Observing vs Doing – let it be or be a dog trainer


The thing about the Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog story that I hated, was the same thing as when the girl in the horror film goes looking for the monster at midnight in the cemetery. “No, don’t…!” But despite all the chances to avoid the disaster, killer, awful thing…oh no they just keep doing what they’re doing. I don’t know what they’re thinking when they keep finding bodies or being attacked…just pretend it never happened and all will be well, in the dark with the monsters. When are you gonna figure out it’s a horror flick?

OK so at first, fool me once it’s an accident, twice it’s a pattern, three times it’s a lifestyle.

I mean I believed the stories about unconditional love and free-living puppies that don’t bite or chew. Then hey, ignorance, it takes a while to learn something new. Then well, the rest of my life is sooo busy I just don’t have time to deal with this right now. Then blame the dog, stoopid dog, scaredy-cat dog, mean dog, dumb dog…how did we get this dog!? Then get sentimental after the dog loses all his capabilities.

The observers approach is like a researcher or reporter looking in at a creature doing funny, irritating and amazing things and recording them. Cool records, funny records and the dogs just keep on doing whatever they decide to do. Oh, they do end up managed and tolerated, but they seldom adjust their way of interacting with the world. It’s kind of the ‘that’s how they do’ approach. Who needs analysis or interventions, that’s just the way they are. And when I discover it, just like the ‘about to be killed’ girl in the movie…scream and start running too late. Oh yeah, that’s effective, not.

Haven’t you always wondered how reporters and photojournalists can just observe and record? Well, maybe you already know. maybe you already think that you can’t change people and you can’t change dogs or when walking in the cemetery at night in a horror film…there’s no need to be ready or persistent. What for? Just because you’ve seen the result before, deny, deny, deny…maybe it will magically be different the next time.

Well, when reporters report and photojournalists video record they expect others to figure out what to do about it. So if I were in a horror flick, if I started to think something bad was about to get me, if I learned anything from all those disaster movies it was be aware and then figure out what to do and do it.

I don’t know how to tell you this, but getting a puppy (even after the old dog of 13 dies and you think you remember how it was) or as a second dog is not a ‘cake walk.’ It’s like having a baby, wonderful and terrible and tiring and potentially life-changing. Some pups are actually fairly easy, some; the smart and active ones, scared or assertive ones can be very challenging to your current way of life. But I think that just being an observer is a disservice to the dog, because humans have changed the world so much and expect dogs to negotiate it, even though we’ve flipped around the rules.

There’s a couple of approaches that create really nice dogs. 1) The free wheelin’ dog who gets to experience all sorts of stuff because well he’s loose (this dog unfortunately now-days is likely to be hit by a car or captured as a stray or killed for deciding to try something).  or 2) The trainers/competitors/service dog who is taken everywhere and has lots of controlled experiences. There’s a couple of ‘oh boy’ stories about his puppy-hood, but basically certainly not Marley.

I’m for the controlled experiences version. And by controlled I mean, not overwhelming, not freaky scary, but varied, incremental and things that are rewarded and important for the dog to understand how to react and be confident about.

In order to make the second one work the observer part has to do some analysis and know the pup and his body language. Anything that makes the dog worried/scared/aggressive needs to be parsed out into tiny teachable segments that can be re-stacked together into a comfortable behavior. And if you wait until it’s a BIG problem it’s a lot harder–but that’s often how I make my money, hmm, temperament and behaviors in early life are more flexible than later.

Wait, did you say I'd have to just wait in the car while you had fun shopping...
Wait, did you say I’d have to just wait in the car while you had fun shopping…I thought we were going hiking.

Example: when I got Jazzie several years ago she was worried while riding in the car (didn’t want to get in, panting/stressing–saw this on trip home from rescue). OK, so that was the observation. I didn’t know what part of the experience she actually didn’t like. So I worked on different parts separately – unsteady surface on wobble board, jumping up onto things on grooming table and other surfaces, sounds with crazy noises while playing games and playing games while close to running motors and with radio on. Then jumping into car and playing game inside it (no trip). Trips with the other dogs jumping in first…short and games right after. Trips with frequent treats that were high value. And of course all the standard and non-standard obedience, crate training and tricks that build confidence and help the dog to understand what you/I like. Note there are advantages to working/playing with things that are similar away from the worrisome thing, that way if some part of your plan is unsuccessful it won’t magnify the ‘scary’ item.

Did it work? Yes. Very well, Relaxed dog, jumping into the car.

And then I started taking her with me on little travels with longer waits for her while I did errands and after several weeks of this she indicated, when I had my go-to-town jacket on that she didn’t really want to go with me. So back to adding games to the car rides because even though she wasn’t stressing in the vehicle, she wasn’t rushing to join me on a ride.

Did I wait for her to start hiding or whatever before I did something to add fun back into an activity? No, why make things harder and more confirmed bad.

Max gets rewarded for ignoring the cat...who has just jumped up and settled above him.
Max gets rewarded for ignoring the cat…who has just jumped up and settled above him. And yes the cat sometimes adds an undeserved clawed paw into the mix. We’ve started the cat on agility and he has been more dog friendly.

Example 2; Max would like to chase the cat (and maybe worse). He has lived side-by-side with our cat for seven years. He gets rewarded for not looking at the cat when the cat is doing something ‘crazy catlike.’ Recently a feral cat decided to take up residence in our hay shed. I didn’t realize it for a little while, but Max did. Once I realized he wasn’t trying to flush out hay eating bunnies I began offering high value rewards for him looking at me instead of the woodpile (where this wild cat was hiding) and then for coming and then for ignoring where the cat lurked. This whole game has the added advantage of solidifying his ‘come’ in the face of high adrenalin prey activity. How often do I do this? Every time he seems intent on finding something in a place I think a cat or rabbit might hide. How long will I keep on – until he’s totally and easily stopped every time and joyously rejoining me. Persistence. The first day I had to go get him and lead him away he was so involved in his efforts and it took some contemplating on my part to see it as a huge training opportunity that had pointed out some gaps in his understanding.

There’s a lot of things that puppies do and a lot of things we want to do with them. Many of them need to be redirected (like picking up and chewing the right things), many of them need to be prevented so they don’t have to be re-trained, many of them need to be practiced in small parts to be accepted and enjoyed and some of them can just be observed and laughed over. But just observing won’t change a behavior and some behaviors need changing, so don’t just keep doing what you’ve done and expect a different result.

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