Training (Almost) Naked

June 27, 2012

Okay, get your mind out of the gutter—this isn’t about some new-fangled technique where you strip down to your underwear in an attempt to distract your dog into behaving better. What I mean by training (almost) naked is that this morning, Bodhi, who normally wears a front-clip body harness on our walks, graduated to wearing just his flat buckle collar.

Let’s face it: whatever you choose to use, whether it’s a head halter, body harness, choke chain, pinch collar, flexible leash, leash with handle—the list goes on—it all comes down to being management. Granted, for a small person with a big dog, or someone with arthritis or other physical issues, management might have to be a permanent solution. But if you’re working on training your dog and improving the connection between you, eventually, heavy equipment shouldn’t be necessary.

With Bodhi, one of the main things we’ve been working on over the past year is “With me,” meaning that when I utter that phrase, Bodhi will place himself into position by my left side. Although not required, he will then look at me—mostly because he knows a treat will be forthcoming. (Sometimes the reward is just a smile and a “Good boy,” but a dog can dream.) “With me” has come in handy not only for times such as this morning when a maintenance truck came barreling down a narrow park driveway, but for those times when we pass other dogs. As some of you might remember, Bodhi was quite dog-reactive when I first adopted him from the shelter. But he’s come a long way, and now most times when I call his name as we walk along, if he’s out front, even without the “With me,” he’ll voluntarily walk next to me as we pass other dogs.

The other thing we’ve worked on long and hard is loose leash walking. Have I mentioned that Bodhi is part malamute, a breed bred to pull? It seems his former owner may have taught him that if you just pull hard enough, your owner will come along and you’ll get to go wherever you want. Re-educating Bodhi to walk on a loose leash—I don’t care whether he’s next to me or in front, as long as he doesn’t pull—has definitely been a project. Because of some physical issues involving my back, I couldn’t chance him lunging, so management was necessary. We started out using a head halter, which he didn’t love but became accustomed to. We quickly graduated to a front-clip harness, which he didn’t mind. Although I prefer front-clip harnesses over head halters for my own dogs, I’d still rather not have to use them, either.

It took a lot of trust in our relationship and training history for me to transition Bodhi to just his flat buckle collar. First, there was the chance that he might lunge and thereby injure my back yet again. But also, when he’d first come to us, we quickly realized that any pressure on his throat triggered a round of wheezing and coughing. I don’t know whether this condition is due to former “training” using harsh corrections around the neck, or some physical issue, but Bodhi lunging with a leash connected to a collar around his neck would not be a good thing. We’re at the point where we’ve mastered passing other dogs, and, believe it or not, even bunnies and squirrels. But how would he do when there was less physical control?

As it turns out, we got the chance to find out. This morning, I removed the body harness, attached the leash to the buckle collar, and off we went. Bodhi was nicely responsive whenever I gently reminded him to stop pulling by using a tiny leash flick or an “Eeaaasy.” Then, on a hilly, narrow dirt trail overlooking one of the main park pathways, it happened all at once: a bunny darted across the trail in front of us, at the very same time a dog and owner passed on the lower walkway. Did Bodhi freak out? Did I end up face-down, eating mouthfuls of dirt? Nope, and nope. I called Bodhi’s name and, like a champ, he placed himself calmly into position next to me. (Did you see the sky open and hear the angels sing? I did.)

Training completely naked would entail Bodhi being off-leash, and we don’t have a proper location to do that, other than the fenced dog park. We make use of that area early in the mornings to practice recalls, but I’m not about to let him off-leash in the main public park. We do practice with long-lines now and then, and will begin to do more of it. I’d like to think that if he ever got off leash, or if we took the dogs somewhere we could have them off-leash, he’d be as responsive. In the meantime, training (almost) naked works for us.


Ignorance Kills

June 19, 2012

I recently heard a story I can’t get out of my mind. A woman who owns a sweet, friendly pit bull had her son and his wife over to visit. The couple brought their two small dogs along. One of the dogs kept taunting the pit bull until he’d finally had enough. He nipped the small dog on the ear. There was a dramatic amount of blood, as there is wont to be from a torn ear. The “attack” consisted of one quick bite and release. The son is now convinced that the pit bull is aggressive, and will no longer bring the grandkids to visit. He wants his mother to get rid of the dog. The woman loves her dog very much, and is understandably distraught. She doesn’t want to give up the dog, and yet she wants her grandkids to be able to visit.

The friend who told me about this situation and I discussed it. My friend is an experienced dog person who understands, as I do, that even if the pit bull had been truly aggressive toward the small dog (in which case the bite would have been elsewhere on the body and the dog would be dead, or at least badly injured), dog-dog aggression has nothing to do with aggression toward people! The dog has been wonderful with small children, and has always good-naturedly put up with the pulling, tugging, and other things kids do to dogs. In fact, many pit bulls are extremely tolerant in that regard. Besides, breed aside, the dog in question didn’t act aggressively in this situation to begin with—he acted defensively. He responded with as little force as would get his message across, and then, once delivered, he backed off. That sounds like a wonderful dog to me.

 There’s no way to get around the fact that the pit bull stigma is alive and well, and is at work in this particular scenario. A trainer is being called in to temperament test the dog in hopes that the son will accept a professional assessment that the dog is safe around kids. I understand the man’s concern, but also know there’s no need for it. I hope the situation resolves in a positive way, not only for the sake of the family, but for the dog’s sake, because there’s not many places for a “biting pit bull” to go. Open ears and minds allow for misconceptions to be cleared up. Aggression is dangerous, but ignorance kills.

Two DWIs (Dogs With Issues), One Walk: Double Trouble or Dream Team?

June 15, 2012

I didn’t mean for it to happen. Normally, my husband takes one dog running while I take the other to the park. Whichever dog I have with me gets a very brief run in the empty dog park, and then a walk that incorporates sniffing, exploring, and periodically having to pay attention to Mom. But once in a while, circumstances—namely, my husband’s work schedule, and my own appointments—conspire to give me the choice of either walking both dogs myself or no one getting any exercise for a few days.

You’re probably thinking, So what’s the big deal with walking two dogs? You’re a trainer, how hard could that be? And you’d be right. But these particular dogs came with their own set of issues. When I adopted Bodhi from the shelter at around a year of age, he was very reactive on leash toward other dogs. We’d pass another dog at the park, and suddenly his 55 pounds would feel like 100 to me as Bodhi lunged, snarled, growled, and barked. Even without other dogs around, Bodhi had apparently never been taught to walk without pulling, a feat which was probably made more difficult for his previous owner by the fact that he’s got malamute in his mix, a breed with a natural propensity toward pulling.

Then there’s Sierra, a.k.a. Mommy’s Little Predator. I’ve never seen a dog with such a strong prey drive and such intense stalking habits—and that’s saying a lot coming from a woman who’s worked with wolves and wolfdogs for the last 20 years. Not only does Sierra have typical predatory behavior toward squirrels, rabbits, and other critters, but she’ll stalk other dogs. Thankfully, it’s not the entire stalk sequence that ends in grabbing and shaking, but if she’s on leash and sees another dog at a distance, she’ll immediately go into a stalk. As we continue along, she’ll slink-crawl toward the dog, suddenly oblivious to any verbal commands, tension on the leash, or anything outside her own focused mind. If Bodhi is walking along next to Sierra when this happens, her habit is to snark and snap at him. “See that dog in the distance? It’s mine!” Resource guarding at a distance is such an unlovely behavior, and one that can be challenging to modify.

For a while now, I’ve been working separately with each dog. We’ve worked on Bodhi walking nicely without pulling—I don’t mind if he walks out ahead, so long as the leash stays slack. When passing other dogs, Bodhi’s gotten to the point that he’ll notice the dog and then, even if he’s walking ahead of me at the time, immediately place himself in position on my left side and look at me, waiting for a treat. If he’s truly having a difficult time containing himself there may be an accompanying whine (this recently prompted a passerby to comment, “You need to oil that dog!”), but he keeps it together. We’ve gone from his wearing a Gentle Leader to being able to behave more calmly while wearing just a front clip body harness.

The big challenge with Sierra hasn’t ever been pulling, but getting her attention around distractions like other dogs and people (certain people at the park offer her treats, so she began pulling toward any person—isn’t generalization great?). So we’ve been working on attention around distractions, and she’s improved to the point that most of the time I can get her to walk with me past other dogs without the digging-in statue-stalk pose.

Today was the second time recently that I had both dogs out together. I have to say, I’m thrilled with their progress. When you take two dogs with issues and put them together, especially in potentially high distraction, high arousal situations, things can escalate and all that training can quickly go out the window. But I felt as though it was time to start purposely working them together now that the separate training and behavior modification has taken hold. As soon as we got out of the car, a man who had parked nearby got out of his car—with two Chihuahuas. (Mind you, this is before 6 a.m. and there’s never anyone else parked there.) Both of my dogs are better with small dogs than large ones, but still, this could easily have been an explosive situation. I’m proud to report that even when the Chihuahuas began to bark (shocking, I know), Bodhi and Sierra, although visibly aroused, were able to pay attention and accept my directions to walk away with me.

As our stroll continued we passed other people, and both dogs responded well to “With me,” their cue to fall into position on either side of me and look to me (at which point they receive super yummy treats). We practiced “With me” around dogs at a distance, high school track teams running past, and even a bunny running up a hill. Sierra and Bodhi did wonderfully. Even though it took Sierra a moment to turn away from the bunny, she was handsomely rewarded with treats and praise, as it’s still a real breakthrough for her. Next we wound around a large dirt track. Although Sierra had already pooped in the dog park, she apparently had to go again. I put both dogs on sit-stays, and then scooped. Now I had two leashes in one hand and a poop bag in the other. I had a vision of this being an immunity challenge on Survivor: the Flaming Poo Bag Course. Would we be able to navigate the obstacles of other people and dogs in this fashion, without creating a literal mess? I’m happy to report that we could and did, and no one was voted off the island.

The more challenging situations came when we traversed an area at the back of the park where the trails are narrower and the terrain more rocky. There’s seldom anyone else back there, but today we ran into a woman with two English Springer Spaniels. Bodhi immediately began to whine, but fell in next to me, looked up, and awaited treats. Sierra began to pull toward the dogs. Because we had been practicing attention so frequently, including multiple times on this particular walk, I was able to call her name and get eye contact. I knew it would be very challenging for her to walk past these dogs, so I chose instead to have them sit and wait. They sat, they waited, they earned treats. Excellent! Then we passed a field where Nala, a lovely Golden Retriever, can sometimes be seen chasing a ball thrown by her owner. To tell the truth, I’d forgotten about that. Sure enough, there she was. Would this be too much for the dogs? I calmly said, “With me” and we began to walk past. Two furry heads turned toward me, then briefly toward Nala,…and then back toward me. Success! Treats rained from the sky.

All in all, it was a most excellent morning. Of course, I know there will be setbacks and situations that are too much for my dogs to be able to hold it together. But I’m so proud of them and the progress they’ve made. It’s days like these that make all the hours spent training worthwhile.

A Tired Dog is a … Less Anxious Dog

June 5, 2012

You’ve probably heard the saying, “A tired dog is a good dog.” Dogs who are pleasantly worn out have less excess energy to burn off by digging, destroying things, barking, and so on. But we seldom consider that a tired dog is also a less anxious dog. Purposely tiring a dog out can be advantageous in a variety of potentially anxiety-producing situations.

Consider the dog who’s nervous about having nails trimmed—well, that describes a lot of dogs, doesn’t it! Let’s imagine two dogs, both equally anxious about nail trimming. The first is Paco, a Chihuahua, and the second is a Bichon named Fifi. Paco’s owner takes him out for a long walk where he’s allowed mental stimulation through investigating the landscape with his nose and sniffing pee-mail left by other dogs. That, combined with the physical exertion, tires him out. Fifi, in the meantime, lounges in bed. Now the time comes for the nail trim: which dog do you think will be calmer?

I’ve found out over the years with clients’ dogs just how much difference wearing a dog out can play in cases of separation anxiety. The difference was very obvious with Sierra. Now, this was after we’d worked through the worst of her issue, and I was able to leave alone her for a few hours. (These were the pre-Bodhi days.) But on those occasions where I was unable to get her out for exercise before I had to depart, she was still noticeably a bit stressed. If she’d had her exercise, she was much calmer and would even fall sleep.

I have never heard it discussed or suggested, but I believe owners should be advised to take their dog for a long walk before a visit to the veterinarian. Most dogs are nervous at the vet’s office, and a lengthy, leisurely walk would most likely take the edge off that anxiety, not only for the dog, but for the owner who’s nervous about the visit as well.

These are just a few examples of how exercise and mental stimulation can contribute to a dog feeling less anxious in an anxiety-producing situation. Can you think of any other situations where it would help?

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