I know. It doesn’t make sense. But I am really mad at Cooper.
I’m mad at him for being scared. Well, not for being scared per se but for the way he reacted while scared. I’m fully aware that me being mad is illogical. I know. I’m working on it.
It started out badly: We pulled up to the training facility. The owner’s dogs were out in her yard barking, but Cooper couldn’t see them through the fence. The neighbor’s dog was out barking, and Cooper could see him charging their fence. He jumped out of the car quivering, his tail tucked, his ears back. We walked into the facility. From the entrance you can’t see all the way into the room, and the trainer called a hello… and Cooper lost it. I mean, meltdown city. Piloerected (aka hackles up), tail tucked, defensive barking and snarling. The works.
So the trainer suggested we move outside to the agility area. That made perfect sense. We would move from an enclosed weird-smelling dark space to the open air outside. But going through the door proved to be a challenge when he opened it for us and Cooper had to skitter past him to get outside. Coop whirled around and let loose another torrent of barks, snaps, and snarls.
Not a good start to our first of four private agility sessions.
We started agility a while ago in a group class at another facility, and – for the most part – it went well. By the end of those sessions, the trainer (a woman, which I think is relevant here) noted how much more confident he was. In a room with several other dogs and their people (aka strangers), he was able to complete a short course off leash.
So I thought a private session at an outdoor facility would be just the thing to continue our progress! Right?
Here’s the thing: He did GREAT on the obstacles. In our previous class, we never tackled the weave poles. By the end of this class, he had a good sense of what to do. He got the dog walk, the tire jump, the pause box. He leapt over jumps, and he sailed through mini-courses.
But in between every single obstacle (every. single. obstacle.), he went off on the trainer who, bless his heart, kept a big smile on his face and stood on the opposite side of the field the entire time. In between weaving, Coop would whip his head around, bark ferociously, then weave around the next pole. On the one hand, it was quite the multitasking. On the other hand…
I don’t know, guys. Prior to the whole year-off cancer situation, Cooper and I had done a lot of training – classes, both private and group, in addition to stuff around the neighborhood – to work on his fears. We made progress. I knew the last year set him back. I just had no idea how far.
Turns out: Faaaaaarrrrrrr.
I think some of the contributing factors were the new location, the greeting from the barking dogs, the trainer startling him with the hello, the fact that the trainer was male, and this was our first real foray into training (outside of neighborhood walks) since he surgically attached himself to my ankle and named himself my sole protector during cancer treatment.
And I’m so mad. Not really at Cooper, I guess, but at the situation. I feel sad that he’s just so scared all the time and that the progress we made has been wiped away and that we’re further behind than where we started from.
Anyway, how about you? Ever have an illogical (though perhaps perfectly justified) emotional response to your dog’s behavior? Has your dog ever lost it in a training scenario? Tempted to sit down and weep but you couldn’t because you were leading him through weave poles? (Maybe that last one is just me…)
Years of the same behavior being reinforced over and over and over again. Lucas thinks, If I bark and lunge and snarl at this oncoming dog, he’ll leave me alone! And it works, time and time again, and now his mind equates his particular crazed response to successfully getting a potentially dangerous dog (in his mind) to go away.
Turns out, I have my owned conditioned response that I need to change.
Lucas loves doggy daycare. LOVES. In fact, they describe him as “pumped” to be there. However, the lobby is a charged zone for him. I wait in the car until we’re the only clients there, then I take him in.
This morning, just as we walked in, the receptionist’s dog burst out from behind the counter.
Here’s where hindsight helps: I should have, in the moment, noticed that Lucas’ tail was in a neutral position. His fur wasn’t up. His body wasn’t tense. In fact, in that split second, he really didn’t react at all.
I, on the other hand, resorted to my conditioned response. I yanked him to my side and stepped in front of him.
And then he reacted, lunging and snarling.
Driving home, I thought through the scenario a dozen times. I’m fairly sure that if I hadn’t done anything, if I had let it play out, Lucas would have been fine. I can’t know for certain, of course, but he wasn’t showing his usual signs.
So it looks like both of us have a conditioned response that needs to change.
But in class he’s doing phenomenally well. He’s responsive. He keeps his attention on
Easy Cheese me. He cries for the entire hour, earning him the nickname “whiny face” from the trainer… but other than that, I couldn’t ask for a better experience so far.
That being said,a part of me is a little concerned that Lucas is smart enough to know that we’re “training.” That in this room, a controlled environment, he’s going to get a facefull of cheese for paying attention to me, so why not? Will it carry over into the real world? I’m not willing to test it yet. On our walk yesterday, we spotted no less than 6 other dogs, and each time I changed course, not ready to test our progress yet.
So I guess as class progresses and he keeps learning and doing well, will his positive progress be enough of a positive reinforcer to me to change my conditioning?
Have you experienced anything like this? Does your dog’s behavior change your behavior and, thus, the outcome of a particular situation? Any magic formula for getting the confidence to change?
When you love a reactive dog, you expend an enormous amount of effort “managing” situations. It becomes second nature. I don’t even think twice about sitting in the car in the parking lot of doggy daycare waiting for everyone else to drop off ahead of us, then dashing out the moment the lot clears so I can get Lucas in without encountering a dog in the lobby. (Of course, once inside – and off leash – he’s happy and playful. Which is so frustrating.)
When it starts to rain, my first thought isn’t, “Ugh. Walking dogs in the rain.” My first thought is, “Great! I can walk Lucas without encountering anyone else!”
And the zig-zagging, circuitous routes we take so that we don’t cross paths with anyone else? Totally normal! Right?
But the reality is, we have come so far with Lucas since the early days when he would hit the floor when we turned on the television or rustled a plastic bag or – horror! – a bike whizzed past us.
He navigates life pretty well these days with two big exceptions: His leash reactivity and his massive barking-fit-meltdowns-throw-himself-into-the-window when a dog dares to walk past our house. And, really, the two are the same thing.
Until recently, until he tried to bite someone, my goal was simply management. Walk at weird times of day or in bad weather. Stick to the loop around the park so I could see in all directions around us and change course as needed. Keep the blinds closed in the front of the house. Restrict his access to the front room when I’m not home. And so on.
But, as he demonstrated, that’s not enough.
We need to actively work on this reactivity for his safety.
So! I signed us up for a Reactive Dog training course. I’ll fill you in on our progress as we work through the course, but here’s what’s happened so far:
Week 1 was people only, no dogs allowed. We talked about reactivity and how important it is to understand that most reactivity is rooted in fear – something we’ve known about Lucas since day one.
We also talked about the behaviors that are critical to master with a reactive dog – specifically, a good “heel” and a super solid “watch me.” The idea is that when you encounter your dog’s trigger (in his case, other dogs), you get your dog right next to you and looking up at your face. That prevents your dog from focusing on the trigger and – ideally – keeps him from reacting.
Sounds simple, right?
Both of these behaviors are fairly good with Lucas, but after week one I realized they’re nowhere near good enough. I’ve been practicing with him in the backyard a little bit every day. In a couple weeks I hope to move that training to the park. I don’t want to risk pushing him too far too fast, but I do feel we’re making progress.
Since this post is getting a little long, I’ll stop here for now. More on our progress to come. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s starting to rain. I better get Lucas walking!
I am mortified to even be writing this. Seriously, I am cringing with shame and embarrassment, but if I can’t talk to you guys about it…
Here goes: Lucas bit someone.
Or, at least, he tried to. He grazed the knee of her jeans but didn’t get her.
We were out for a Saturday afternoon walk around the park. Nothing out of the ordinary. There was a woman walking a pup a few blocks ahead of us, so I hung back because I always avoid other dogs when I’m out with Lucas because he’s reactive on leash to other dogs. Dogs. Never people.
We came around a bend, passing by an older woman. As soon as she was upon us, Lucas jumped up on her. He has NEVER jumped on a stranger before. As I pulled him back, he lunged and snapped.
The woman was pissed and upset, of course, but since there were no injuries (thankfully) she walked on after berating me. The whole time we were “talking” Lucas just stood there like nothing had happened.
I have no idea what got into him. None.
But I’m in a total panic. Is this a new problem behavior? Is he going to start reacting to strangers now? Are our walks going to turn into an even bigger gauntlet? Will this lady decide to call animal control and report the incident?
I’ve been obsessing for two days over this. I can think of a ton of excuses: Lucas, like Cooper, has become extremely protective of me since I got sick. He spent the last year stuck in the house, and we all know that if you don’t constantly work on problem behaviors, they can backslide. He’s always been a high-strung, reactive dog, and since he hasn’t gotten enough exercise, he’s clearly pent up. And so on.
But I don’t know.
The bottom line? I no longer trust my dog.
Can I walk him past strangers? What if it happens again? Chances are I’ll tense up, he’ll feel it through the leash, and that’ll cause him to react. But if I spend our walks avoiding people, like we’ve always done with dogs, there’s no way to work on it and it reinforces his idea that strangers are suspicious.
I’m completely mortified that this happened. And I’m really upset. As soon as we got back, I got online and enrolled him in a 5-week “reactive dog” class, but that doesn’t start until the end of March. I just felt like I had to do something, you know?
But what else? What else can I do?
I mean, other than panic and obsess, which is what I’m currently doing.
Let’s set the scene:
It was Tuesday night around 8 pm. The warehouse where the agility classes are held was cold and dank. I was tired and grumpy, and I think that rubbed off on Cooper. We were in a bad spot already because the poor guy had the pants scared off of him when a tarp that separated the space fell. He lost his little head barking and had his hackles up. Then a dog ran right up to his face, which he hates, and he yelped, startling the trainer and the two other dogs standing near us.
The bottom line? We weren’t having the best night.
We had started a sequencing exercise where the dogs had to walk over a series of jump standards (the U-shaped part of the jump without the bar in the middle) with specific turns. We went and messed up, and the trainer had us redo it. I was frustrated, but we got it on the second try.
Everyone took a turn, then the trainer went with her puppy.
Who messed up. Big time.
She went the wrong direction then sort of wandered off then came back on the opposite side. And the trainer? Well…
For a split second I thought, “Why is she laughing? She messed up!” And then it hit me: Because this is supposed to be fun!
It seems so obvious, of course, but I realized that mistakes are part of it. I’m the kind of person who strives to avoid making mistakes in all things. It’s a very stressful way to live. But in that moment, when the trainer laughed at her dog’s silliness, I had my AH-HA!
Maybe I’m going to learn more from agility than Cooper is…
Cooper and I started a pre-agility class a few weeks ago. The idea for the course is to establish the foundations you need before you can really get into agility. Fool that I am, I thought we’d nail the class – after all, he’s smart and we have a great relationship. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way!
I underestimated just how freaked out he would get. The new place, a room filled with unfamiliar people and dogs, strange equipment… He tucked his little tail, trembled, and whined the entire first hour.
It turned out to be a blessing, then, that we were working on behaviors he already knew. We practiced having our dogs sit at our sides, wait, loose leash walk, and make eye contact. All of those behaviors he knows well, so it helped that I wasn’t asking him to learn something new while trying to help him feel more confident in the scary setting.
At the end of that first class, the trainer broke out a pile of ropes and wanted us to each play tug with our dogs as a reward and for a little break. All the dogs got super into it. Except Cooper. He sat and stared at me. He was done. He wouldn’t get up. He wouldn’t lie down. He definitely wouldn’t take the toy. He reached his limit, and it was on me to realize that!
Weeks two and three got progressively better. I wouldn’t say that he’s confident, but he’s definitely more confident than he was that first week. And that’s all I can ask for, incremental improvement.
Anyway, I figure if this guy can do it, we can do it, too! (BTW, I can’t remember where I saw this originally or else I’d love to give that blog credit. So if it was you, thank you for the inspiration and smile!)
When we adopted Lucas, it was clear he had no life experience. He was terrified of everything: plastic bags, riding in the car, bicycles, the TV, the city bus, everything. Over time, he overcame most of his fears. He became a social guy who now goes to doggy daycare and loves meeting new people. We encounter the occasional reminder of his past fears – like, he still can’t greet other dogs on leash – but for the most part he’s friendly, outgoing, and usually confident. He’s come a long way since those early days.
Cooper, on the other hand, has been exposed to everything, yet he’s still afraid. We take him on errands, car rides, to doggy daycare, to the pet store, and so on. But he dislikes strangers. New places scare him. He would rather be home, snuggled on the couch, than out and about.
Lucas didn’t have the benefit of early socialization like Cooper did, yet Lucas encounters new things better than Cooper does.
All this leads me to the question: How much of behavior is personality and how much is training?
And, of course, the corollary: Can both/either be addressed through even more training?
I don’t have an answer, but I am experimenting. Cooper started agility on Sunday in the hopes of building his confidence. More on that later. Lucas started doggy daycare in the hopes of getting him to love being around lots of other dogs. So far, so good. I’ll keep you posted…
What do you think? How much of your dog’s behavior is personality and how much is training? Can you train around personality?
Happy New Year! I’m not a big resolution maker. They always seem too grand… and too easy to break. I am, however, a huge goal setter. Every year, I set goals for all aspects of my life, including dog training goals. In honor of the new year and also because January is Train Your Dog month, I thought I’d publicly put them out there to get myself a little bit of accountability. So here goes! Oh, and if you have goals for your dogs, post them in the comments. I’d love to hear what everyone is going to accomplish in 2013!
- Pass our Pet Partners retest before it expires in June. Gulp.
- Teach a new trick or behavior each month. This is super important to me now that he’s around 9 years old because I want to make sure he stays mentally sharp!
- Recall! Lucas has a stellar recall… unless there’s something more fun or exciting or interesting than I am. Haha.
- Continue to work on him ignoring other dogs while on leash. We’ve made some progress over the last couple of years, but we still have a ways to go.
- Build his confidence through agility. I send in our class registration form today, and we start on Sunday!
- Improve his walking behavior: eliminate pulling and improve his focus especially when other dogs go by.
- Less barking!
To me, those seem totally manageable if I break them down into individual, daily steps. I’m excited to see how far we come this year with some clear goals in mind!
What do you hope to accomplish with your dogs in 2013?
I’m a huge fan of clicker training. To me, dog training should be a fun, positive experience for both the handler and the dog. I’ve trained all three of mine with the clicker, and they’ve learned everything from the basic “sit” all the way to flipping light switches and opening and closing cabinets. So when I had the opportunity to work with a trainer to write a book about clicker training, I could not have been more excited.
And, as of yesterday, the interactive book is available in the iTunes app store. This week only it’s on sale for only $4.99. It’s a steal!
Some details about the “Positively Dog Training” app: Made exclusively for the iPad and iPhone, this book uses clicker training to help readers train their dogs quickly and humanely. It features 38 HD video tutorials and dozens of step-by-step instructions for canine skills and tricks, potty training, noise control, nutrition, and exercise. Readers can also consult a quick-reference glossary and a buying guide full of the best in dog gear.
I’m so excited to share this project with you because it’s something I truly believe in. Training with our dogs is one of the most fun ways we can build our bond.
Check it out and let me know what you think!
Have you ever read about mirror neurons? It’s a fascinating concept. Here’s the definition from Science Daily:
A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal…. These neurons have been observed in primates, including humans, and in some birds. -Source
So the question is: Do dogs have mirror neurons? Can they learn by watching each other? This is the subject of scrutiny. Here’s some interesting research: Dogs Catch Yawns From Their Owners.
Here’s some more interesting research:
Since we adopted Emmett six years ago, and then Lucas five years ago, the boys weren’t allowed on the bed. The rule changed last year, and Cooper made himself incredibly comfortable. As you can see from the picture above, he commandeered John’s pillow as a dog bed on top of a bed. Meanwhile, Emmett and Lucas still haven’t felt entirely comfortable jumping up on the bed since they weren’t allowed to for so long.
And then a few days later…
Clearly this wasn’t a rigorous scientific study. There was no control or any real observations other than me snapping a cell phone pic. But for so many years, neither Emmett nor Lucas made a move to get on the bed or, especially, curl up on a pillow. Even when they were allowed up they stuck to curling up at the foot of the bed. As soon as Sir Cooper made himself comfortable, all of a sudden both of the big boys tried it. Hmm…
Mirror neurons at work?
What do you think? Can you share any anecdotes about your dogs that might indicate that they have mirror neurons? Have they started doing something after watching another dog do it?
As a final thought, how cute is this?! He flipped one pillow down to make himself a little wedge to sleep in:
P.S. Don’t forget to enter to win the Citizen Canine bag by Tom Bihn. The contest closes Tuesday, July 3!