Taking the Long View

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to live with dogs with behavior issues. I’ve had dogs with fear issues, aggression issues, resource guarding issues, separation anxiety…the list goes on. I always wonder if the Universe somehow arranges it so these dogs end up with those who can/will deal with them, especially when the dogs might otherwise end up homeless or euthanized. And of course, it makes us better trainers in the process.

I was commenting online the other day about how far Bodhi has come in the year-plus that we’ve had him. My friend Angela Wong in Malaysia responded, “Another testimony that patience, perseverance and consistency are some of they key factors in rewards-based training. Fear issues don’t just disappear overnight, just as how it didn’t develop overnight in the first place!” And you know, she’s right. It can be so difficult to see significant changes when you live with a dog every day, especially since big changes are normally made of a string of small, subtle changes that connect and build upon themselves. It’s easy to feel that nothing you’re doing is having an effect, especially when we live in a culture of instant gratification. But taking the long view, things do change.

It’s easy to forget that when Sierra first came to live with us after having been in the shelter four times, although she was sweet and friendly, she was also shut down in certain ways. If I gave the hand signal for stay, she’d cringe and look as though I was going to strike her. She was afraid or somehow unwilling to try to excavate a Kong, and I kept making things easier and easier for her (peanut butter smeared on a bully stick, for example), until she felt it was okay to try. She’s still a sensitive dog, but nowadays she knows a bunch of tricks, is a willing and enthusiastic participant in training sessions, and can get anything you can put into a Kong—frozen or not—out in no time flat.

My husband and I both suspect that Bodhi was abused. I’m the first to say that people jump to that conclusion all too easily when adopting a dog, but the way he’d flinch whenever my husband would move his foot just a bit spoke volumes. Bodhi was afraid of my husband for the first couple of months, but slowly warmed up to the point that now, he and Sierra good-naturedly battle it out for my husband’s attention each night when he gets home from work.

While on leash, Bodhi used to lunge and bark at other dogs. It seemed as though behavior modification took forever, and I changed tactics a bunch of times along the way, always striving to match the technique to what was needed at the time. The worst was when we’d walk both dogs together, as not only was Bodhi reactive, but Sierra would actually resource guard dogs who were at a distance, and would begin snapping and snarling at Bodhi. So whenever we see a dog coming, we create some distance between ourselves so as not to pass the dog at the same time. Over time, we’ve been able to close this gap a bit, although the behavior is still not to where I’d like it to be. I have to say, though, that Bodhi has come a long way in being able to pass by other dogs, and thanks to a few different men we see on our regular morning park visits who give him treats, Bodhi has now taken to going up to strange men to solicit food and attention. And many times these men have dogs—who Bodhi totally ignores! Okay, so the mugging for treats is not the best manners (and I do ask that they tell him to sit first), but coming from a dog who was deathly afraid of men, I’ll take it. And Bodhi can usually walk past smaller dogs fairly calmly now, although large dogs are still a bit of a challenge and take more wrangling.

Although I don’t walk around thinking about how far the dogs have come, maybe I should sometimes. If you’ve been working on a long-term behavior issue with your own dogs, maybe you should do. It’s true that patience, perseverance, and consistency are key. And taking the long view now and then helps to keep you motivated, and grateful for the progress you’ve made.

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12 Responses to Taking the Long View

  1. Karen says:

    It takes a special person, who is dedicated and patient, to hang in there and work with dogs that have behavior issues. I applaud Nicole and all the dog owners who have made this commitment!

  2. Nicole, I did post a comment earlier but it doesn’t appear to have loaded.
    I too actually thought this morning how far my Chevy has come. When I took Chevy on 4 years ago at the age of 18mths, his sole crime being a missing tooth not allowed for his breed in the show ring, and also having the misfortune of a ruptured cruciate ligament at just one year of age. The breeder took him back from the original owner, begging me to take him on due to his special needs with the cruciate issue (I am a veterinary nurse), telling me he was a really lovely dog.
    I am sure he was, but Chevy is a sensitive soul, he feels things very personally and his world came crashing down as he was rejected by his previous owner, who wanted a show dog not a pet.
    For the first 2 years we could not touch Chevy without him flinching. The first 6-12 months he would growl a low soft growl, but with perseverance, love, and patience I managed to get him to accept the simple pleasures of massage (such a useful tool massage!). He now loves and demands cuddles from anyone he meets. He does still on occasions flinch or panic for sudden movements, sometimes giving me an appeasement grin, but he is now so loving.
    He is reactive towards other dogs whilst on a lead as he has been attacked numerous times, at least with us anyway, I don’t really know of his previous history in that manner. But I do know what some show people do with large dogs to “ark them up” for the ring. They take them past the toy breeds who will yap away in near hysteria, as the dogs approach. I can image this has happened to Chevy, it is the little yappy dogs he reacts to the most.
    Although I do not believe he had been abused by his pervious owner (my partner does believe he has been abused) I guess it really depends on your definition of abuse too. What I do know is he was treated as a Show Dog not a pet and not how I would and do treat him. He was housed in a run, and as a Rottweiler, I also believe he would have been treated roughly, as some old school Rottweiler people believe that is how you should treat them.
    The reactivity has been a challenge for us to manage. He actually does like dogs but he needs to be secure and confident the other dog is not going to attack him, so this takes time, something you don’t always have on a walk.
    This morning our neighbour (who is aware of our “issues” with Chevy and is also understanding, usually making efforts to avoid Chevy) due to unfortunate timing, had her two little dogs come flying from her unit, starling Chevy. As I had my older Rotty, who is on very friendly terms with the two little neighbours, I immediately took him over to distract them, so the owner could gather her wits and collect the dogs. Chevy, was with my partner, immediately sat and pushed himself up to his dad for a reassuring and protective cuddle as we have been teaching him, without any prompting. Only a few steps away from our front door, the little dogs gone Chevy was released to go home, after a huge quick “shake-off” he ran as fast as he could to the front door, looking at me imploringly to open it quickly so he could get inside away from the “scary monsters”, yawing excessively. Inside he ran straight to his water bowl for a “stiff drink” to settle his nerves.
    Yes he has indeed come a long way since we took him on; now able to manage his anxiety well, safe in the knowledge we are there to help him. My partner and I know we must never let him down as his first owner did to our benefit 4 years ago!

    • wildewmn says:

      Gillian,

      Thanks for taking the time to post Chevy’s story. It’s further proof that dogs who haven’t had the optimal start in life can still, with love and patience, come around. Making a dog like Chevy feel safe and instilling alternative behaviors (e.g., when stressed at seeing yappy dogs) is key. Bodhi is the same way, when encountering another dog is just too much for him, he’ll now default to walking next to me, and although he whines, he’ll take treats and focus on me rather than lunging after the other dog.

      I agree that massage is a hugely helpful tool, and how wonderful that Chevy went from not being willing to be touched to enjoying massage. Kudos to you for all the work you’ve put in with Chevy; I know it’s not easy, but as they say, you’ve come a long way, baby!

      Take care,
      Nicole

  3. I rescued my first herding breed, a female Australian Shepherd, one year ago tomorrow (12-8) and since she was a 3 year old country dog who didn’t appear to know much – traffic, sidewalk grates, cracked or uneven sidewalks, more – all threw her for a loop, I figured, conservatively, that it would take me a year to “get her together.”

    Well…a year later she’s great with traffic (aside from the occasional urge to herd it), walks beautifully on leash everywhere, sits, stays, downs,stays, waits, comes when called, loves kids, is pals with lots of dogs, all the good stuff. Except…

    On leash she is a BARKER with a capital B, and as much as I like to think I’m quite skilled, being a professional & all, this one has thrown me. If she sees another dog while on leash she is probably going to bark a couple of times (fine, I say “hello” too) but she may just go ballistic @ full volume. Big dogs, small dogs. If we were to meet them there is a 20% chance she will bark in their faces if she gets nervous, so we don’t meet on leash. Even off-leash I had to teach her, “sniff butts” so she wouldn’t just go eye-to-eye.

    I started out doing cc/ds then concluded that she wasn’t “upset” (no hackling, growling) just “excited”, yelling “I”MHERE!HERE!HERE!” so we worked on a lot of oc “Leave it, shush” which has improved things, except when it doesn’t & she just comes apart like a cheap suit. I met a woman on the street the other day with a puppy & didn’t even give her my business card since no one in their right mind would hire a trainer whose dog is barking uncontrollably.

    “You are an embarrassment” I told Lu. “You keep this up, I’ll be out of work.”

    So I’m really @ a bit of a loss in how to proceed, and I know my changing tactics isn’t helping much. I’m currently picking apart my timing & execution, but would love to hear from those who have had a similar experience, and better results than I’m getting. I remind myself of how well she is doing overall (she no longer barks @ dogs through the truck window) but I find myself feeling very frustrated.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Gallivan,

      It sounds like you’ve come a long way with your Aussie. From what you’ve said, she’s not reactive toward other dogs but is very excited and may “lose it” when seeing certain dogs. You mentioned that you did desens. and counter-conditioning, but I wonder whether you were doing straight classical conditioning or asking her to *do* something for the treat. Because she’s got so much adrenalin running through her system, it would be better to have her do something active, even if it’s just targeting your hand with her nose. (Btw the amount of force with which she presses will give you a good gauge on her excitement level as well.) If you keep the targeting exciting (moving your hand around to a different position each time, making some easier and some harder) it might be enough to keep her focused on you and stop her from going over the top. I’d also recommend having someone else videotape you as you pass another dog she reacts to, so you can watch it back in slow motion and see whether there might be some super subtle body language you’re missing that is the precursor to the more obvious signals.

      Take care,
      Nicole

      • Thanks Nicole,
        I have been doing a “sit/watch me” with Lu, but I have to be more consistent, and clean up my timing. I’ve been waiting too long to ask for it from time-to-time, waiting to see how she’d do. Your note reminds me that I should ask for it the moment her ears raise, which is the Alert Antenna going up. We’re training, not testing, after all.

        This always makes me think of the cobblers kids having no shoes. If I was as detailed with myself as I am with my clients we’d probably be in better shape. Of course we weren’t helped a few days ago when while Lu was doing an epic “sit/watch me” a woman let out 30 feet of expando leash so the dog we were ignoring dog could “say ‘hello’.” Lu was better about it than I was.

        By the way, we have a mutual friend in Frances Dauster, who will be camped on my futon when you come to New Orleans next fall.

        Thanks again for your insight & help, and this great site.

        Gallivan

      • wildewmn says:

        Hi Gallivan,

        While sit/watch me is great, I’d be curious to see whether you have better luck with a more active type of alternate activity. Sometimes when a dog is that aroused, sitting and focusing is the hardest thing to do.

        No kidding about the cobbler’s kids, I think most of us trainers are in that boat!

        Looking forward to New Orleans next fall! 🙂

        Take care,
        Nicole

  4. I have often thought that my dogs were “sent” to me to make me better, and they certainly have. I no longer get upset when a dog arrives in my life that has an issue, I just acknowledge that I have more to learn. Thanks for the great post!

    • Karen says:

      I agree with you on this. I truly believe all my pets came to me for a reason. They all have interesting stories as to how they came to be in my home.

  5. Sarah says:

    What a great reminder! Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there is any progress, but when you look at the long view it can be SO encouraging. I also felt a bit better seeing the replies and realizing that even skilled trainers struggle, not just inexperienced people! I had no idea what I was in for when we adopted Pooh a year and a half ago. She has a wonderful, kind soul, but was terrified of everything. When I first read How to Help Your Fearful dog my husband and I had to choose priorities because nearly EVERY chapter applied at a severe level. These days we are choosing new chapters to work on more frequently. Thanks!!

    • Sarah says:

      Ok, so I didn’t get book name quite right. Just wanted to clarify that i meant Help for Your Fearful Dog, but I’m guessing you all knew anyway.

  6. Yep, sometimes it’s good to stop & think how far your dog & you have travelled. I’ve had Inka four months now, and most of the time, he’s ‘just’ Inka to me, but then our trainer will comment on how far he’s come on, or he’ll willingly go and greet the male vet, or he’ll bark, at someone outside the house, or just at nothing – and four months ago none of that would have happened. If we can achieve what we have in four months, I look forward to the next four, and can see my somewhat-tongue-in-cheek-nickname of “agility champion in training” might not be too far off the mark!

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