This is the second post in my series on Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance“ protocol for bonding with your dog and preventing or fixing behavior issues.
Today’s focus is Number Five — “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Here are the instructions:
At least once a day, handle the dog. Repeat the words, “These are my ears! This is my paw! This is my muzzle! This is my tail!” as you handle him. If he fusses, go slower. It’s important that the dog has a positive experience – that he comes to see that you will be handling him and it’s of no concern to him. When he’s completely relaxed and accepts your handling, say OK and release him.
Like “Sing a Song,” in my previous post, this is a fun exercise. And it gets funnier when I actually do it.
I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on handling Barnum since he arrived, which has sometimes been quite work-intensive. We are still not done with handling exercises, especially where veterinarians are concerned. Barnum does not like vets. Yet.
But with other people, who do not “smell like vet,” Barnum’s very good. I’ve even had strangers do the “hugs” (restraint) hold on him or pick him up in the air. (This must be done by a strong person, since Barnum weighs around 80 pounds!)
With me, and other people he knows and trusts, he enjoys handling immensely, though he’s not as fond of having his ears rubbed as Gadget was, which is too bad because Barnum’s ears are so soft and silky.
We generally do handling on the floor, because it’s easiest, and because Barnum is delighted when I get down on his level and afford him the opportunity to give my face a thorough washing. I know eventually I need to get him used to being up on tables and having me handle him from above. For now, however, we’re focusing on him being relaxed and happy to be handled, including withstanding all manner of grooming.
I’ve added grooming to our LTD protocol. It makes sense to follow up a “Possession” session with a round of grooming. Raking out mats, de-gunking his eyes and ears (he has the hairiest ears ever!), and trimming the fur between his toes (which mats terribly easily), are some of the most important areas.
Our handling “last frontier” — after relaxation with vets — is teaching Barnum to be comfortable with my fingers in his mouth. It’s not an issue of him being dangerous or biting — on the contrary, he wants nothing more than to quickly spit out any fingers that find their way in, accompanied by a facial expression I translate as “Ewwww.” My goal is greater ease in removing foreign objects he has decided not to give up (I know, that’s another training area we need to firm up), and allowing me to brush his teeth (as opposed to him treating the toothbrush like a chew toy) and give him medicine.
This last has become especially important since two days ago, when — being The Dog from Mars — Barnum decided he doesn’t like pill pockets. I have never before heard of a dog (or cat) who didn’t love any Greenies product, especially Pill Pockets. But, there it is, Mr. Picky keeps trying to outdo himself in the “I can live without food, thank you” department of dog weirdness.
He doesn’t even eat around the pill, as some dogs will do — spitting out the medicine and eating the treat. Even if I give him a fresh, empty Pill Pocket, he spits it out (as if it were a finger)! One day Pill Pockets were a tasty treat, the next day — feh!
So, I have to shove the pill to the back of his throat and hold his muzzle closed while I stroke his neck. I think he’d be more comfortable with me taking his temperature (which is done at the other end of the dog).
Fortunately, in the area of tolerance for pressure or discomfort, he has lived up to his breeder’s observations and temperament tests — very mellow. This is important because of his coat and how it must be groomed.
You see, Bouviers are hypoallergenic and don’t shed; their thick outer coat keeps loose hair from their undercoat trapped beneath. This means that to prevent mats, you have to get underneath to brush out the loose hair. It’s a lot more work than with a dog with a “normal” coat. With Jersey, brushing her out once a week was enough. With Gadget, twice a week.
With Barnum, if I don’t brush him at least every other day (now that he has his long, winter ‘do), he gets so itchy that he rubs up against the chain link fence when he goes out! He has the curliest, wiriest, thickest coat I’ve ever had to wrangle. Wrangling requires hauling undercoat rakes and mat-breakers through his fur, pulling or breaking off the dead hair. Some dogs don’t like this kind of intensive brushing but Barnum enjoys the attention and isn’t bothered by the tugging.
In the summer, primarily to make tick checking easier, as well as to reduce grooming work and to provide him relief from the heat, Betsy and I clip Barnum down. These “before” and “after” pictures show the kind of serious implements needed to groom a bouvier. . . .
(No! Of course we don’t use hedge clippers on the dog! This was a joke. Never, ever use hedge clippers to groom your dog! Very dangerous! Use appropriate dog-grooming tools.)
Back to LTD’s “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The first night I was performing this little ritual, Betsy walked in on me.
There I sat on the floor, groping Barnum, whose tail was wagging happily. “This is my right foot!” I proclaimed, as I held up Barnum’s right forepaw. “I own this right foot!”
Then I moved on to his ear. “This is my right ear! I own this right ear!”
Betsy looked at me as if my cheese had slipped off my cracker. “Why are you saying those are your ears?” She asked.
“It’s part of Leading the Dance,” I said, and continued. “This is my right elbow!” I grasped Barnum’s elbow and talked in a silly voice to him, gently moving his elbow as I chanted. “I own this right elbow! I can do anything I want with this elbow!”
Because she had asked, I tried to give Betsy an explanation of why this exercise is part of “Leading the Dance.” I was vague, though, because while I knew intuitively why it was useful, I had a hard time articulating it. In some ways, it reminds me of my days as a self-defense instructor.
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’ll explain.
It seems to me that there are two important aspects to this “Possession” exercise. One is physical, the other, mental.
The physical, hands-on part ensures that you handle your dog all over, at least once a day. This helps build trust and bonding by making the dog comfortable and happy being handled. That’s pretty straightforward.
The mental part is saying, “This is my ear! This is my muzzle!” etc. It is not a mental exercise for the dog, but for the human. These are a form of “affirmations” — declaring something to be true in order to make it true. Affirmations, at their best, can use your intentional thoughts to create or change an internal or external reality. Thus, they have the potential to be incredibly powerful and empowering, even transformative.
I experienced this transformative power when I was in college (twenty-something years ago), when I took a self-defense course. Near the beginning of the course, we were learning about assertiveness. Part of this involved practice in walking and talking like a person who was aware, in control, and centered. In other words, someone less likely to be perceived as an easy victim.
The instructor led us through three types of visualizations. The first two exercises — focusing on my breath or envisioning a powerful light emanating from my center of gravity — didn’t work for me. The last suggestion was to come up with a word or phrase that made us feel strong and centered — an affirmation, in other words — and repeat it (silently) to ourselves.
First we practiced them, standing still, eyes closed. Then we walked around, continuing our focus.
Like most (all?) young women, by that time I had experienced a fair amount of sexual harassment. Examples included stalking, a rape threat from a (former) boyfriend, being chased by a stranger on the street, and other words and actions by men (and a small number of women) that created a sense that my body was not my own.
However, the main reason I took the class — the greatest cause of my feeling of vulnerability — was that, as one of the few out queers on campus, I’d experienced quite a bit of gay bashing. This ranged from verbal assaults, such as being called a “lezzy” (among many other things) and having a science professor tell me I was a “genetic aberration,” to physical ones, including having rocks thrown at me and a piece of cement hurled through my window.
Therefore, I did not feel safe walking around school or town. Further, some part of me believed that I did not have as much right as anyone else to be who I was or do what I wanted. Though I would have vociferously denied it if asked directly, the message had sunk in that anywhere I went in public, I was asking for abuse, simply by my presence.
I tried on a lot of the positive affirmations suggested by the self-defense instructor, such as, “I am safe,” or “I am at home in my body,” or “I can take care of myself.” None got to the kernel for me. They left me feeling weaker.
I thought about how I wanted to feel when I walked on campus or in the city, how I wanted to feel that I owned public space like anyone else. What popped into my head was, “My fucking street. My fucking sidewalk. My fucking world.” Yeah, I was a little different.
Our homework was to practice our chosen method for the next week as we moved between classes or walked home from a party at night or rode the subway. My posture, my attitude, the way I walked, all changed — forever. I carried with me into my future the knowledge that I had just as much right to be wherever I was as anyone else — definitely a blessing when I became disabled a few years later.
I continued to study various martial arts and became a self-defense teacher, myself. I taught these same visualizations and affirmations to my students (though I did not offer my “affirmation” as a suggestion to the students). It was a joy to witness each student changing how they held themselves as they simply walked in a circle in our classroom, focused on their breath or chosen words or imagery.
So what does this have to do with dog training?
In my opinion, when handling your dog — if you have a good and safe relationship with your dog, full of mutual love, trust, and respect, you can more fully embody the belief that no part of your dog’s body is off-limits to you. You are letting him — and more importantly, yourself — know that you can approach him for pilling, nail-trimming, or brushing of teeth or coat, with quiet, loving assurance.
Dogs respond to this. Canine interaction is much more about body language, non-spoken cues, than it is about vocalizing. They will pick up on our calm, benevolent intentionality.
Humans, on the other hand, tend to be blatherers (of which I am a shining example!). Therefore, giving us something to say while we do this exercise makes us more comfortable. Indeed, how can we help but feel a little silly saying, “This is my muzzle!” as we stroke our dog’s nose? This silliness comes through in our tone and pitch and the way we touch our dogs, creating a fun experience for them, too.
Practicing “whole dog body” possession can sound and look even funnier still. For one thing, Betsy and I name Barnum’s body parts as we handle them — we’ve been doing this for months based on a tip from a sister SDiT trainer. This has helped Barnum a lot with confidence in being handled, particularly by veterinarians and vet techs, because he knows what part is going to be manipulated — or that he can offer — ahead of time.
This planned-in silliness, combined with my tendencies for perfectionism and improvisation, leads to some rather odd pronouncements. To whit, Betsy not only witnessed me saying, “This is my left hock! I own this left hock!” and “I own this tail! I can do anything I want to with this tail!” But, also, “This is my left England!”
You don’t know that one? Betsy does.
When Gadget had an episode of weakness that might have been related to heart damage from chemotherapy, the vet told me I should monitor his pulse. When I taught Betsy how to take Gadget’s pulse, I showed her where to put her fingers: “the inguinal area,” or inner thigh.
What I didn’t realize until many months later was that Betsy thought I’d said, “the Englandal area.” Eventually we realized we were saying different words, and it became a joke. We now refer to Barnum’s inner thighs as “England.” (I won’t tell you which parts are assigned to other nations in the European Union.) Like most relaxed, trusting dogs, Barnum enjoys having “England” rubbed, so I make sure to do that.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? . . . After all, I’m required to handle the whole dog.
I worked my way around his underside — armpits (scratch, scratch), ribs and belly (rub, rub) and then. . . . “This is my penis!” I said.
Betsy just shook her head. “That’s disturbing,” she said.
Being a dog, however, Barnum didn’t care. Just like he doesn’t care when I trim the hair in that area that’s matted with urine. After all, it’s not like I’m up at his mouth, trying to rub his gums with my fingers or get him to eat a (disgusting) Pill Pocket. Perhaps I should tell him to just lie back and think of England.
-Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget
Your comments are welcome, as always!
[1.] Caution! Affirmations have their limits. Most of the time, when I read or hear about the use of affirmations, it is in the context of our American obsession with the idea that we can control our lives by “thinking positive thoughts.” This form of New Age thinking has been a scourge on the disability community.
Specifically, it is very popular for people (usually those who are not seriously or chronically ill or disabled) to tell others who are seriously or chronically ill or disabled to use affirmations to “heal” or cure ourselves. Such suggestions are intrusive, ridiculous (because if affirmations worked to cure all serious illness, nobody would be chronically or terminally ill, would they?), and at their root, victim-blaming (because they imply that we do have control over our bodies, so if we fail to recover from injury or illness, it is our fault). I drew an extremely popular cartoon on this topic, in fact.
Affirmations are empowering when used to change one’s perspective or other circumstances that one can control. They are disempowering when proposed as solutions for circumstances one cannot control, such as curing one’s disability. Back to post.
[2.] Please note that this is only true if you do actually have a mutually safe, trusting relationship. The full “Possession” instructions from LTD include this warning: “If your dog won’t allow you to handle him like this without getting angry or getting away, DO NOT do this exercise. Do the rest of the exercises and use the clicker to teach the dog to allow this handling later.” Back to post.