The Princess and the Pea: Crippling your dog with loving protection

(Originally published in Pet Boarding and Daycare magazine)
Hans Christian Andersen once wrote a story about modern dog trai
princess-and-the-peaning, without even knowing it. The story is called, ‘The Princess and the Pea.” It seems that a prince wanted to find the perfect princess for a bride. He searched and searched but couldn’t find the perfect princess. One night, a great storm came. A bedraggled princess knocked on the town gate to seek shelter. (You really have to stretch to come up with that part of the story, but perhaps it was common in those days.) To test if the girl was really a princess, the queen stacked 20 mattresses on top of each other and put a pea under the bottom one. In the morning, the girl reported…

Oh terribly bad!’ said the princess. ‘I have hardly closed my eyes the whole night! Heaven knows what was in the bed. I seemed to be lying upon some hard thing, and my whole body is black and blue this morning. It is terrible!’ They saw at once that she must be a real princess when she felt the pea through twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. Nobody but a real princess could have such a delicate skin.

Trust me, that isn’t the kind of Princess you want to marry. It’s not the kind of dog you want either. Unfortunately, that is what many well-meaning, loving, permissive dog owners create – prima donna princesses that overreact to life’s speed bumps and fall apart at the drop of a hat. The only real difference between overly sensitive Princess and spoiled dogs is that if you scare a princess, she cries and stamps her foot. If you scare a “baby-dog”, it attempts to blindly escape or bite whoever tries to control it. Obviously, in kennel and day-care situations, a baby-dog can be a real nuisance. Learning how to gently toughen up a princess can make the difference between a repeat customer and an end to the relationship.

The first course of action with a prima donna dog is to limit its ability to panic. The best tool for the job is a head-halter. When sensitive dogs are frightened by something, they usually try to escape. This is a highly visual behavior. A halter, used correctly, limits the amount of head movement a dog can generate and controls its focus. It is unable to use its eyes to find an escape route and the behavior quickly becomes controllable. On subsequent repetitions the behavior dramatically reduces to a manageable level. This is similar to the way a seat-belt lock causes you to limit your movement in a car. The first time you experience it you resist. After awhile, you voluntarily check your movement.

If a situation or event causes the dog to react wildly, start with making fast passes at a distance. Gradually get closer, but keep the dog moving. After the immediate panic has subsided, let the dog stand a short distance from the terrifying object for short periods of time. Alternate between keeping the dog moving past the object/distraction and requiring that the dog simply deal with the vacuum sweeper, leaf blower or whatever it is that causes the fear reaction. Once the terrifying object fails to produce terror, start offering treats and asking for obedience behaviors such as sit or down. If necessary, start with name recognition or just put treats in the dog’s mouth to associate the evil thing with treats.

For some animals, simply being in a kennel or day care facility is terrifying. Your choice is to work through the problem or lose the client. This is where you can get creative. Some dogs love everyone. If a new puppy or older dog overloads with being exposed to a play group, consider pairing up the newbie with an old hand. Confine the dog to a kennel or other area with the passive dog and let them spend some time together. Then gradually expose the dog to a second, third and forth dog. The perfect time to do this is when you swap out play groups. You can put the fearful dog and it’s new, best friend in the area and add the other dogs, one at a time. This first exposure may take you a few more minutes but you may save a long-term client.

Another strategy for building confidence and resilience is to create some gentle competition. Playing fetch with a passive dog may cause the prima donna to lose some inhibitions. By controlling which dog is likely to get to the ball first you can create soft frustration and build confidence in a new setting. This also works if you can set aside some time for simple obedience behaviors. Forcing a sensitive dog to yield a treat to another dog is the opposite of the dog’s home life. A spoiled dog can easily learn to be patient and adapt to frustration with obedient behavior. One caution – do not use the word “NO” if the dog is too pushy. Pick another word, like “hey!” If you say NO!, both dogs will react. If the word “Hey!” is used exclusively for the new kid, the other dog isn’t going to think it did something wrong and stop taking treats.

With the widespread belief that any sort of correction will ruin a dog forever, many dogs are capable of being normal only in a few, very limited environments. Since they are never required to do anything and never scolded for disobedience, they grow up spoiled rotten. Once they are tossed into the real world, the slightest upset can spoil their stay at your kennel or day-care. While your heart may go out to dogs who display this type of behavior, you need to be very careful about nurturing their helplessness as an expedient fix. Firm nurturing can make the dog easier for you to handle over the long haul and add confidence that will carry over to the dog’s home-life. Going soft on a soft dog eats up employee time and insures wasted coaxing forever. The real solution to the Princess and the Pea isn’t to prove how sensitive she is. The best think you can do is let her sleep on a leaky air-mattress. If she wakes up without complaining she really is the perfect Princess.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *