dig into the file cabinet, far in the back, and find what I am looking for, a
manila folder titled "Overall's Protocols." I pull out a wrinkled,
dog-eared collection of pages and each page lists a set of 26 exercises all
beginning with the word "sit." They are a behavior modification
protocol designed to teach a dog how to relax.
Many years ago a Collie named Sully came to me with a myriad of behavior problems. Not knowing where to start, I took him to my friend and vet, Dr. Nancy Kelso, and she introduced me to the work of Dr. Karen Overall, head of the Clinical Behavioral Veterinary department at U. of Pennsylvania. It took effort and commitment, but over time, Sully's "idiopathic fear" as Overall described it, gradually went away. What I learned from Dr. Overall and Sully became the foundation of my understanding and helping dogs with behavior problems.
Now, years later, Patrick is in my office and we are on the 3rd or 4th day of working with the protocols. We're still on page 1, but this is not about obedience, it is about Patrick learning to relax. Our first efforts he avoids eye contact and looks anxiously out the door, and refuses food. I watch for signs.
"I guess he's a “C” student" his owner says, and I detect the tone of disappointment. But it's not about how smart, or dumb, Patrick is; I'm not making a judgment. His slowness or hesitancy is about how much stress he is under and anxiety is impeding his learning.
Today Patrick sits, I reward with a tiny piece of chicken, he takes it, and looks at me—more relaxed than I’ve seen him before. It's another milestone; taking food, sitting, relaxing. Once he learns how to really relax, he'll be brilliant.
We have a helper in these tasks, Jimmy, our 17 lb. cat. Jimmy smells chicken and comes running. So I tell Jimmy--and Patrick--to sit. Jimmy sits first, he learned to sit as a kitten, and I reward him with a morsel of chicken. Patrick sits, and gets his reward. Jimmy licks his chops hoping for another session soon.