Operant Conditioning: Reshaping the world’s worst dog

My family’s Ruby is a monster bitch. And I don’t mean this is some cutesy, “I secretly love her,” kind of way. I actually really don’t like her. I know this sounds crazy, how could someone not like their cute dog. It’s simple. Ruby’s not cute. She’s not fluffy or cuddly. She has nearly no redeeming qualities beyond being a biological vacuum cleaner for food scraps. So harsh, I know. Let me explain where this blunt frustration stems from. She stares at me while I am eating or watching a movie or hanging out with friends or family and if I don’t tend to her within her designated time frame, she moves closer, proceeding closer and closer until eventually her nose is inches from my face. If at that moment I still do not give her the attention she demands, she lets loose a roaring, deep, menacing rottweiler-mutt bark, threatening to pierce right through my ear drum with her blaring decibels. If then I continue to hold my increasingly forlorn ground, she will not resign and admit defeat. Instead she whips out her third line of attack: untrimmed claws that Lucifer himself would fear.

She then rips at my flesh until I finally succumb to her demands or am fatally wounded from the lacerations. But how did Ruby become such an obnoxious bitch? It’s simple. She learned that such owner abuse would result in her desired attention. I don’t blame Ruby though. It was chance that she barked and it was wise of her to connect that she was petted immediately following. Instead of blaming her quick learning, I blame everyone (including myself) who has ever rewarded her for these obnoxious behaviors.

Ruby is not an innately bad dog. There is nothing malicious in her personality that obligates her to be ruthlessly annoying. So why then did she end up such a little brat? Because we rewarded her for being a brat. I blame my parents, visiting friends, random strangers, and I blame myself for Ruby’s behavior. I know, I have failed my own challenge.

But most importantly we have failed Ruby. Unfortunately for our often myopic view, we are often incapable of seeing beyond our own frustration to recognize the damage we have caused Ruby. We usually only acknowledge our own frustration, scars, and hearing loss but we don’t have a monopoly on this suffering. While Ruby cannot claim possession the last symptom, she holds the overwhelming majority of the other two. She is currently downstairs whimpering at the kitchen door, informing us that she’d rather not be in there. She is lying on a hard, cold wood floor alone while her other two canine companions are sleeping soundly. Earlier, to keep her from clawing at the beautiful hundred year old door, I sharply told her to stop as I shot a squirt gun at her. One squirt and she was gone but that bit of water was foreign and frightening to her, a startle that I would have loved to not have caused her. Nearly every day she goes through this same trauma and stress. She lies whining while the rest of us are ignoring her. She is constantly reprimanded for doing things we once rewarded her for. Ruby is the one suffering the most, not us.

We would all like her to not be this way and we usually try to train her accordingly. Unfortunately, any bit of training to warn her that her whimpering will be fruitless dissolves in the apathy of one of us who, understandably after hours of sleeplessness from her whining, walks downstairs and opens the door. While her sleeping under a bed may seem harmless, it is that lackadaisical attitude towards raising a dog that resulted in the little demon that she is. I can understand it all. It’s really hard to refuse to give her attention as she rips away at my reddening skin. I won’t deny that I have rewarded her for doing things that I later punished her for. It’s a really crappy feeling to realize that. I call her the bitch but who’s the real criminal here? We all reward her for things that we later reprimand her for. We think it’s cute when she barks once but when she barks twice she is yelled at. That’s disturbing that we have done that to her. But with that realization I want to change something. With squirt gun in hand, calloused skin, reduced hearing, resistance to her demands, and treats for the good behavior, I want to shape Ruby into a better dog. She will sleep in her own bed, she will receive attention for being respectful, she will not threaten to rip apart passing dogs or jogging neighbors, and she will be happier and more secure. But I need help. Without it, any progress will be entirely lost.

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