is rarely fruitful over the long-haul. Finally, I know that I smile every time I think of Otis and hope that he has found a home with someone as smart as he. 

Here’s to hoping that you have many teachers in your life like Otis!

Eileen