Log in

Behaviorism, from a dog’s perspective

“Discipline isn’t about showing a dog who’s boss; it’s about taking responsibility for a living creature you have brought into your world.”   Cesar Milan

Viszlas are loveable, highly energetic bird dogs and I have two, figuring that they will keep each other company while I’m on my computer.  I feed them and run them every single day that isn’t raining to start our day. 

Last year, Milo was envenomated by a Western rattler.  In summary: it cost $2200 for the antivenin and IV and pain killers and 3 days of vet hospital care.  So this spring, I took Milo and Finn to snake avoidance class. 

Web Parton is a former dog trainer from Arizona who travels around the West with his two dogs and 4 de-fanged rattlesnakes; he runs a rewarding business teaching dogs that any wiggly sticks that make noise on one end are to be left entirely alone.  As Web explained it, a dog that gets struck is exactly as likely to be bitten again because a dog’s brain cannot connect the spontaneous thrill of tangling with snakes with the associated days of agony as viper hemotoxin wreaks its havoc. 

To make the connection, Web uses a graduated, compassionate and extremely thorough approach.  For the first hour, Web explained that he needed the dogs to know exactly what they were going to learn to avoid; to do this, the dogs needed to know what a snake smells like and sounds like, instead of recognizing by sight alone.   For a full understanding of the staged training approach, read Web’s thorough description on the Snakesafe site, but in summary, the dog’s survival instinct is to avoid a particular Place unless it learns precisely what is the threat.

Web’s program is “behavioral” but was incredibly patient and compassionate.  Web spent almost 3 hours with our 2 dogs, assuring each recognized the proper association of snake and danger, and then that each dog avoided the snake.  Finn got it immediately and after one shock, refused to look at the snake again; he avoided bushes that smelled like snake and jumped away if he heard ‘snake’.  Milo, the “smart dog”, who nearly died last year, required much more experience and higher shock to interrupt his adrenalized response and re-program a sense of caution and distance.

For some kids, the effect of treatment is similar – it heightens their awareness of their own decisions and consequences and provides enough practice and distance that they can comprehend the danger of what looks, initially, very enticing.  This is the cause and effect connection behavioral programs seek to transmit.

Patrick Logan, MS is a former wilderness therapy program manager and IT consults with programs and websites.