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Let Digging Dogs Dig

So, as is often the case I got into a bit of a tussle with someone on social media. Someone was looking for an ecollar because 'rewards-based training' hadn't worked to teach her eight month old puppy not to dig in the garden when she wasn't there.

Of course, there's a lot wrong with this whole picture, so let's unpack it a bit. First, leaving a dog alone in the garden without a HUGE history of appropriate behavior in the same context will not work, regardless of the training style.*

In order to leave a dog alone in any context, you have to have spent countless hours in that context with your dog teaching them the correct behavior. This is as true for outside in the yard as it is for inside the house.

My rule of thumb is a year of supervision because I really like my stuff and want to keep it.

This dog was eight months old.

Second, an ecollar, used properly is no more magic than any other training method (with a HUGE Caveat, which we will address in a second). Unless this person is willing to still put in the hours, an ecollar is still a form of training and the time is still necessary to create change.

*Here's the caveat: Single event learning. Single event learning is what we do when we grab a wasp or a cactus as a child. The experience is so jarring and unpleasant that we never ever do either of these behaviors again. This is what many folks think of when they go searching for the magic bullet provided by the ecollar: cause such a massive amount of fear and pain that the dog never ever considers the behavior again.

For the record, outside of very limited situations (such as rattlesnake aversion training here in the US, or Kiwi aversion training in New Zealand - the first to protect the life of the dog, the second to protect the lives of small endangered flightless birds), this is not how the vast majority of skilled ecollar trainers train.

I am not opposed to the proper use of ecollars. I am not opposed to single-event learning in the rare cases mentioned above.

I am opposed to single-event learning for a natural dog behavior because the owner could not take the time to do things right. And this is where the fight happened.

I suggested providing the dog a location where digging is appropriate, and teaching the dog to dig there. If the owner wants to speed up the process with a mild punisher for getting into the garden instead of the designated spot, then so be it, though a $300+ ecollar seems a bit steep for something that can be solved with a long-line, recall, interrupter word, hand clap, or if you want to get really crazy, a penny can.

My suggestion that the dog be permitted to practice their natural behavior triggered another trainer who was astonished that I would consider allowing the dog to dig if those actions caused inconvenience to the owners (I would hate to be this asshat's dog!)

So, like all great debaters, he through up a straw-man argument and frothed at the mouth at my permissive ways in the face of clear felonious behavior in dogs. His straw man argument was, "dogs like to eat garbage, would I allow this?"

So, let's unpack the shit logic in this argument: Digging is an action - holes in the garden is a result - but they need not be linked. Dogs can be taught to dig in a specific location, a box of rolled up paper, on walks, at a layer cake of towels with food hidden inside.

Eating garbage is a result. The behavior is scavenging. And, yes, I believe dogs should be able to fulfill their natural scavenging behaviors if that lights their fires. Only an idiot would see getting in the garbage as the only possible result of scavenging. Here's how to provide dogs the opportunity to scavenge: throw a handful of food on the floor or lawn. If that seems too easy, scent work will also fulfill that need, as will walks in the environment where the dog is permitted to follow their nose.

Do they need to find anything to eat? no, because like digging, scavenging is a behavior - finding something to stick in their mouth, or roll in is a bonus. Sure, chucking food on the ground from time to time makes it a more enjoyable game, but it isn't mandatory.

Dogs are dogs, and they come with certain behaviors, digging and scavenging are part of that grab bag, and the idea that it is ok to traumatize a dog out of doing that behavior is repugnant.

I am proud to say that I did not tell the trainer in question that he was an idiot if he couldn't figure out that digging need not result in holes any more than scavenging results in overturned garbage cans.

But, I did think (somewhat angrily) about how little imagination and nuance this guy brought to his profession, and the needless extermination of enjoyable behaviors that he visited upon the dogs in his care. I thought about life under the regimen of such a person, with no chance of parole. How terribly sad for these dogs - and no doubt, they are all incredibly 'well-behaved', if that is the primary metric by which we value our dogs.

I - and I hope everyone reading this - actually enjoy dogs for being dogs: for rolling in gross stuff - even though I don't like it; for putting gross stuff in their mouths - even though I find it repugnant; for chasing lizards, barking at BBBs (Big Black Birds - the arch nemisis of all of my dogs), shedding on my stuff, breathing used dog breath in my face - all of it. I want my dogs to live huge, joyful, adventure filled lives. I want to live with an animal expressing animal behaviors within a human context, not stripped of those behaviors to conform to human whims. Where it matters, sure, I will affect my dog's behavior even if those behaviors are natural: No scavenging in the city, because yuck and danger! No fixating on cows on walks, no chasing deer out of sight, etc...

But, where it doesn't affect me, or where the effect is minimal, and there is no danger to myself, my dogs, or others, I will absolutely let them fulfill their dogginess because, if I didn't what kind of life am I creating for my dog? What kind of dog-owner does that make me?

It can be a challenge at times, to step out of our 'shouldn't do that' box and take a longer view. Sometimes it's hard to parse the action from the result and see a way forward that fulfills the needs and desires of both parties. I challenge myself and you to take the time and find a way, because in the end, our dog's lives are richer for it.

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