Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Cocklebur Conundrum

Or “Why Fuzzy Dogs Don’t Grow in the South”

As we get to know our new area, I’m coming to understand why dog breeds native to the south have short slick coats.  I know, it’s because of the heat right?  While I’m sure that plays a role, I think the presence of sharp, prickly vegetation is more of a limitation than the heat.  After all, a fuzzy dog can dig a nice deep hole in the shade on a hot day or sack out in the air conditioning but he can’t avoid the constant onslaught of spiny vegetation.  After each walk or potty trip outside, Ben and I practice our new ritual of removing the native vegetation from his feet, ruff and britches.  Cockleburs, sweet gum balls and cat claw briars are the main culprits here. 

Yes, I could shave his coat but as many of you already know, Ben survives based on his charming good looks and his overly flamboyant tail and britches are a big part of his charm.  So several times a day, Ben and I sit down and get to work removing the prickly vegetation from his fluffiness.  On the bright side, Ben has never liked having his feet or nether regions handled but his touchiness is getting better by the day since we have no choice but to do it.

Like many owners, I often avoid working on a problem unless I actually have a compelling reason too.  Up until now, we had relegated grooming to every couple of weeks and I simply make him lie down and stay.  Neither one of us enjoyed the process much but it worked so we didn’t fix it.  However, after three weeks of me “helping” him pull the cockleburs and sweet gum balls out of his feet and coat, he’s starting to make the connection and realize that even though what I am doing is uncomfortable, it makes him feel better in the long run.  He’s realizing that my working on his coat is a good thing and starting to relax, even when things are tangled up tight. 

The cockleburs are a pain to deal with but are actually function as a training tool.  In behavioral circles this is called “negative reinforcement”, something negative (a cocklebur) goes away when Ben does something good (not reacting to my handling his body and tugging at his coat).  Since I have to get the cockleburs out after each trip, we have lots of repetitions each day where something he doesn’t like (handling) is followed by something more pleasant (stupid cockleburs go away).

So if you have a training issue, remember to break it down into several short sessions throughout the day, work on it every day and be consistent.  The more you work on it, the faster your dog’s behavior will improve.  And be glad if you have a short coated dog or live in an area without cockleburs.

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