For want of a nail, the shoe was lost…. Foundation Behaviors.

A female Bullmastiff puppy.

A female Bullmastiff puppy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, a few years ago a man hurried through a simple routine task which no one would ever see, and last week a backhoe came through the living room window.  Cause and effect.

There were some intermediate steps, of course.  The workman did not properly install a gasket on my parents’ well pump.  Perhaps he wasn’t paying close attention or was distracted with other thoughts; perhaps he thought that no one would ever notice a shoddy job buried deep underground.  But he cut a simple job of a few minutes even shorter.

Everything looked fine for a while.  But gradually, there began to be signs of trouble — first minor, then more obvious.  After a few years, the improperly-fitted gasket had deteriorated to the point where the gritty, muddy water had fouled the water softener bed, sending our area’s extremely hard water to stain and etch fixtures and to corrode plumbing, clogging the water heater and the dishwasher and choking the washing machine so that it couldn’t operate.  Rust and grime had cut off more than 90% of the waterflow.

Mom had called for help even before it got so bad, and a well company identified the problem and scheduled a repair.  But it’s spring in Indiana, which is mud season, and as the backhoe operator was refilling the repair trench, it slid suddenly in the slick mud and crashed through the living room window.

It struck, of course, the less common design, which had to be specially ordered for replacement.  So my parents are living with plastic over their living room wall.

The well company is picking up the cost of the window repair, but even without factoring in that additional cost, the total damages and repairs resulting from the faulty gasket, repairing or replacing the pump and plumbing, is almost $4,000 and counting — plus the consternation of living with a shattered window wrapped in plastic, the damage to fixtures and appliances, the muddy destruction of the yard, and more.

So, what does this have to do with dog training?  A lot, in fact.

Not long ago I was called to see a puppy for basic training.  The puppy greeted me at the door and then retreated, giving me exaggerated play bows and showing extreme excitement at a distance.  I asked if this were the puppy’s usual greeting behavior — this display was a red flag to me — and was told that no, she must like me, because she’s even more enthusiastic than usual; more often she was a bit slower to approach.

No kidding; I’d be surprised if she were approaching strangers calmly at all.  What I was seeing was classic displacement, a puppy choosing to “fool around” (the third of the Four F’s of stress) instead of “flight” (the first).  Sure enough, within a few minutes, the puppy had retreated to her crate.  When I explained to the family that their puppy was showing early signs of fearfulness and the conflict she’d displayed at the door could develop into serious fear-aggression if not treated, they nodded politely and tuned me out; their puppy was cute and just excited, as puppies are wont to be.  There was no cause for alarm; how much trouble could a bouncy, play-bowing puppy be?

And the gasket dripped a little more.

I’m working with another client who regularly exposed her pup to children, knowing she should socialize the dog.  The dog saw lots of kids — lots and lots of kids.  No one was cruel to the pup, but seeing a couple dozen excited children at once was likely too much for the puppy.  Because there wasn’t much training which might request specific behavior, no one noticed that the puppy’s stillness was due not to relaxed calm but to inhibition and suppressed anxiety, until the puppy grew and began to bark and growl at strangers and young relations.  The owner called me after the dog bit a toddler.

Foundation behaviors are relatively simple, but one simply cannot do without them, in my professional opinion.  I don’t need to ask much of a pup (although they are generally capable of far more than what we do ask), but it’s absolutely critical that some training and proper socialization take place.  It is so fast and so easy to teach an eager, excited young puppy to target (useful for recalls and husbandry behaviors), to walk beside a human leg (useful for enjoyable leash outings), to sit to greet a friendly stranger (useful for self-control, safety, and general manners).  I can teach the average pup to settle on a mat (useful for self-control and management) in less than five minutes, using only a mat, a clicker, and some tasty tidbits.  After that, it’s just a matter of increasing duration and distraction.

There’s really no excuse for failing to lay these solid foundations.  A few minutes early in the dog’s life can prevent years of problems later, hundreds or thousands of dollars in training costs, and countless hours of behavioral frustration.  If you don’t have the time to train now, when it’s easy to establish a good habit in only a few minutes, when will you have the time to fix a major behavior issue?

Stop the madness before it starts — lay a solid behavioral foundation.  It’s much, much more efficient to install the gasket properly than to remove the backhoe from the living room.

You’re probably familiar with the proverb referenced in the title, but here are a couple of verses I love continuing the theme:

For the want of a marker
The doctors lost their place
For the want of a cut-line
They couldn’t lift his face
For the want of a facelift
His ratings dropped
Then the sitcom folded
Then the network flopped

… For the want of a cough drop
The musher’s throat went hoarse
For the want of direction
The huskies went off course
Then the sled got snowbound
It took some time to free `em
Now they’re on display
Inside the British Museum

— “It’s All Who You Know,” lyrics by Peter Furler & Steve Taylor

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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