Same Ol’ Same Ol’ or Ones of a Kind?

Same Ol’ Same Ol’ or Ones of a Kind?

By Gary Wilkes

There is a trend in boarding to help dogs and cats remain calm during their stay. One trick is to play soothing music in the kennels or cattery. After all, scientific studies show that classical music can have a soothing effect, and chickens will lay double yolks when exposed to heavy metal or punk rock. The problem with this concept is that animals associate any perceivable thing with the tangible consequences of being in that environment. For instance, my wife once had a quesadilla the night before she had an emergency appendectomy. The pain of the appendicitis was associated with a food she had always loved. She hasn’t had a quesadilla since.

If you are getting the drift, taking simplistic suggestions about how to run your daycare or boarding business is like suggesting that you offer a free lunch—there ain’t no such thing. Anything you add to your kennel that can be sensed by all dogs will have a different influence on each of them. If a dog is listening to soothing music as you hold them to trim their nails, soft music will be connected with nail trimming.

This ability to connect virtually any stimulus (scientific jargon for “thingy”) to any event is common to all dogs. However, you may assume that they all have an individual set of likes and dislikes. For instance, the ability to react to tactile stimulation is part of every dog’s repertoire. For most dogs, this is predictable, and as professionals we are familiar with it. Scratch a dog’s tummy and watch it kick its leg reflexively. Grab an aroused dog by the scruff or touch it at the withers and get bit in the wrist. These are the norms we expect. However, the longer you work with dogs, the more you see exceptions to the rules. A well-run kennel or daycare center allows for individual responses that may run counter to “what everybody knows.”

Both as a shelter manager and behaviorist, I have handled many dogs that do not like to be touched. This mirrors “sensory dysfunction disorder,” AKA “sensory integration dysfunction” and a host of variant billable terms for the same thing found in human children. For us, that means that if you cuddle the wrong dog or rub it to the point of annoyance, you can get a very nasty bite. The reason for this is simple: each and every animal or human has its own specific tolerance to specific events. The animals in your care are no different. Some dogs like having their ears rubbed. Some don’t. If you talk baby talk and rub the wrong dog’s ears, you can trigger pleasure or extreme irritability leading to aggression or anything in between. My current dog doesn’t like ear rubbing but glories in “rib rubbing.” He stands on his hind legs and lets me rub my fingernails back and forth against his ribs. Go figure. Some dogs hate that. Some dogs are terrified by loud noises, and some are not. The list is as long as a list of possible events in a kennel or daycare.

To be a good kennel or daycare manager, you need to accept that no one set of rules covers all dogs. Developing systems that assume that dogs are individuals will help you be efficient and safe. There are some things you can do that will benefit all of the animals you care for but not many. In most cases, you have to be able to sense quickly a dog’s sensitivities and make allowances for them.

1) If you are going to try playing music to calm your charges, think Pavlov, not Bach or Twisted Sister. Play the music, almost any music, when you feed. This creates a Pavlovian association between the sound of the music and food. However, the sound of a scoop ramming into kibble does the same thing. If you wish to calm them down later, play Bach or ram a scoop into some kibble. It’s the same thing.

2) The Inguinal Touch: Dogs greet each other by sticking their nose inside the other dog’s thigh (the inguinal region of their groin). If you lightly put your hand there and touch the inside of the thigh, you can freeze a dog for between five and ten seconds. You have also “shaken hands” in dog fashion. You can do this as you check a dog into your facility. Squat down, and as you look upward at the owner, slide your hand inside the dog’s thigh. Touch lightly as if you are trying to find the femoral artery. When you can feel the pulse, you’re done.

3) Start consciously identifying dogs that don’t match the templates. If you find that rubbing a dog in a particular fashion causes it to flinch, startle, or move away from your touch, write it on their kennel card and pass the information along. While it could indicate an underlying pain response from an injury, it may also mean the dog doesn’t enjoy that kind of contact. Sometimes it’s their individual reaction to you, and sometimes they react the same for anyone. That is an important piece of information. It may cause you to assign specific staff to handle a specific dog with the goal of eventually teaching the dog to accept all staff members.

4) I learned a long time ago that some dogs don’t like people who are naturally good with dogs. If you get cocky about your handling skills, you can be injured by a dog that is significantly different than dogs you’ve handled in the past. That can mean that the dog is one-of-a-kind or part of a persnickety sub-group. Regardless of whether the odd reaction is genetic or learned, you are better off knowing which dogs are finicky and which ones aren’t. Leave the finicky ones to your more experienced attendants.

5) Try to spend additional time on basics for those dogs that are clueless about being boarded or spending time at daycare. If a dog isn’t good on a leash, make it so. You can do that gratis to help out your staff or make it a billable service. If you see that the dog doesn’t like being restrained, teach it to be held. This will help with grooming and veterinary care. Again, you can do this for free or charge for it.

6) Consider staff uniforms as a way to teach dogs that your staff is friendly, loving, kind, and not scary. That means that the specific staff member who did well with a dog on a first visit can pass the baton to another staff member later with more ease. Remember that dogs don’t see red but do see high contrast well. A shirt that has bold stripes is more identifiable than a medium-toned golf shirt.

Gary Wilkes is a former shelter manager with more than 25 years experience solving behavior problems by veterinary referral. For more information, visit or write to [email protected].

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