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Confessions of a Selfish Dog Trainer

Another title of this post could be “Are you secretly plotting against your dog’s rehabilitation?” Or “Do as I say, not as I do!”

The Seattle positive dog trainers group had a meeting yesterday. It was the first time we’d met in about a year and I was going to see some people I hadn’t seen for even longer. It was at a home in the country, so we could all bring our dogs. Yay!

I love going places with my dog, especially now that he can handle it, most of the time. But sometimes, he can’t. I know he has these limitations, for now, because I haven’t done the work I need to make him more comfortable with, say, small children. He came to me, as a puppy, with a fear of just about everything, from dogs to kids to adults, wheeled things, etc. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s able to be a therapy dog and loves going to meet his fan club at the assisted living facility we go to.

But, and this is important, he’s not fine in all situations, and as his human with the schedule and the car keys, it’s up to me to make sure my dog is kept within his comfort zone until I can make that zone bigger through training.

So I look at the guest list the day before and it has something like 15 people and almost as many dogs. That would be ok. A little stressful, maybe a few high pitch barks at the beginning, and he’d be fine, especially since it could be outside. But read on, Grisha, before you commit your dog. 3 little people were also coming. And we might end up indoors, if the weather didn’t cooperate.

I blithely assumed they would be babes in arms, without actually reading further. Since the appearance of a toddler in a confined space is like a small nuclear bomb to Peanut, you’d think I would’ve paid attention. He doesn’t bite them, or even air snap or growl, but he does bark to wake the dead.

But I was selfish. For ME, I wanted my soulmate dog there, both as social support and to show how much progress he’d made, to my friends who hadn’t seen him for a while.

So we showed up and he did relatively fine, just shy, not completely out of his head, and it was looking like a good learning experience as everyone settled down, even though it turned out we were staying inside, not out in a wide-open space. He just ignored the two tiny babies. But what to his wondering eyes should appear but a (very sweet, calm) young girl. That would’ve been fine if he could play fetch with her, but that wasn’t possible in the house, with all of those dogs!

She did her best to help him stay comfortable, but to no avail, since he was what dog trainers call, “way over threshold.” I’d set him up to fail, and Surprise! He did. So instead of putting him just to the edge of his comfort zone and either doing counterconditioning or BAT, I was in ‘management mode’ and just did my best to keep him quiet.

That’s actually shooting myself in the foot, because a lot of what I do to shush him is probably teaching him that barking is good (like me paying attention to him each time he barked and telling him to Leave It – cues are reinforcers!).  Some folks might shush their dogs by yelling or popping on a leash. That doesn’t teach him that barking is good, but it DOES teach them that there’s something to fear in the situation. So it’s lose/lose once you put a dog into a situation that’s too hard.  At that point, I would’ve told my clients to put the dog away, say back in the (not hot) car, ignore the social group and do the relaxation protocol with their dog (click/treat for relaxation) or even leave. But my selfish needs got in the way again, and we stayed, where I could neither train nor really manage him well. I *was* smart enough to mostly stay in the other room where there was no child, and keep him on leash when she was around, but really, that was a Band-Aid, and too little, too late.

Dog fears pile up on top of each other, so that if a dog is a little afraid of X and a little afraid of Y, then X+Y is twice as stressful.  That’s why we hear people saying, “but she’s never done this before!” when their dog gets in a fight or bites the neighbor. Alone, seeing a dog at her house was not scary enough to get a growl, and neither was the appearance of the vacuum cleaner.  But if you put both together, her stress level is higher.  So for Peanut, I had lots of people (now minimally scary), plus lots of dogs (scarier), and a toddler (also scary).  That’s what I mean by setting a dog up to fail. In a real training setting, we’d have just the one new scary thing, like a toddler, plus lots of distance to make it easier, and a training plan to rehabilitate his fears.

Why am I telling you this story? In the hopes that you’ll avoid my mistakes!

All of us are human and have our own needs. The dog has needs, too, and we really need to take them into consideration before we put them in over their heads. It’s a good reminder for me, and something I hope you’ll think about, too. Think about this story and your dog’s needs the next time you:

  • Go to a festival, pet store, or party.
  • Foster, adopt, or board another dog.
  • Have company over, especially if they have dogs or kids.
  • Play loud music or get into a loud fight.
  • Go on a trip and bring/leave your dog.
  • Think about going to the dog park or place where your dog might encounter off leash dogs.
  • Tell your dog to go say hi to someone s/he doesn’t want to meet.

Some dogs will be fine with those things. Some dogs won’t.  Just remember your dog’s boundaries, help train tolerance and joy to stretch those boundaries, but also keep your dog feeling safe!

Note to self: Read this post again next time I want to bring Peanut to a party or a dog festival! :)

p.s. I *was* happy to see that, in spite of this stressful situation, Peanut greeted the adult humans calmly, often with a ‘please pet me’ attitude, something I never thought possible for him. We are so close!

Written by Grisha Stewart, Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle [Slashdot] [Digg] [Reddit] [del.icio.us] [Facebook] [Technorati] [Google] [StumbleUpon] Tweet This Post!
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7 Responses to “Confessions of a Selfish Dog Trainer”

  1. deborah flick Says:

    Oh, Grisha. I so identify with you and Peanut in this situation. I too have on occasion pushed Sadie beyond her threshold by allowing a little scary thing to pile on top of another little scary thing until the next little scary thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or in Sadie’s case, pushed her over the edge. It’s like water torture. One drop of water, not big deal. But drop after drop and being unable to escape the relentless drops one of those drops becomes one to many and we blow. All sentient beings can be pushed too far and then we explode or implode. At least I don’t feel so alone in my selfishness. If even the BEST of dog people can make mistakes—then I guess we are all just human. But, your story is a great reminder to me. Any time, any place where Sadie is involved, Sadie comes first. If I can’t put her first, then I should take her out of the situation or take both of us out of the situation.

  2. Grisha Says:

    Thanks, Deborah. That makes me feel better!

    I love your water torture analogy. That’s it, exactly.

    And this is so apt, “If I can’t put her first, then I should take her out of the situation or take both of us out of the situation.”

  3. Shoshannah Says:

    This just comes to show that we are all human. Makes the non dog trainers like me feel a little better knowing that I’m not alone making mistakes.

  4. Jude Says:

    Been there, done that! Thanks for the story and the reminders.

  5. Sandi Says:

    Grisha, thank you for sharing this experience. It gives you great credibility as a good trainer in the eyes of your clients when you’re not afraid to admit a momentary lapse of judgment. There is hope for all us owners of dogs with challenges!

  6. Donna Says:

    Wonderful story and a great reminder that anyone can make a mistake.

    I sponsor a dog walk for my clients, some have reactives and some have friendlies and everything in between. The reactives are in behavior mod programs and the clients have instructions. I always bring my reactive dog. At first, I had much anxiety about what clients would think of me as a trainer when they met my reactive. What I learned is that my clients felt better and relaxed more and actually became better trainers with their own dogs by seeing that not only is my dog not perfect yet but I make mistakes in judgement occassionally too. They see that my dog progresses from week to week despite occassional set backs.

  7. Jenny Ruth Yasi Says:

    One way to make it easier for the dog is to condition him to wear a calming cap. Then you can use it to mute visual stimuli, so the dog can learn to cope with all the sounds and scents separately before you add all the sights.

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