You don’t always get the dog you were expecting. Just ask my training client Melissa, who envisioned a Lab puppy like the one her neighbor has; a sweet, reasonably calm, focused dog. In fact, her now six-month-old pup is the polar opposite of the show-lines-bred dog who lives down the hall. Not only is Hailey from field-bred lines, meaning she’s got plenty of energy and drive and needs a job to do, but even for a dog typical of those genetics, she is over-the-top excitable, and prone to incessant jumping and hard mouthing on Melissa and her boyfriend, visitors, and yes, even the trainer. When I say over the top, I am comparing Hailey to the many jumping, mouthing dogs I’ve helped over the years. When Melissa and her boyfriend come home after a long day of work (Hailey goes to work with Melissa), thanks to Hailey’s behavior, they can’t relax. The thing is, Hailey is actually very sweet, affectionate, and intelligent. She just has an alarming excess of very scattered energy, and what I see as a serious need to learn how to focus and relax. Fortunately, Melissa is a lovely, dedicated woman who is willing to do whatever it takes to help her rowdy teenager.
At our first training session we’d discussed Hailey’s basic needs, including longer walks than the very short ones that were being given. Melissa also started taking Hailey to a nearby park where she could chase a ball and burn off some energy. But when they got back to their townhome, Hailey would be even more stimulated, even after the initial adrenalin rush had subsided. Even more intense jumping and hard mouthing ensued. I explained how stress chemicals that are released along with adrenalin can remain in a dog’s system even for days, and prescribed long, calm walks instead (with running-type exercise every fourth day instead), along with puzzle toys and other types of mental stimulation. Still, those things alone were not going to solve the problem.
I arrived at our next session armed with a clicker and treats. I do not normally use an actual clicker in clicker training (I normally say, “Yes!” as a verbal marker instead), but I had a strong intuition that it could be helpful in Hailey’s case. I explained how a click marks the second a dog is doing what we want, and how it predicts an immediate reward. (Why else would a dog care if we click?) I conditioned Hailey that a click meant a treat was coming, and we were off! In no time at all, Hailey became intently focused on this great new game. I shaped the behavior of her going to her bed and laying down. Melissa proved to be an excellent student as well, with stellar timing on her clicks. Soon we had Hailey not only going to her bed and lying down, but we’d also captured a head on the floor with sad eyes looking up. This will morph into a trick cued by, “Are you sad?” which gave us both a laugh. The best part was, Melissa and I were able to stand in her living room and have an actual conversation, periodically rewarding Hailey for good behavior, without being jumped on or mouthed. I believe that might have been the first time Hailey was that calm for that length of time since she came into the home. We also clicked for four paws on the floor to greet visitors, which went extremely well. Melissa was so happy she hugged me, and I left feeling happy that I could help them both. I know Melissa will continue to work with Hailey, and things will continue to improve.
Of course, clicker training was only part of the overall plan, which is too long to go into here, but it was an important aspect. I wanted to share this story because so many times, we believe the solution for a dog who has over the top energy is simply to provide more exercise. Or even worse, in the case of trainers who use harsh punishment, to punish the problematic behavior, thereby stressing the dog even more and never solving the underlying problem. Sometimes the answer is simply to help the dog, using small, incremental steps, to learn to relax. Once the dog is more relaxed, many of the troublesome behaviors clear up on their own because the underlying anxiety has been addressed. And, with relaxation comes an environment in which learning can take place. It’s true that exercise is a basic need for dogs and very often owners don’t provide enough of it. But for some dogs, it’s worthwhile to take the time to teach relaxation and focus. Sometimes less really is more.
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