By Gary Wilkes
This month’s column isn’t exactly about behavior. It’s about the broader effects of behavior and why I became a trainer and behaviorist. It all started about 35 years ago. I was out of college with no real desire to pursue my chosen profession: architecture. After working a succession of jobs in the town where I went to college, I was offered a job managing the local humane society.
For the next eight years, I worked in some aspect of the humane industry and became convinced of something. I gained this insight by listening to literally tens of thousands of people tell me why they were reclaiming their dog or why they were giving it up. Here’s what I found out: people don’t let dogs run because they think the dog needs the exercise. They don’t let them run because they imagine the dog has friends and likes to party. As for giving the dog to a shelter, people don’t get rid of dogs because they don’t sit, lie down, or roll over on command. People lose track of their dogs because no matter what they say, they don’t really value them.
In the vast majority of cases, they don’t value them because they can’t control them. People get rid of dogs because they soil the carpet, chew $100 running shoes, jump on guests, destroy couches, bite people, and acquire expensive “dog at large” citations and impound fees. That doesn’t mean they don’t spend money on them. They may take a dog to a groomer for bathing because they value their furniture or hate the smell of a dirty coat. Their sense of obligation and social status may cause them to provide all kinds of expensive things like blinged-out collars, dog beds, and veterinary care. That doesn’t mean anyone is watching the front door as the dog sails out for the fifty-fifth time.
Another aspect of this lost-dog world routinely knocks on your front door. Groomers, kennel owners, vets, and daycare operators rescue hundreds of thousands of dogs each year from the same people I used to see at the shelter. You likely have helped with a stray within the last month or two, or some groomer in your shop has a perpetual rescue business on the side. Even the editor of this magazine recently went from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to rescue a dog. How did Todd know there was a dog with a broken hip that needed saving? A groomer rescued the dog after it was hit by a car.
That’s the norm. Groomers love dogs. At-risk dogs need love and care. Slam-dunk. Well, maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe there’s a bit more to it than just securing the dog. Maybe you have to ask yourself why the dog needed to be rescued and what it will take to find it a good home. That brings us back to why dogs get lost. If you look closely, you’ll almost always find some kind of a behavioral issue at the bottom of the story.
For instance, what in the world is a dog doing in the middle of the road? We’ve already got the most obvious answer: the owner doesn’t value the dog. The proof of it is that if their toothbrush went missing, they’d notice. If their GPS unit somehow fell out of the car and started sliding down the street, they’d slam on the brakes and call their friends to help them find their gizmo. By contrast, if their dog takes off chasing a squirrel, the odds are they won’t even know it. If they do figure it out, they assume the dog will come home somehow. Maybe the dog will find the elusive GPS unit and follow directions home. Probably not. Most dogs don’t know what “turn left” means.
Additional proof that lost dogs aren’t valued is that less than 10% that make it to the pound are wearing identification. (This has changed a bit with the introduction of microchips, but even that requires the owner to register the chip and keep their address info current.) This is as uncaring as it can get. Excuses like “It’s too expensive to get a tag” fall flat. For about a buck, you can get an indelible marker. You can use it to put your name and phone number on anything you hold dear—like your dog’s belly. If you want to make a dog catcher sit up and find an owner, just put a phone number on a dog’s belly. As groomers, you can even help out with an ancient trick of Norwegian moose hunters. They used to clip their initials in the guard-hairs of their Elkhounds. This allowed a hunter to spot their dog easily at a distance from the bright white of the dog’s undercoat. Norwegian hunters valued their dogs.
If you are wondering where this rambling tale is going, we’re almost at the point of it all. People value well-behaved dogs. The best way to keep clients is to listen to their complaints about their dog’s behavior—regardless of how much they claim they love the little creature or how much they pay you. If they comment on how much it just cost to have their carpets cleaned, it may mean that Fluffy pees in the house. Too much of that, and you may lose a client. The most common tip-off that there is trouble in River City is complaints about local animal control. Someone grousing about paying a fine for their dog being at large is telling you that they don’t know when the pool guy comes. Pool guys are notorious for leaving side-gates open. Remember that GPS unit? If you left it on the patio table and it wasn’t there after the guy cleaned your pool, you’d be on the phone in a heartbeat.
In the real world, unacceptable behavior is a double threat to your business. The most obvious problem is that you can lose a client because they get rid of the dog. If you rescue a stray that isn’t housetrained, how long do you think it’s going to be in the new home if you can’t help fix the problem? The same goes for all of the other reasons the first owner didn’t value the dog. To help your clients learn to value their animals in the most important ways, a commitment to behavior is your first and most powerful tool. This can mean learning to be a better trainer yourself or finding someone in the community who you can trust. Having someone’s business card to hand to a troubled client is your insurance that they will remain a client, and the only GPS in the story will have your salon as a favorite destination.