Fantastic Suzanne Clothier post: “If Only That Hadn’t Happened, This Dog Would Be Fine”


Wonderful post by Suzanne Clothier, somewhat related to my “Power of Choices and Options” post.

Most dogs seem to inherently enjoy exploring and interacting with the stimuli provided by natural environments such as hiking trails. Even dogs who are especially prone to disruptions of “basic functioning” as described by Suzanne seem to enjoy these stimuli. I haven’t decided this for them, it just seems to be the case. Therefore, allowing a generally fearful dog the opportunity to experience these environments will often lead to him/her making their own choices to interact with these “fun” stimuli, with minimal human input or pressure being put on them by us.* 

So the dog chooses an action that itself provides an immediate moment of “fun”, and therefore serves as it’s own reward (ex. I will sniff because it’s fun, I will splash because it’s fun). This is different than a dog performing an action that will then be followed by a reward (ex. I don’t want to go in the water to get that stick my mom threw, but I will because the stick is fun). The former says “Hey Cafe, here are all these things to do if you think they’d be fun. Have at it if you like, no worries if you don’t. No pressure buddy.” The latter says “Here is this stick that you think is fun. You can have it if you do this thing that I think will be fun for you, even if you don’t think so right now.” This puts the pressure on, which is the last thing I would want to do to a fearful dog.

Suzanne describes “play” as a “high level function that is based on physical and emotional well being, and in particular, a feeling of safety in that environment and with playmate(s).” The dog choosing to interact and play with the environment indicates a high level of functioning within that environment. That experience can be infectious and can (but is not guaranteed to) increase his/her ability to adapt in other areas. But the point is we are providing an environment that helps the dog adapt because so many of the available options are fun in and of themselves.

Suzanne also makes a clear distinction that some animals are more “adaptable” and “resilient”, while others are less “adaptable” and more “fragile”. This is absolutely correct, and I definitely am not suggesting that hiking through the woods will turn a “fragile” dog into a “resilient” dog. I do not base the work I do on trying to make one dog be like some kind of “ideal” dog. Each dog is what he/she is as an individual. A good basketball coach does not expect to turn each kid into Michael Jordan. Rather, a good basketball coach wants to maximize the abilities of each individual child. Our goal is to do what we can to help these “fragile” dogs become as “adaptable” as they can be, independent of how other dogs might be.

Anyway, I highly suggest reading Suzanne’s post and really everything that she puts out there. Her website contains tons of useful articles, a list of seminars which are always incredible, and of course her fantastic blog. And if you ever read another dog book, make sure you read: Bones Would Rain from the Sky, which is about so much more than dogs. Oh, and she also has a DVD Special going this summer.

And prayers for Suzanne’s mom.

* This is a key point. If the dog does not show me pretty damn quickly that he/she is interested in engaging, I respect that choice and pull him/her out of the situation. To avoid these situations, I insist on pre-assessing dogs before exposing them to the nature trails I use for these exercises. I also know these trails very well and schedule sessions during periods that are less likely to be overwhelming.