Sophia Yin died last week, and her death reminded me how much her work helped me modify and manage Rudy’s behavior. Dr. Yin came to my city of Bellingham a few years ago. Every dog person in 2 counties came to hear her speak. She covered many topics, and they were all valuable, but the part that would help me so much with Rudy was her explanation and demonstration of Say Please by Sitting. Like most dog-related topics, this was not radically new and different. It wasn’t, for me, a sea change in my whole approach; in fact, it was more a confirmation of something I had been moving toward already. But the way she presented it, the way she explained it, and the way Dr. Yin was, completely coalesced the disconnected ideas I had been struggling with.
It has been two years since we adopted Rudy, our 3-year old fearful Rottweiler. We already had Frankie, our 9 year-old terrier mix, and since then we adopted Buster, a 6 year-old Chihuahua. Buster was originally a foster for us, and we were not looking for a third dog, but he fit in so well, and Rudy and Frankie like him so much, that we adopted him. At the time, it felt like Rudy and Frankie chose Buster as much as my wife Pia and I did. We love and adore them all, and try to give them equal attention and time; Rudy’s special needs and size, however, require a little extra. I used to give long explanations about Rudy’s emotional states, and their resulting behaviors, but now I just summarize him this way: He is a fearful dog who has made great progress. I understand, now, that he will always have some fear, and always have a higher propensity for fear than most dogs.
I had been struggling with Nothing in Life is Free. NiLiF is sometimes disparaged because it can be presented as a way of dealing with rank or hierarchy, imaginary concepts that humans feel the need to foist upon dogs’ behavior. I don’t think about, pay attention to, or believe in these concepts, but have lived half my life with dogs that weigh 100+ pounds. Common courtesy amongst all family members (cat, dog, and human) is important to me, and a modified NiLiF was a simple way of addressing manners, at least early in a relationship. But it didn’t feel good. It felt (and feels) simplistic, militaristic, and even archaic. So I would kind of do it, and kind of not, and suffered the indignities inevitably brought about by being inconsistent. I had also been working on habituating behaviors, and had this crazy idea that doing enough sits per day would cause it to become a habit, but I didn’t really have a clear idea of how to do that or whether it would work. I was attempting 75 sits/day with my Bullmastiff, Iggy ( I hadn’t met Rudy yet), but I wasn’t keeping careful track, and I didn’t have a clear plan or outcome. I also just kind of made up that number of 75.
On the second day of Dr. Yin’s seminar, she came out onto the stage and opened with this idea: For most dogs, 50 sits/day, with regular and various rewards, will habituate the behavior and give them a simplest way to get what they want. The result of this will be an end to nuisance barking, leash pulling, jumping up, and most other demanding behaviors. By practicing this simple method of giving the dog a way of getting what they want if they ask for it politely, their need to do all these other obnoxious things (which are really just asking for things in the only way they have learned works) disappears. Fireworks in my head. Room spinning. Dr. Yin had been speaking for ten minutes, and I was tempted to leave right then. I had gotten my money’s worth already. I remember feeling dizzy. It was so obvious. That is what I was trying to do and understand, and couldn’t figure it out until Dr. Yin explained it. Yes, in many ways she was just adapting and re-explaining the idea of differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, and asking our dogs to sit before they get a treat is an idea older than me, and in a way, this is NiLiF, but it is not quite any of these things, and all of them… This is what great educators do. They understand their topic completely, refine it, redefine it, and explain it in a way mere mortals like me can understand.
A year later, when we adopted Rudy, we started right away on Say Please by Sitting. 50 sits/day, as Dr. Yin explained, is for most dogs. Some habituate the behavior faster, some slower. With Rudy, I tried to do 3 sets of 17 at first. 3×17 = 51, and we could do 17 in under two minutes. 6 minutes was only a fraction of our training time each day, so it seemed like it would be easy. Rudy was, and is, very smart, but his fear and his lack of socialization inhibited his ability to habituate. He would become over-stimulated over the tiniest of things: me moving a single step, a leaf blowing by, or a distant sound. Often, he would become over-stimulated by things I could not even perceive. Maybe they were smells I couldn’t smell, or sounds I couldn’t hear. Sometimes he would be upset by things that were always resent but that he suddenly noticed. He lived with us for 9 months when Rudy became afraid of our ceiling fan, though it was not moving when he suddenly noticed it. Rudy struggled to make connections because he was so distracted by the world around him.
After a week, I changed our goal from 50 sits/day to 250 sits/day. I followed my own advice to clients, and kept track on a piece of paper I stuck to our fridge. I fed him by hand, little bits of food at a time, and he earned every bit by sitting. I had him sit to be pet, sit to go through doors, sit to come out of his crate, sit to go in his crate. Sit, sit, sit. And sit came to mean, “Please?” Just like Dr. Yin said. This was not how we changed his fear or taught him he needn’t be afraid of the world – for those topics we used basic desensitization and counter-conditioning. In earlier posts about Rudy, I described his jumping up and mouthiness. He is incredibly strong, and can be quite scary – but where he used to jump up, mouth us, growl at us, all because he wanted something basic, he now sits. Sit, sit, sit. One of the most amazing things about this is that Rudy will even sit when he wants things from other dogs. If Frankie has a toy Rudy wants, Rudy will sit and watch. If two dogs are playing and Rudy isn’t sure how to join their play session, he will sit and watch. Sometimes he will move around a room sitting to get my attention.
Even before she died, I would often reflect on the seminar I attended, and Dr. Yin’s “Say Please by Sitting” explanation. With the approach of our anniversary of adopting Rudy, and her death, I have been reflecting even more. There are many parts to our life with Rudy. One is changing his feeling about things. Another is managing his behavior. Dr. Yin’s approach, and her explanation of that approach, has been invaluable in managing Rudy by changing his behavior. It gives him a way of getting he wants, and gives him a default behavior when he doesn’t know what else to do. My favorite way to see it working is when he actually sits to say please. He does these little things I think of as behavioral sentences. On our walks, he will become scared, turn toward home, look at me, and sit. “May we go home, please?” He will nuzzle my hand with his nose, look at me, then sit. “Will you pet me, please?” He will look at my apple, look at me, and sit. “May I have some apple, please?” My favorite is when he looks at me, looks at Frankie playing a favorite toy, looks back at me, and sits. “Will you take Frankie’s toy and give it to me, please?” This week, more than usual, I notice these sentences, and I think to myself, “Thank you, Dr. Yin.”