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I Got Outsmarted by a Dog

I’d been working with Lovingham at the shelter for several weeks, and we had some routines, especially when it came time for me to leave his kennel and him to stay inside it. He strongly disagreed with that second part, and he’d become a practiced escape artist.

Lovingham on the hoof! But indoors. And supervised.

Lovingham on the hoof! But indoors. And supervised.

His favorite technique was to flatten his 75-pound body against the floor with his nose at the door. When you opened it even a tiny bit, he could wedge it farther open with his snout and barrel through you to escape. Then he’d cavort up and down the aisle, barking happily at every dog in every kennel, which made every other dog bark back. It was not awesome.

We volunteers and the staff in the behavior department had some tricks for dealing with that, including tossing a Kong to the far side of his kennel and dropping the door between kennel halves behind him, or using a trick with the clip leash to hold him inside while I escaped. The leash trick was an involved process not worth describing here since it really only applies to dogs in the kinds of kennels they have at the shelter, but it was my favorite process because it worked every time and it allowed me to help Lovingham learn to sit and wait patiently while I left.

The problem was, it was my favorite and it worked every time. One Sunday, Lovingham had been moved from his huge kennel to a smaller one to make room for a Great Dane mix. I was with him in his smaller kennel, and he was falling asleep on my lap. I knew better than to believe he wouldn’t try to escape, so I went for the tried and true leash trick to keep him tethered inside the kennel while I got out.

Here’s where I got outsmarted. Lovingham realized that in the smaller kennel, things were different. The door was closer to him, and he didn’t have to pull on the leash to get to it. The tension of pulling a bit against the leash was what kept him from escaping. I did not make that same connection; this trick had worked dozens of times, so it should work again. I didn’t even second guess its working. So when I opened the door, all lah-di-dah oblivious, my go-to trick didn’t work.

Lovingham back out of his leash backward and bounded out into the aisle, where people were browsing for fluffy little Lhasa apsos. Shit. Luckily, he was happily bouncing along and barking in a very not aggressive way. Also luckily, we had a thing and he liked me, and he liked my treats, and he was getting pretty good at coming when called. All told, he was free for less than 30 seconds, but my heart was pounding.

I leashed him up and got him into his kennel safely. Once my breathing returned to normal, I wondered what had gone wrong. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t taken into account that the situation was different, but Lovingham certainly had. That’s the trouble with active dogs — we poor, tired, routine-loving humans will do the same thing over and over, even when we’re in a different context. But if the context is different for a dog, everything is different. That’s why a dog that will sit on command inside doesn’t know the word outside. They’re terrible at transferring experience from one setting to another, but they’re great at recognizing when something has changed, even if we haven’t.

Since then, I’ve taken care to notice what’s the same and what’s different about me, the dog, and the space we’re in every time I start working with a dog. It’s a good practice to get into. Also since then, Lovingham has been adopted by a great family — and based on the pictures I’ve seen, he’s given up trying to escape. He knows a good then when he’s got it.



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