The Conflict of Expectation

Opal in 2009

In my last post, I wrote about my hobby: Dog Sports.

In this post, I want to let you in on a bit of my human journey.

When I was in my 20’s I was very active in rescue and dog events. I could be found promoting rescues and the idea that pitbulls in shelters were not inherently evil, and could in fact, make a very nice pet. (I still work with pitbulls in rescue quite a bit, just in a different capacity)

I adopted Opal in 2009.

I’ve mentioned her quite a bit in blog posts. Since she had some pretty debilitating separation anxiety, she went everywhere with me. (this was a time before medication, you lucky, lucky people!) This means she spent her weekends at things like Woofstock or Bark in the Park. She was great at showing people that bully breed type dogs were actually nice pets and could live peacefully in normal society. One day in 2012, I was packing the car for a weekend event, and instead of getting in the car, Opal walked down to the neighbors house. We had a heart to heart conversation, and I told her I needed her today, but she didn’t have to go with me anymore, unless she wanted to. She chose home more and more often.

Pixie and I at Dock Dog Nationals in Iowa

Pixie

A few months later, I brought Pixie home from the shelter. She was a lovely puppy, quiet in her kennel, good with other puppy playmates, still very young. I figured I would foster her for a few months and off she would go to a new home. Well, y’all know, she never left. When she had been with me about a year, I decided she was staying and she would be my sport dog.

About a year later, Pixie became incredibly reactive to other dogs and people while on a walk. In some places, she was great with the chaos, but one on one it was too much for her to handle. At the time, I didn’t realize the two were related, and being a brand new dog trainer, I couldn’t understand why some places were so difficult, and others she looked like she loved.

Pixie is not the dog I envisioned when I brought her home from the shelter six years ago. I’ve mourned the idea of  the dog I thought I was getting. My husband and I have had more conversations about euthanasia and dog management than any normal couple should ever have. (Bless him for taking on my crazy dog with open arms!)

Stages of Grief

It took me about 3 years to really go through the 7 stages of grief with her. When my baby dog started acting aggressively, I was in denial and kept asking her to do more sports trying to find something we could do safely together. Because everything can be fixed with more training, I tried everything, I am a dog trainer after all! I was angry that I had the dog that I couldn’t leave the house with. The dog I always had to be 100% on top of to make sure she was safe. I wanted to show the world that she was so wonderful, what did I do wrong?!

Pixie is retired now.

Pixie in 2014 ordering ice cream

I have finally accepted that she is a dog who stays at home with 100% management. Her fear of the world is too great for her to be safe and comfortable. She was supposed to be my first real dog sport teammate. She gave me the best she could, but the more we tried, the more I could tell she was only there because I asked her to be. Genetics are a crazy thing and sometimes you get the short end of the stick.

To those of you mourning the loss of the dog you envisioned, I see you.

Going through the stages of grief for an idea seems like a crazy thing, but it is real. Loss is real, and you have lost the idea of what your life with this dog should be. It does take some time to accept that things will be different. Different is not necessarily worse, but just different.

I have been there, and I will help you as much as I can to get you close to the goals you have set. The grief is real, and I helps to talk to someone. Send me an email if you need someone to empathize. I will hear you!

Communication is key!

We hear that communication is important in every aspect of our lives. With our spouse, our co-workers, our family, communicating effectively is the topic of a very large self-help section of the internet.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s the same with our dogs.

Teaching people to communicate with their dogs is the #1 thing that I do. Those of you who have met with me, know that I am constantly reading your dog’s body language, and interpreting what I see, so we can help them (and you) the most effective way possible. By teaching you how to read these signals, you can adjust your approach to help your dog cope with the situation and get through it successfully.

A lesson in Dog

Dogs are incredibly visual animals. They see details fairly well, and use those visual signals to communicate with each other. Kinda like sign language for deaf people. Here is a handout by Lili Chin (look up her illustrations, they are amazing!) These are the signals that dogs give to each other when they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation. Watch your dog on their next walk. Are they displaying any of these signals? What has happened right before the signal? As you walk, do you notice more of these signals? What happens if you give them a cookie during this event?

These are your dog’s whispers that they are not okay. If you listen to these whispers, then you don’t have to worry about yelling when something big happens.  Do you have a dog who suddenly starts to bark at seemingly nothing? What about a dog who barks at other dogs? Start paying attention to the signals above while you are out.

It’s listening to those whispers that are going to make you a great dog owner. It teaches your dog to trust that you are not going to put them in a situation they can’t handle, and if they are struggling you are going to help them through it like a friend.

They are our best friends, are we taking time to listen?

I dropped the ball! and not while playing fetch…

Life snuck away from me and I forgot my blog posting schedule. Sorry about that. We all drop the ball sometimes, I will do my best to be a better blogger for you guys!

You know what else snuck away from me?

My own dog training schedule. 

“you gonna get up anytime soon?”

That one I can’t let slide because my dogs depend on me for their training schedule, just like they depend on me for their food, hikes, snacks, potty breaks, and peanut butter bones. (that list could go on forever but you get the idea)

I realized I had been slipping on my own dog’s training when their behavior started to deteriorate. Opie and Pixie started barking at nothing, Cargo started getting bitey with me when I told her the couch blanket was not for biting. In my house these are very minor things in the grand scheme but still gives me valuable information to how they are feeling.

Here in Hampton Roads it rained pretty much the whole month of February. I don’t let Cargo play fetch or agility in the mud because she slips and slides all over the backyard and it’s not good for her joints and muscles. That paired with her general lack of self preservation would send us to the vets office pretty quick! I have big plans for her this year, so I’d rather not break her.  That being said, I only have so much brain bandwidth to dedicate to coming up with things for my dogs to learn, and a whole month of rain had me pretty bored with the stuff we were doing. The reinforcement wasn’t there for me, so we stopped.

..and the barking started… 

It took me a little bit to figure out what was happening. The dogs who walk still got their walks, they were getting their enrichment toys, and our schedules didn’t change all that much. The only thing that changed was the training time.  So I made a point to add it back in to our schedule.

I am happy to report the barking at nothing has stopped, and right now I have a malinois asleep on the couch. (that is a huge accomplishment right there!) 

So what did we do? Cargo started a sports foundations class at a local dog club. Opie started doing some conditioning exercises, and working on his position changes. Pixie has been reviewing some of the stuff she used to be really good at. She’s had quite a bit of time off so we are brushing off the dust. It takes me 15 minutes to work all 3 dogs, and we are now on a pretty good 3 times a week schedule.

What can you do?

The easy answer is figure out what your dog does that annoys you and work on that for your 5 minutes a day. If you are like most of the people who read this and your dog “is really good” then teach them something fun to show your friends. Spinning in a circle, nose touches, jumping over your leg, putting their feet on a book are all great examples of silly things that help your dog use their brain and keep the annoying behaviors at bay.

Need some help coming up with something to train? Drop me a message here on facebook or Insta! Make me do another facebook live to help you out! ha!

When the reinforcement is not with you

Going to a bed is an easily reinforced alternate behavior for almost anything!

We all have those “how did that happen” moments when working with our dog. Sometimes it is a negative conditioned emotional response, sometimes it’s a behavior we have inadvertently reinforced enough to create a problem. Sometimes it’s the environment and we have no idea what happened.

Let’s look at the sock example

If you didn’t read my last post, go do it now. The link is here. How many different ways could that have gone differently?

I mentioned chasing her for the sock, which for Cargo, that would mean I now had zero socks in my house because a game of tug and chase is very reinforcing. Because that game is so reinforcing for her, even if I only played that game one time, the amount of time it would take me to extinguish that one reinforcing moment, would be insane.

What if I did not reinforce anything with snacks but grabbed her and wrestled the sock out of her mouth? For my bitey, herding breed, that would be a great game and again, very reinforcing. I’m sure that she would be hell bent on stealing every sock she saw and I would have no socks. For most of your pet dogs, this would probably result in a dog who hides when they steal a sock. Also not helping the survival of the socks.

What does it all mean?

Best reinforcement ever!

As those moments of “ugh, why does my dog do this” pop up, take a look at how its being reinforced. Every behavior serves a function, and dogs do what works.

If your dog is jumping up on people coming in the door, take a look at what is happening. Does every person pet her when she jumps up?

Do you chase her around when she steals something?

Does barking and whining eventually get a snack from the table?

Those intermittent reinforcement schedules can actually reinforce behavior better than a snack every time. Think about gambling, and the intermittent reinforcement that is going on. You don’t win every time, but when you do, it’s a pretty great feeling! Your dog is thinking the same thing.

“man all that jumping finally got me some pets! I gotta try harder next time!”

What to do?

Make sure you are reinforcing the things you like to see! Don’t wait until it has gotten out of hand and you have to call me! ( you can always call me!) Treat your dog for laying on the mat in the kitchen before he starts counter surfing. Treat your dog while on a walk when nothing is happening to help him understand that flailing at the end of the leash does not allow him to say hello to friends.

What have you accidently reinforced? Tell me about it on the facebook page and I’ll try to help you out!

 

May the Reinforce be with you

Ice cream is always reinforcing!

I think that was a title from a class I took recently.

Reinforcement is a big word for a very easy concept. But one that is usually overlooked. Reinforcement in dog training simply means pay your dog.

Dog does something, reinforce it.

If your dog sits during a training session, you would absolutely give him a cookie. But what are you doing the other 167 hours of the week? Has your dog figured out the game? Do they only listen in class, or when you have the bucket of cookies and the clicker in hand?

Dogs do what works for them. Does it work for you? A kibble is a small price to pay for making sure your dog is being rewarded for the things you like.

Follow this example

This is a common one in my house. Dog steals sock. Dog takes off running with sock. Human chases dog all over the house and out the dog door in the rain, to get said sock back. In my house, we reinforced bringing sock to human to trade for a cookie. Now, “can I have that” means spit out sock to get cookie.  Maybe one day I will teach her to bring the sock to me. (life goals)

Let’s discuss

Many many reinforcement strategies in this situation. To Cargo, the sock is a fun toy. It’s stinky, and it flops around when she bites it.

I don’t want holes chewed in my socks, so early on we taught a “trade” for food. Food is a better reinforcement than the sock, so it worked. If I were to chase Cargo around the house to wrestle her for the sock, then sock would become an even better reinforcement because Malinois love to tug, and I would lose a sock everytime. (Not reinforcing for me!) For a reinforcement strategy to work it has to benefit all the parties involved. Because food is the better reinforcer in this situation, I have food in small containers stashed all over my house.

Dogs do what works for them

If I had chased Cargo all over the house to get the sock back, I would be reinforcing the “stealing sock” behavior.  Chasing and tug is also a reinforcer, but since I set up her options as drop the sock for food or have her collar held until she drops the sock. Food is the only reinforcing option. She’s going to choose the food. Now, she brings the sock to me to show me she’s found it, I reinforce her bringing it to me, and we do not have (many) eaten socks.

In the kitchen, I only give her food when she is laying on the rug in front of the sink. Now, thats where she lays when I am in the kitchen. She gets a Kong or Peanut butter bone when I ask her to kennel, so she happily runs to her kennel when I ask.

This is especially important for new adult dogs in the house, or brand new puppies who are learning how to live in our world for the first time. Putting some forethought into the behaviors you want to see in the future will help you to prevent the unwanted behaviors later on.

Have any questions on this concept? Chat with us on Facebook. The next post will discuss what happens when this strategy goes wrong!