Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dressing Ghosts and Goblins

I had a honcho biggie Chihuahua in my life once. He was a rugged, fearless dog and almost daily for over ten years, he followed Josh and I on hiking, climbing and mountain-biking trails. We were always in the woods, even during the winter when we'd sometimes follow deer tracks through freshly fallen snow, day and night. Josh and I would be bundled up against the cold but Kaya never was.

I put a sweater on him once. It was a fancy red sweater with leggings attached. I thought it was so cute and I had visions in my mind of how adorable Kaya would look in it. The sweater was a little tight and difficult to get on but I was too intent on my own desire to see him in it to take note of how much he disliked being handled in the way necessary to get the thing on, or to even consider his thoughts and feelings on the matter. I wanted what I wanted! After I got the sweater on him he just stood there, frozen. With lots of encouragement, he finally took a step with a front leg. It lifted up high and quickly like it was being pulled by a string. Then a hind leg raised in the same way, then the next front, then the next hind. He looked like a little red bug with fused knees doing a forced march. Josh and I nearly fell over laughing that kind of abdomen-spasming laughter that happens only rarely in life. After I regained my senses, I looked at Kaya and immediately recognized how unhappy and uncomfortable he was. He didn't know what a sweater was or why it was all over him, squeezing his beefy little body from all angles! I immediately took it off and never put it on him again. To the end of his days he would wear only his own fur as he slogged through snow and ice and endured the cold just to follow us into the wild as he did during the summer.

Kaya's few minutes of fear and discomfort did a lot for Jack. Italian greyhounds can begin to shiver when temperatures drop below 80 and they are very cute in outfits. Jack has a lot of shirts and house jammies that he wants to wear when he's cold. These are "his costumes." He also has quite a few outfits that I want him to wear but him...not so much. These are "my costumes" and for them, I have a special plan. I introduce the various parts of my costume to him dozens of times, associating them with food, fun and play and getting them closer and closer to being on in the process. I click and give him pieces of chicken liver and treat him frequently while he is wearing it but the removal of the garment is the real reinforcer. He gives me short-term acceptance of my costume and I give him its removal. By the time he is actually wearing it, he is emotionally jazzed about the process of getting into it. The costume has become associated with happy, playful interactions and with his favorite treats.

These costume-conditioning sessions are easy and they can be some of the most fun things we do with dogs. When we take the time to let the little goblin emerge willingly, the dog is having just as much fun as we are and we both have the opportunity to be completely delighted with the outcome.

Some dogs don't mind what you put on their bodies. Others will show their reluctance and insecurity in their faces. With facial expressions very much like our own, they'll look concerned and fearful. If you are planning to turn the canine in your life into a ghost, goblin, pirate or fairy princess this Halloween, there's still time to follow my special plan. Show the costume, piece by piece, clicking, treating and retreating. Touch the costume to the dog and do the same. Hold the costume on the dog longer and longer; put one leg in, snap one snap, and open and close Velcro here and there. Celebrate each step, play like a child and enjoy this time with the dog so that the dog can enjoy her time wearing "your costume."

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