As I sit here typing, my husband is outside building a large wooden doghouse. He’s joked recently that the many canine-related construction projects around here over the years have earned him a PDA—Professional Dog Architect. Bodhi long ago dismantled the doghouse we’d had forever, so he and Sierra now need a place they can take shelter in the rain or cold. They had formerly been left in the house if no one was at home, until Bodhi proved time after time his willingness to destroy couches, cushions, and anything else could get his paws on.
Earlier this morning, as my husband paused in his hammering, Sierra wandered over to the mostly-finished structure and began to explore the interior. Seeing my husband standing with a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other, I quickly called to Sierra to come to me. I didn’t want her inside the structure when the pounding began. She’s quick to make associations, and that might have been all it would have taken to ensure that she never ventured inside it again. (Somehow I don’t think my PDA would have been too thrilled about that after all his hard work!)
I became hyper-aware of the canine power of association back when I first began to work with the wolf sanctuary that I would eventually co-run. Many of the wolves were skittish around humans, and it took a lot of time and patience to earn their trust. Every now and then, I’d be petting a wolf when we’d both suddenly be startled by a loud noise or other sharp intrusion. Wolves, like dogs, make quick associations, and unfortunately, I sometimes became associated with the scary thing. Depending on the wolf, it could take some time to win back trust after an incident like that.
Some of you may have read in my book Help for Your Fearful Dog about how Soko, my German Shepherd, was a master of association–fearful dogs often are. I had employed my husband’s assistance to get Soko over her fear of the microwave beep. She had started with a fear of his pager beeping (remember those?), and then associated that with the beep made by the microwave. She further associated the microwave beep with the door opening, and eventually even back-chained it to the freezer door opening. You can imagine what a problem this became, especially since my dietary habits at the time largely revolved around popping things from the freezer into the microwave.
I set up a protocol: My husband was positioned at the microwave. I stood with Soko at the opposite end of the house, where the open floor plan allowed us to see each other. He would open and close the door softly, and I would feed hot dogs. All was going along nicely until he slammed the door a bit too hard, startling Soko. Can you guess what happened next? She became afraid of hot dogs! Fortunately, she got past both the fear of hot dogs and the fear of the microwave beep—but it was another example of the power of association.
Here’s an update on the doghouse: While I expected the dogs to jump on and off the roof or lounge on it, they haven’t just yet. Sierra has been investigating the inside very carefully for mice. Have I mentioned her mouse obsession? She’s already begun to dig a hole beneath the structure, convinced there is a colony of mice mocking her from beneath, which for all I know, there is. I’m sure that hole will turn into a cellar very soon. Maybe Sierra and Bodhi are the the ones that deserve the title of PDA.