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.