This is the first in a series of (hopefully) monthly posts on our dog training journey, understanding positive training, coming to terms with correction training and why I need to learn to meditate 😉
This is our first Positive Pet Training Hop and I want to be very clear that while I have learned (and am continuing to learn) a great deal about dog behavior, training methods and how best to work with my three dogs, I am not a dog trainer. Nor do I believe in a one size fits all approach to dog training. We have tried positive training and mild corrections based training and for us, the approach is dog-dependent. It’s totally okay if you disagree with me, I’m happy and eager to learn, but please keep comments positive (see what I did there? Keepin’ it light.)
When Zora, now 13, was a puppy, we took a wonderful series of puppy training classes with a local trainer with amazing results. Looking back, I realize the training was 100% positive reinforcement training. Though I had no real understanding or awareness of what “positive training” meant, I was so proud of myself and my sweet puppy…so proud that I was a probably a little cocky, I became a bit complacent, and I was definitely naive.
Four years later when I brought home my first rescue dog, Simon, who was likely just under a year old at the time (the rescue told me he was 2!), I believed people when they said that Zora would show Simon the way and that he would learn from her. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
I’m pretty sure there was a closed door session in the pantry and I believe the conversation went something like this:
Zora: So, Simon. I’m supposed to teach you how to behave and, while I am generally really good, I think it’s a little lazy of Alison to expect me to do all the teaching.
Simon: Okay! Okay! I’m listening! Sort of! Can’t really hear you because my tail is knocking everything off the coffee table but so far, I’m with you!
Zora: Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to tell you all the things I do that really annoy Alison
Simon: Yep! Okay! Got it!
Zora: You’re going to tell me all of your obnoxious behaviors…
Simon: OMG!! OMG!! I TOTALLY KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING WITH THIS!
Zora: Then YOU will do all of those things. Like, a lot! (I think she was setting him up)
Simon: YES! THAT’S AN EXCELLENT PLAN!! LOVE IT! WOOT!
And, that is pretty much what happened.
The rescue Simon came through gave me wildly inaccurate information about my boy. They assured me that he knew all of his basic commands, that he was great in the car and good on walks and that he was a pretty much an all-around happy guy, as evidenced by his non-stop tail wagging.
As it turned out, while he had clearly heard the word “sit”, it was definitely “optional” in his mind as he would start to touch his butt to the floor only to think better of it at the last moment. Riding in the car with Simon was like having the Tasmanian Devil along for the ride (he is now crated during card rides) and attempting to walk him could result in an almost dislocated shoulder or, once, a concussion.
Warning: the video below is exceedingly irritating… much like nails on a chalkboard but you should watch it, even if it’s just so you can feel my pain 😉
Did I mention that there is a stuffed frozen Kong in the crate? This normally highly treat-motivated guy, crosses so quickly into high anxiety mode that I could put a raw steak in the crate and it wouldn’t even get a sniff!
Simon, is indeed a generally happy guy. However, after far too many training missteps (with both positive training and corrections based training), I have learned that Simon is also an anxious and insecure dog and some of the training advice we got early on was either completely ineffective and/or likely did more harm than good, especially some of the corrections-based training we were offered, possibly worsening his anxieties and insecurities. I also realize, and take full responsibility for the fact that Simon needs more exercise than he gets (to be fair, he had a series of knee injuries a while back that derailed training and exercise efforts and he could probably run a marathon and be ready to go again 10 minutes later – but more on that in another post)
The reality is that every dog is different, just like people and that means they act, react, and learn, differently. Click To Tweet Zora was easy to train and rarely needed correction (except for some stubborn leash pulling and unnecessary barking). She is an easy going, relaxed, treat-motivated lab who loves everyone.
Simon, on the other hand, is super high energy, all the time, even at nine years old. What I initially believed was “happy” excitement, I now understand to be “anxious” excitement and there is a BIG difference. Simon is dog-reactive when walking on leash and quickly goes from zero to nutter – whining, barking, straining on the leash etc. Once he is at that stage, once he has crossed that line, it is virtually impossible to calm him down with even the best of treats. I mean, he’ll still take the treat (he is a lab, after all) but with little regard for where the treat ends and your fingers begin.
In this case, all I can do is remove him from the situation, which may mean pulling him in the other direction and offering a combination of mild corrections and treats in order to resume our walk. Keep in mind, he is 75 pounds of solid dog so while I am as gentle as I can be and I do try to remain calm (see the header where I mention my need to learn meditation) it is critical in that moment that he listen to me and do as I am asking if another dog is approaching, especially if the other dog is off leash, so that I can avoid any altercations or injuries. (To be VERY clear, I am referring to leash-required areas.)
After recently completing a leash-reactivity class at the Longmont Humane Society with the fabulous Annie Schupp, I now understand that when Simon reaches this state of anxiety, there is no learning happening. He may take the treat but he is not even aware of it, nor is he aware of the fact that he is whining (for pretty much the whole class!). We have a ways to go but I am learning to understand Simon better and, honestly I am having to come to terms with how my energy impacts our training sessions. Mostly, I am learning what does and what does not work for him…after eight years…yes, really. Eight years.
Then there is my pit mix Piper, my foster fail, who at 17 months is still learning. She’s done really well in classes and loves everyone, canine or human but she is not always treat motivated once we leave the house or yard. In other words, introduce any distractions and she can become super stubborn and suddenly weigh 1000 pounds. Piper and I are still learning about one another. So far, so good but we still have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, Piper does respond well to positive training, at least when there are no distractions.
Piper rocking the “sit” “stay” “come” while we practice long lead recall.
Two of our favorite play positive training activities:
Back to Basics: Whenever I start to get frustrated, I have to remember to take a breath and center myself and my energy. If I am unfocused on the training activity or we’re having an unpleasant walk with lots of pulling, barking etc., I am learning to stop and check in with myself.
If I am irritated or anxious, I know it’s time to go back to basics for both me and the dogs. For me, it means breathing, taking a moment to focus on what I want from the walk or the training session and for the dogs it means ending with something positive so we go back to basic commands like “sit” and “down” which are commands they all know well. This way we end the session on a more positive note. (My apologies for the less than centered video below…my “camera crew” does not have opposable thumbs ?)
Working with Piper on mastering “sit” and “down” by asking for sit and then luring her into “down” with a treat.
Search & Rescue: I ask my dogs for a “sit and stay” in one room of the house. I then go to another floor/room in the house to hide a bunch of treats. Once all the treats are hidden, I say “come find the treats” and, like a herd of elephants they race to the room I’m in and search until they have found all the treats. I then ask for a “sit and stay” in that room and move on to another room in the house. (For obvious reasons, I try not to do this activity when my downstairs neighbor is home.)
Tip: One of my dogs can be a little bratty about treats so sometimes she has to sit this one out (always with a fabulous bone or treat of her own) while the other two play and then she gets a solo shot at the game.
There is currently no regulatory body for dog training. We can debate whether there should be in a future post but for now, do your homework. Research the various methods, follow people like Angela Adan who works with the human end of the leash as much, if not more so than what’s on the canine end (She’s my hero), and ask questions. Lots of questions. Go observe a class or two. Find what works for you and your dog.
What is your favorite training activity or training tip?