A few years ago I left a private lesson with a sour taste in my mouth. Everything had gone fine, I enjoyed the client and her dog, but the next time I saw her that same faint anxiety washed over me. It took a long time to shake the negative feeling I had developed in that hour. Why, when everything went well, did I leave with such an overall feeling of yuck, a feeling that bled over into more interactions with this person? The whole context of teaching this particular person had been poisoned with a previous association I held; a smell.
There is a chemical cocktail in the air in dentist’s offices. One we are all familiar with and that many of us have a visceral unpleasant response to (myself included). My client bore that smell on that particular day. It’s a clean scent, not naturally aversive, and yet due to my repeated negative experiences in conjunction with that smell I have a strong conditioned emotional response (CER for short) to it. Quickly that CER transferred to my client and, as I said, it took several sessions in which she did not bear that smell (as well as my conscious thought process) to shake it. I am happy to say my client was none the wiser the whole time, and we went on to have a good professional relationship.
What happened to me when my client walked into her lesson smelling like a dentist’s office happens to our dogs all the time. Building associations is how they build their world; they are constantly deciding what is safe and what is dangerous in our vastly unnatural-to-dogs homes by making associations. Cookie jars: safe. Vacuum: dangerous. Telephone: boring. Doorbell: exciting. Aside from things we actively train them, this is how they know how to function in our world. Unlike me in the scenario above, they are unable to reason their way out of these feelings; if they have a feeling of yuck that’s all they know.
Dentist’s Office Smell and Dog Sports
There have been workers on my property for the past few months, almost every day. When they first arrived Felix was quite alarmed by their presence and I recognized what could happen here if I did not tread lightly and make a plan. I work from home and multiple times a day I train Felix in my backyard, where he has direct visual access to these workers. When the work started we were working on 2x2s, jumping, and some early contact behavior. How easily one startle could sour my young dog’s experience of the game was clear to me; the workers were his dentist office smell, and I needed to be sure that CER did not transfer to our training projects. I put agility work aside. All of Felix’s daytime training sessions were allocated to feeling better about the presence of the workers. This was not fun for me, and to be honest pretty much bummed me out. I wanted to be training obstacle performances and handling, not working on changing an emotional response. It sure would have been easier to just carry on with my training as usual and hope he didn’t get scared; but as the saying goes, when you know better, do better.
There was a time when I did not know better. I was training my dog Kelso in the sports of obedience and agility. His performances were slow and lackluster. A dentist’s office smell permeated dog sports for him; Kelso was afraid of other dogs. Other dogs happen to be everywhere in dog sports so his negative CER bled straight into the games I was teaching him. This is common; most dogs that are slow in competition and fast at home are bothered by something in the competition environment; frequently other dogs. It was not until I truly worked on his discomfort with other dogs and repaired our relationship when around them that his performances improved. When clients approach me now with the dilemma of the sport dog who doesn’t care for competing it is always our job to find out what their dentist’s office smell is; because it’s always the culprit.
Be Kind Whenever Possible (hint: it’s always possible)
This is perhaps the most powerful argument for choosing training methods in sports that are kind (not just humane). If the training room is the place where cookies flow, SEEKING systems are ignited, and play is the cornerstone, your dog’s conditioned emotional response will be one that is favorable to your goals. Your sport will be associated with your tools, be it hot dogs or prong collars, so choose wisely. And don’t forget the invisible high-power aversives: confusion, frustration and excessive adrenaline. These, too, will poison a context that you’d like your dog to enjoy.
Yesterday Felix trained outside while the crew was at work. He was focused on a game he loves because I spent weeks helping him feel safe in their presence. Here is a video clip of that work: