As chronicled here, here, and here, Chris and I recently adopted a puppy named Nathan. I’ve lived with dogs all my life (I direct you to a video of my family dogs dancing for bacon), so I went into the adoption process knowing that our puppy, no matter the breed or sex, was going to require a fair amount of time and effort. I was not however prepared for the amount of effort little Nathan would require. And with good reason, since Nathan is a Boxer/Pitt Bull mix, and is absolutely everything one would expect from that breed—the good and the…let’s say difficult.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our first week with Nathan was a mixed bag. When he was good, he was a cuddlebug darling. But when he was bad, he was a gnawing, destruct-o-tron hell-beast. Initially, this Jekyll and Hyde routine was baffling. Chris and I would be on the couch chatting or at our respective computers minding our own damn business when suddenly Nathan would go nuts. He’d knock over his water bowl, pee on the floor even though we just got back from a walk (dude, seriously??), or bounce off the walls for 10 minutes before trying to eat whatever it was that Chris and I were doing. Sitting on the couch? I’ll chomp the shit out of the armrest, thanks. Sending a text message? Lemmie just kick that in the face for you, sir. Eating dinner? Not anymore friend! –And so on. Whenever Nathan would do something naughty, we’d jump up, tell him that and why we were displeased, then direct him away from whatever forbidden thing. Nonono! Here play with Ducky, the squeaking toy you like! No Nathan! Water bowls are not a Frisbee! Nathan come here, we’re going outside, again! And then we’d go for a walk, the length of which would be commensurate to the severity of whatever offense. The worse he was, the further we’d go—which was the only way he’d learn, we thought.
This was not sustainable. After a few harried days, Chris and I decided to ask my animal-whisperer sister for help. I explained the situation, and asked how we should respond the next time he goes into demon-mode. “Ignore him,” my sister said simply. “But his face,” I said. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re encouraging him.” She went on to explain that he was acting out not to be a pain in the ass, as Chris and I had suspected, but because he wanted attention. “And you’re giving him exactly what he wants,” my sister said. “All he’s learning is that peeing on the floor gets you to play with him.” “Oh,” I said. She then explained that if we really want to teach him that he shouldn’t pee on the floor, then we shouldn’t give him any reason to want to. Don’t react, don’t say anything, just stand up and lead him into his crate. He doesn’t need to be in there long, just long enough for him to cool down. And we shouldn’t treat it as a punishment, in fact we should make sure that his experiences in his crate are mostly positive. But we do need to make sure he understands that vengeance peeing won’t do anything except take away the one thing he wants most, which is us. The same logic holds for the bowl-tipping, scarf-shredding, and wall-climbing. Basically, we can’t let him get a rise out of us. Even if we’re pissed, we have to be non-reactive. We should only react when he does something positive, the idea being that over time, he’ll learn that negative behaviors get him nothing, and good behaviors get him attention.
After I hung up the phone, Chris asked what my sister thought we should do. “Don’t let him troll us,” I said.
Oh, you heard me—I called my dog a troll. And why not? He strategically pushes our buttons in order to elicit a strong emotional response, and feeds on our negative, nervous energy. It would be a stretch to say that Nathan is in it for the lulz (I think), but it is certainly the case that he’s in it for the reaction. Knowing that that our dog is just trying to troll us hasn’t made all the behavioral problems go away (and right on cue, Nathan just tipped over his water bowl), but at the very least it’s provided a familiar behavioral framework. With this knowledge in hand, I’ve been able to remain—or pretend to remain, as the case may be—calm and in control, which is precisely the energy that keeps Nathan’s energy steady. So, when the little demon jumps up, I turn my back to him. When he’s being generally destructive, say by emptying his water bowl all over the goddamn kitchen floor, I take the bowl away and then continue writing this article. The second he calms down, I give him all the cuddles he wants—but not until he’s stopped whatever problematic behavior. Interestingly, this strategy has proven to be less helpful to Chris, who as it turns out is a bit of a lulzcow, at least when it comes to dogs. But we’re learning, and so is Nathan, and for now that’s enough.