If at First you Don’t Succeed…Group Class, Week Two

February 15, 2010

After a less than stellar showing at our first group class (here’s the blog in case you missed it), I was hoping we’d do better next time. Sierra had been so distracted and intermittently shut down during the initial class that we hadn’t been able to accomplish much of anything. In fact, I could barely get her attention. It’s not that she didn’t know “sit” or to look at me when I called her name. She did. The problem had more to do with her learned helplessness and worry during training than with her intelligence or ability. Hey, it takes time for a four-time rescue dog to learn to trust again. I get it. Still, what good is obedience training if the dog will only comply in private?

This week, we were assigned a position in one of the room’s corner booths, which was a bit more spacious and farther from the other dogs than the one we’d had last week. (The trainer wisely rotates the dogs each week so no dog becomes territorial of a specific area over time.) That probably helped, as did the fact that we’d been in the room before, and Sierra now understood she wasn’t there to play with the other dogs. My being armed with a bag full of hot dogs and string cheese didn’t hurt, either.

This time, we were a team. The class reviewed down from a sitting position, which Sierra did well at home and, I’m happy to report, just fine in class. Then we taught the dogs down from a standing position. I hadn’t addressed that particular skill with Sierra, and it quickly became clear that no one in her previous homes had, either. I followed instructions to move the treat between her front legs while resting my other hand lightly on her lower back to help with the last bit of the down if necessary. I’d never used my hand to physically guide a dog when teaching this skill (though I do lure it the same way), but as it turned out in Sierra’s case it was necessary, unless I wanted to shape the behavior, which would have taken longer than we had in class. After three repetitions the light bulb went on, and the fold-back motion became faster. The wonderful thing was not that Sierra could achieve what was being taught, but that she could actually pay attention and process information well enough to learn something new in a previously over-stimulating, anxiety-producing environment.

Next was a “hula hoop contest.” No, the dogs weren’t expected to stand on their hind legs and swing a hula hoop around their torsos—that’s advanced class! They were to walk by our sides on a loose leash as we each paced around our own individual hoop that had been laid on the ground, changing direction on the instructor’s cue. When the music stopped, the dogs were to sit inside the hoops. The first dog to do so would win. (The traditional musical chairs type game with all the hoops in the middle of the room had been modified because of the few fearful dogs in attendance.) Round one was a tie between three dogs, none of whose names started with the letter S, though we missed it by mere seconds. But when the music stopped at the end of round two…woohoo! Sierra won! Now, that’s a comeback! Go, Team Sierricole! (Well, if Brad and Angelina can be Brangelina…)

The instructor then asked how many dogs pull on leash; predictably, most of the students’ hands went up. Sierra was chosen for the demo. A pile of treats was placed on the floor, and the idea was for her to walk next to the instructor with the leash loose in order to reach the treats. If she pulled, the instructor would gently turn and walk in a different direction. (Trainers may know this as “penalty yards.”) Sierra did great—in fact, she did too well, and it wasn’t as dramatic a demo as it could have been had there been a less cooperative dog involved. But, hey, if doing too well was her worst problem, so be it! Of course, that doesn’t mean Sierra walks perfectly next to me when she really wants to get somewhere—like the entrance to the park. But we’re working on it.

All things considered, this week’s class was a 100% turnaround from the last. That beautiful furry girl and I will continue to practice and to do our homework, just like the other students. And I know we’ll keep getting better and better. I don’t plan to blog about class each week, but I hope that if you’re reading this and have been considering attending a group class, you’ll go (even if you’re a trainer). There’s a natural teamwork that develops as you learn and practice together that can help to deepen any relationship. Also, learning even basic obedience skills together can help with behavioral problems at home. And if any of you have a rough first week of class, if you feel like a failure or are even considering not returning, hang in there. It gets better. If we can do it, you can too.


The Trainer’s Dog Goes to Class

February 9, 2010

I have a suggestion for all the trainers out there who’d like to see things from the average dog owners’ point of view: take your dog to a training class. Better yet, take my dog to a training class; you’re guaranteed a double serving of humble pie.

Sierra’s roughly a year and a half old, and she’s been with us for five weeks now. Her past is a mystery, but she’d been in the shelter four times previously. A husky mix, she’s a consummate escape artist, and also has a serious separation anxiety issue we’re working through. It’s a safe guess that she’s experienced training that was either harsh, or perceived as harsh by her. This became evident when I began training her at home the week after we adopted her. She already knew sit, but the first time I put my hand up to signal “stay,” her ears folded back and she looked very worried. The first time we practiced “down,” she lied down and rolled onto her back.

With time, practice, and plenty of reward-based training using non-threatening body language, she’s becoming a bit less worried. She does still, however, go into a state of learned helplessness whenever she’s not sure what’s being requested or whether she’s doing the right thing; in other words, she shuts down completely. To anyone who didn’t know better, this might appear as lack of compliance or stubbornness. Add this tendency to the fact that she’s extremely distracted by scents (there’s definitely some hunter in her breed mix as well) and other dogs, and you can imagine our first day of group class. I’d pretty much expected it, though, and had decided to take her to class for just that reason. Learning to pay attention around distractions is an important part of canine life.

There were 10 other dogs in the class, and we each had our own little “booth,” thanks to the clever PVC pipe and fabric dividers that limited dogs’ view of each other. Class rules state that dogs must be separated by at least four feet at all times. Apparently, the adorable Golden Retriever in the next booth over didn’t read these rules. The thought bubble over her head as she pushed and knocked her way into our booth repeatedly said, “Hi, nice to meet you, won’t you come over for a sniff and a cookie?” With Sierra already way too distracted, we tried our best to maintain our space. Okay, one of us did.

To allow the humans to pay attention as the instructor laid out ground rules and training concepts, the assistants passed out hollow bones filled with peanut butter for the dogs. Sierra, almost out of her body with all the fascinating smells and sights, ended up having two of these bones over the course of the hour. (As to treats, although I could get her to do some hand targeting, it soon became apparent that the Natural Balance roll, which she loved whenever we practiced at home, wasn’t high value enough in this highly distracting environment.) When we taught the dogs to “sit”—which, again, Sierra already knew—she was so aroused and all over the place that I couldn’t even get her attention well enough to get her to sit on a verbal cue/hand signal. I ended up having to guide her physically. Seeing this, one of the assistants (who had no idea I was a trainer), came over and offered some helpful tips on luring a dog to sit. Hmm, I could certainly relate to the embarrassment owners feel when their dogs can’t perform in class!

The rest of the hour passed in much the same way. All the sit, down, stay, come, and other training we’d finally gotten down at home went right out the window in class. Alright, I’m probably exaggerating quite how bad it was, and certainly many of the other dogs were having the same issues; but Sierra does not train like a normal, easy dog (that’s a whole other blog), and it was a humbling experience. When the hour was over, we drove up the long boulevard that led to the freeway. It had been raining when we’d headed to class that morning, and it was still raining and unseasonably cold for southern California as we drove home. Sierra began whining and pacing in the back of my Jeep. Wondering whether she might have to urinate or defecate, I pulled over at a grassy area and walked her around. Nothing. Back in the Jeep, and ten minutes later we were on the freeway. Five minutes after that, the whining started again. And then circling. And then, paws beating against the windows, frantic. Was she suddenly afraid of riding in the Jeep? What gives, I wondered?

I couldn’t pull over on the freeway, and a few minutes later Sierra produced a veritable lake of diarrhea. The next 45 minutes consisted of a not very pleasant drive home with the windows down, cold and rain pouring in, trying not to gag. I felt badly for Sierra—she’d obviously tried very hard for this not to happen—but I felt pretty badly for me, too! All things considered, it wasn’t the best ever first day of a group class. I can certainly sympathize with how owners feel, going home that first day and feeling like their dog didn’t do well, or worse, was the worst one there. But we’ll be back. We’ll forego the peanut butter bones, and bring super-high-value treats. Although Sierra’s got some deep-seated issues to overcome, we’ll keep doing better and better each week. It’ll be a challenge and a learning experience for us both and, ultimately, it will do us both a lot of good.

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