Being able to choose what to do, freely and without compulsion, is an incredibly important aspect of life. - Irith Bloom
People are often surprised that NO is not part of our training. In our experience, which is backed up by science, we don't need it.
On our trip from Michigan to New York, I will be relying heavily on gps. I will pass many exits and many roads that are not the right choice to getting me to Cranberry Lake. Think about what it would be like if every time I passed an exit the gps said, "In 500 feet, don't turn there...". What if took a wrong turn and all the information I got was "No!" What if I wanted to made a side trip and I heard "Wrong"?
That's not what happens, is it? Your gps tells you what to do instead of what not to do. If you deviate from the route, it simply tells you what to do to get back on track towards your destination, and without judgement. Well, that's how we train dogs (and people, for that matter).
What is also true about using the gps is that if I rely solely on it's prompts, I may get to where I want to go, but I will not learn how I got there or know how to get back on my own. Similarly, we need our dogs to choose the behaviors they perform so they know what "pays" and what doesn't.
If we are simply lure them or physically move them into the positions we want them to be in we may get the end result, but at two costs; First, they didn't learn the actual behavior and so it's unlikely that they will offer it on their own or when cued; Second, and most important, they didn't get to choose the behavior.
Choice and predictability are vital to all animals. They are actually foundations of good mental health. If you remove choice and predictability, effects can include anxiety, stress, depression, and decreased immune function as well as other problems. When your choices matter, you become more confident. You become more engaged. You become more peaceful and feel better.
Unfortunately, in many of our relationships with our dogs, choice is in short supply. Choices we commonly limit include where they sleep, when they eat, what they eat, if/when they get to go outside and for how long, if and when they get to have social interactions, either with humans or other dogs, where they get to walk, how far they get to go from you, whether or not they get to reproduce and so on. How would you like these choices made for you?
Perhaps the most important choices that we limit involve our dog's emotional state. It's ironic in a way, because so many people limit their own actions due to daily fears and yet we expect our dogs, living in the same chaotic world as we do to somehow not have fears of their own.
If our dogs show fear or reactivity towards people or other dogs, or discomfort with sounds or body handling sometimes we expect them to "just get over it" or "work things out." And often we can power through, dragging the dog a bit on the walk until they start walking on their own, forcing an unpleasant initial greeting with ends up being ok, putting the pack and the booties on so they walk around like a zombie at first before getting used to it, but this comes at a cost. Our dogs may become more fearful or they may shut down or act out more. It does nothing for our relationship and for most people, that's why we got a dog in the first place, isn't it?
Dogs get put into all sorts of stressful situations that started out with best of intentions, like going for a walk or out to the dog park and yet how many dogs are not enjoying the interactions they're having with other people, dogs, or their environment in these situations. The stressful situations that I'm personally working on with Sparkle include travel, body handling, wearing backpacking gear, and being more comfortable with other people and other dogs. They're not stopping me from planning this trip, but are instead inspiring me to help her work through this so that she can enjoy this trip.
It should be clear by now that I'm not saying we keep our dogs in bubble and never expose them to anything stressful, because that's also removing choice. What I am saying, is be aware of what your dog likes and doesn't like and for the things s(he) doesn't like, work to change those associations and in a way that your dog is in control. And if you're not sure how to read your dog's body language, check this out.
The training that we've been working on as of late has focused on first, teaching Sparkle that her choices matter, and that the things that she has traditionally thought as scary might actually be not so bad or even good! We're also continuing to work on our recall. Here are some highlights:
It's Your Choice
This is our single favorite exercise. We teach all of our own dogs and all of our students this game which was popularized by Susan Garrett. This game is great for many reasons: it teaches your dog that his or her choices matter; it builds confidence; it increases self control; it provides the foundation for a default leave-it; it makes it easy to do cool tricks with your dog that will impress your friends and family. Can you see how these things will also make it easier for Sparkle to have a good trip? Here's what it looks like:
I'm continuing to help Sparkle feel more comfortable with a pack on her back. Here I've worked up to having a fully weighted pack resting on her back without being clipped in.
I'm continuing to build Sparkle's recall through an exercise that teaches her to whip around and check in with me when I call her name. The exercise is called Whiplash Turns and are inspired by the work of Leslie McDevitt.
We've been doing more local hiking, including a nice loop around Losee Lake.
The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. - Lao Tzu
Happy New Year! Sparkle and I have started training in earnest. Here are some highlights:
We’ve had the opportunity to go on almost daily hikes with friends. In the process, we’ve been training opportunistically with issues around car travel, sounds, and dogs/strangers on the trail.
As we take frequent car trips of varying lengths, Sparkle is becoming more accustomed to car travel in a crate. Initially we were frequently throwing treats in the crate while we were driving and rewarding calm. Now she can settle for essentially an entire trip. There is still work to do with going into the crate enthusiastically and rushing out.
On a recent 8 mile hike, we happened to be near a firing range, so I had the opportunity to give a high value treat every time there was a gun shot. We wouldn’t have purposely chosen such an intense situation to work on this, but sometimes you work with what the environment throws at you. Over the course of the walk, she did become more comfortable, but there is still lots of work to do here. She did great with dogs and people for most of the hike. The only glitch was in the last half mile we ran into the dog that put her over the edge. It was probably a case of trigger stacking; she dealt with a number of stressors over the course of the hike and this was the last straw. She recovered nicely, though.
On our daily walks, we work on anti-reactivity exercises that focus on making good things happen in the presence of new people and dogs and on rewarding for looking away from things that worry her.
Our formal training has begun in earnest. We’ve worked on a number of skills that we’ll need for our trip. This week’s focus was on crate work, pack prep, drop it, and recalls. In the videos below, you’ll notice a big bulky thing on her collar. That’s her Whistle GPS. It’s not a shock collar. I use the Whistle to track her activity level and if she was to get loose, I’d be also to track her if she was in a place with cell coverage. Anyhow, here’s what we did (and why):
Barging out of her crate and running into a crowded parking lot at a rest area. Rushing through the tent door before it's fully unzipped, taking the door with her. Breaking position when I have per posed for the perfect picture. These are just a few of the things I would prefer not to happen on our trip. I'm going to make those things a lot less likely while also making her comfortable in confined areas by teaching her that good things happen in the crate and that the easiest way to get the crate door (and later tent door) to open is to sit (or lie down) patiently and to stay in that positon until she is relased. In the video below you'll see the start of our work, which is very roughly based on Susan Garrett's Crate Games, which in turn appears to be influenced by the chicken crating procedures in chicken camps first run by Bob Bailey and now offered by Terry Ryan.
Sparkle's going to have to carry her own weight on this trip. Not literally her entire weight, but some percentage of it in the form of wearing a pack. Most dogs don't like wearing a pack at first. Sparkle's didn't come to us enjoying body handling in general, so this could pose a particular challenge. Luckily we've been working on helping her be more comfortable with this. In the video below, we begin the process.
For safety's sake, Sparkle will, for the most part be either on a regular leash, waist leash, or long line. Still, there are chances that she'll end up off leash and I want to make sure that she'll come back, not just to me, but a stranger and that whoever she is being recalled to will be able to get ahold of her collar and put her on leash and/or read her tag. I've witnessed first hand some scary experiences where a loose dog would run away from a well meaning stranger at the last minute. This video shows you how we start to teach our dogs a recall, starting with a collar handling exercise that increases the chances that she'll accept collar handling.
We've been hiking the local trails as well as around Kensington Lake, Proud Lake and on the trails of Hudson Mills Metropark. Right now max mileage is about 8 miles, no packs. We also went on our first run of the year together earlier in the week, very short mileage (under 3 miles). Looking forward to better weather and greater distances.
I'll show you how I'm building out these skills plus adding new skills and new exercises to help Sparkle feel more comfortable with some of the things she'll face.
We'll continue to build our fitness while having fun out on the trails. See you then!
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!