Lately, it seems like there’s an epidemic of people around me who can’t see their own and their dog’s training progress. In a similar vein, I’ve been surprised by the number of clients who seem to take their dog’s improvement for granted, yet continually expect more and more.
Apparently, my new job is to remind dog owners to keep perspective, the long view, when training their companions. It takes time to train difficult dogs and manage serious canine behavior problems. But if you apply yourself with self-discipline and good will, you will see overall progress if you remember to look for it and take the time to appreciate it! There will be setbacks and dips, because learning and change are like that. But when viewed with a bit of perspective, the progress becomes obvious.
One of my clients has a dog with a serious prey drive. If the dog spotted a squirrel in the park, she would go berserk, to the extent that her owner could barely drag her away from the park.
We used a combination of positive reinforcement, managing the environment, counter-conditioning, and desensitization, and the dog improved, to the point that I hadn’t heard from the owner for some time. Until he called to complain that the techniques were evidently no longer working, because “My dog still chases deer on the trails.”
Talk about mission creep! The dog’s progress has been so steady that her owner had nearly forgotten that his original goal had been to walk his dog on leash through a city park without incident. And now his goal was many achievements past that.
With persistent probing, I learned that the dog does now come off a running squirrel using positive techniques. Hello?! Hurray for you and your dog! Now let’s figure out how we can deal with the deer situation previously unimaginable! by applying and adjusting the tools that worked with the squirrels.
Another client told me recently that he was very concerned that his dog was doing it “just for the treats” that she wasn’t doing x, y, or z for him, the owner. Sigh.
This man was describing how they could now walk past the fenced yard on their street that contains a lunging, barking, snarling, frothing dog. He said his dog would now turn to him with what he described as a “happy face” instead of pulling and lunging back at that dog. He had originally come to me as a client because his dog was becoming more reactive, earlier in the walk as they approached that yard. They lived on a dead end street and had to pass that house in order to walk anywhere. They had made amazing, wonderful progress using treats, among other tools and techniques.
First, I helped my client look back to the early days of our work, when the only way he could get his dog past her fenced nemesis was to stay on the far sidewalk and proffer a fistful of high-value treats for his dog to nuzzle and slurp. “Remember how grabby the dog was for those treats, how aroused she was?” I asked him.
I reminded him of how they had progressed to click and treating his dog for glancing at the other dog, sometimes tossing the treats on the ground so she was looking down in order to pick up her “paycheck.” How he had learned the importance of deciding where to deliver the treat itself: the ground, his hand, in heel position, slightly ahead of his knee, slightly behind his knee, even slightly across his body so his dog was turning away from the lunging dog to get the treat. How he learned to look for opportunities to reinforce her good behavior with treats.
I walked him through more of the steps we had taken together. “Remember how we had celebrated the first time your dog turned to you on her own accord when the other dog lunged?” I asked him. He had learned to taper the treats, moving from an “open bar” (a fistful of treats no matter what his dog’s behavior), to a rapid-fire click!/treat delivery, to the occasional tiny pause in click!/treats.
Then, gradually, at the rate his dog was successful, he began giving her treats intermittently, substituting jolly talk, pats, and praise as they walked on. And then . . . then we’d started walking in the street, a foot closer to the fence. And closer and closer, increasing the rate of reinforcement each time we reduced the distance. And then we had tapered down the treats, increased the other types of reinforcement, and when his dog seemed ready, closed the distance another foot or so and went through the same routine all over again.
Gotta Believe It to Sell It
“Okay, okay, I get it!” he laughed. “We’ve come a long way. But . . .” We talked some more. As we discussed the situation, I began to understand that although he was happy with the results of the training, he still did not like how he felt when feeding his dog treats. He wanted his dog to behave calmly “for his sake.” He didn’t like the feeling that he had to “pay” his dog for good behavior.
I asked him if he liked his job; he said yes. I asked him if he liked his boss; he replied in the affirmative. I asked him if he would go to work and do his job day after day if he never, ever got paid. His eyes got wide. For a moment I thought I’d reached him but maybe I’d only surprised him, because after thinking for a moment, he said, “But my boss doesn’t feed me, let me sleep in his bed, brush me, and take me for walks. Isn’t that paycheck enough?”
This dog owner’s honesty and ability to identify the source of his reluctance to use certain training methods is admirable. Many dog owners may unconsciously (or consciously!) expect or wish for a certain amount of gratefulness from their dogs, as “repayment” or in consideration of all the time, money, and trouble they can cause. But those are all very human concepts – not anything a dog could ever understand.
I tried to get my client to see that, in order to change his dog’s natural behavior, he would have to use incentives that are meaningful to the dog. “It’s true, your dog takes it for granted that she lives with you and gets fed and so forth; there is no way for her to understand the home with you is hers to lose! How could she?”
I explained that if he wanted his dog to do something that is really, really difficult for her, the rewards for her hard work would have to be very immediate, palpable, and compelling as compelling as it might be if a friend offered him $500 in cash for helping him move an enormous filing cabinet a short distance. If the task seemed impossibly hard if the cabinet was obviously immovable or the distance was too far he’d probably decline to even try. And if there were problems with the compensation if the payment was only $1, or would be given to him in a year’s time, or he’d be paid in something he didn’t care much about, like $500 worth of coupons to a beauty salon again, he’d probably take a pass.
Fortunately, food is a very compelling motivational tool for dogs. They don’t need to know it doesn’t cost us that much!
Gradually, by nibbling away at the concerns and imagery, he and I continued to make progress in his comfort and in his dog’s behavior and improvements in the relationship he and his dog have.
The Real World
A friend, a very knowledgeable pet owner with a shy/reactive dog, e-mailed me about a setback she and her dog experienced recently. She wrote, “I keep getting caught up in the fact that I can’t control the environment.” Well, none of us can, though we can do what we can to prepare.
My friend’s dog is about eight years old. It is only in the past year he has been able to stay calm enough to accept food treats when he is outside, even with no dogs or other animals in sight. She’s done tremendous work with him, and her patience and dedication are impressive. She had recently begun walking the dog on leash in a state park. When she saw other people with dogs approaching, she would move off the trail with her dog thus increasing the distance between her dog and a potential trigger and click and treat (using peanut butter in a squeeze tube). The tactic worked well.
At least until recently, on a walk in the state park, an off-leash dog ran up as she and her dog waited off the trail, dashing right into her dog’s face in an attempt to take his treat! It only took a moment for the off-leash dog to close the space between them, and not surprisingly, a fight broke out. Skin was broken. It was a nasty setback for her work with her dog. For a time, she despaired of the idea of ever taking her dog out on the trails again. She lost sight of their huge progress, and fixated on all that might be lost.
Fortunately, because she is so knowledgeable and has many dog support networks in place, it only took her a short time to come out of the spiral of despair and into planning and repair mode. After all, her dog’s improvement had been huge. For a dog to improve from nutso reactivity to being able to take food when outside and with another dog passing nearby!
She’s setting up dates to walk her dog with other dogs on leash, in a carefully controlled setting. She’s talking with a positive trainer who runs group classes to see if they can work around the edges of her classes so she can do counter-conditioning and desensitization work in an orchestrated environment. So, yes, this was a nasty setback but this owner got back on track with renewed vigor pretty quickly!
When Old Issues Resurface
I’m not immune to the nearsighted syndrome myself. Today I walked my old girl, my Hera-the-WonderDog! in town. This is her perfect time of year. Cool, dry weather. Good for an aging English Bulldog.
It had been a few days since Hera’s last walk in town, and I took us to a street she hadn’t walked in many months. She was excited. She pulled on leash. I was delighted she had that much interest, energy, and vigor. I said “Okay!” and we trotted along at the pace she dictated. Then my breath got short, and I was ready to walk at my pace. So I cued “With me!” She never even flicked an ear in my direction. Instantly I felt a wave of, “But I went at your pace, you should go at mine now!”
What nonsense! I got my clicker out of my pocket and when she was walking beside me, I clicked. She looked at me, and I gave her a treat. I delivered the treat with her in the “heel” position. We walked along with clicks and treats at irregular but frequent intervals. When she saw a chipmunk, I clicked the sighting and she turned away from the chipmunk for her treat, which gave me the chance to cue an “about face.” Periodically I cued “Go play!” her cue for walking at her pace, zigzagging at will, and sniffing as she wishes. Then it was back to my pace and my rules.
Was she just doing it for the treats? And not for me, as my client had worried with his dog? On the one hand, the treats were the paycheck she cared about. On the other hand, we progressed through the spontaneous, remedial training session quickly, positively, and pleasantly, and we both had smiles on our faces and a lilt in our steps. It was a treat-intensive walk, although by the end, I was back to my usual routine with Hera of using praise and play as reinforcers.
How long has it been since she pulled on leash and ignored me when I asked her to do something on our walk? A long time. In fact, I had started to mourn her declining energy, her signs of aging. Suddenly, I was confronted with her ignoring me and, briefly, I, too, lost perspective. I felt disappointed. How silly of me!
Perspective can be so elusive. We gain it, we lose it, and we shift our view and our values with the frequency and ease of a school of startled fish!
But we know how to compare what is now to what was last week, last month, last year, or simply last time. We know how to identify trends in behavior and change. It is our job as pet owners as well as the job of dog trainers to do those things, consciously and consistently. Record keeping helps tremendously, even if it’s just a few notes jotted daily in a diary or journal. But failing that, simply look back honestly and compare not just one event, but the series of events.
We owe it to ourselves and to our dogs to see and appreciate any and all improvements and to keep working. To see where our progress is stunted, and try to make changes. To keep our perspective, and keep ourselves honest. Those of us who are trainers owe it to our clients to point out these things and to help them start seeing them on their own.
It’s so easy to lose heart when there is one setback in your dog’s behavior. It’s easy to become tired and discouraged. But it is so important to stop and compare and identify progress and trends. We can do it. We have these big, complex brains. I challenge you to go forth and appreciate what you and your dog have done, while making plans to continue onward and make more and more progress!