Archives for posts with tag: positive

This comes a little too late for me to call this a Christmas Wish, so instead I am labeling it a New Year’s Wish.

What is this Wish? Those of you who know me well may guess it’s that everyone finally stops blaming all dog problems on dominance issues (good guess — that one is always at or near the top).

However, I’m on a different soapbox at the moment, and this Wish comes courtesy of an ad in the coupon section of my local paper.

It features an adorable little girl facing a big fluffy dog, noses nearly touching. The girl’s hands are on the dog’s throat, her eyes are closed, and she looks like she is about to kiss him. The ad suggests this is a good way to celebrate the holidays with this member of the family.

So my Wish is this: I hope to never see another ad, photo or video like this.

I am not going to get into whether or not this dog is safe or comfortable in this particular photo (he doesn’t look happy, but not knowing what was going on when it was taken, I won’t comment further).

What I must get into is that this type of photo shows exactly what a child should NEVER EVER EVER do to a dog. This company is clearly ignorant of the potential disaster of the act itself and the irresponsibility of encouraging such behavior. I am going to contact them privately.

But I’ve also got to address this publicly and strongly so it reaches as many people as possible. This is an unsafe situation. Children should NEVER have their face that close to a dog’s. I don’t care if they’ve known the dog for 2 seconds or for all their lives. I don’t care if the dog is as sweet as honey and wouldn’t hurt a fly. NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.

Here’s why:

1. Dogs are not robots, and any dog can have a bad day.

2. If kids are allowed to do that to their own dogs, they might think it’s okay to do it to all dogs. They will never learn the proper way to approach a dog.

The usual scenario

I’ve trained hundreds of dogs since 2004, and I have been in my share of homes where a dog has clocked a kid in the face, resulting in a bruise, scrape, tear or bite. The parents were shocked — shocked! — that their Sparky would do such a thing. And saddened to think they now may need to re-home Sparky (though who they think would take Sparky after he has bitten a kid in the face is beyond me).

The story I usually end up with involves one or more of these facts: the dog was “okay/fine” with baby until baby started crawling/walking; the dog has rarely/never been around a baby/toddler; the dog is “good” with older kids and/or adults so they assumed he’d be fine with baby/toddler; the baby/toddler was allowed to do anything to the dog; the baby/toddler was at times unsupervised with the dog; the dog is nervous/hyper; the dog was chewing his bone/sleeping/cornered when it happened; the baby/toddler stepped/fell on him; etc.

So in essence, the causes of the incident the adults never saw coming were 1) POGs never taught manners to their child or raised the tolerance level of their dog and 2) Dog took it as long as he could, waiting for help, then finally took care of it himself, in his own way.

If you ever have taken a basics group class from me, you would have attended one entire lesson devoted to this topic: how to prevent handling problems, and why the human-dog greeting sequence is inappropriate at just about every level from the dog’s perspective. In this lesson, you would have learned exactly how to approach these situations so you minimize your chances of having something bad happen.

If you had told me you were expecting or had a new baby, I would have sent you my Baby/Toddler Prep Sheet so you could put things in place immediately to avoid/fix problems like this.

Start creating a safe environment TODAY

You can and should make changes NOW to start reducing the chances of injury. The last thing anyone should do is allow/encourage kids to hug, kiss, stare at or otherwise bother a dog around the head. I don’t care how cute it looks. It’s not worth the risk! Stitches, skin grafts, blood, bruises and scars are not cute.

Also important is that the adults get better at reading dog body language so you know when there could be trouble brewing. (Hint: If the dog looks uncomfortable, s/he probably is uncomfortable.) If you see uncomfortable or hear a growl, immediately direct your dog away with a bright Come, Leave it, Move, etc. DO NOT use a sharp tone, punish or correct your dog — this is not the time to fix it (if you do, you will make the problem worse!!). This is the time for safety, so if the dog doesn’t respond, calmly walk toward him/her and gently shoo him/her away. Then call in a kind trainer/Dog Life Skills Instructor to help you fix it.

For a proper way for toddlers to interact with dogs, and also how to prepare your dog if you have a baby on the way or in your arms, download my Baby Prep Sheet.

For more information on how to read dog body language, get my ebooklet Read Body Language!

Have a safe day!
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“If our goal is a happier, more peaceful world in the future, only education will bring change.” — The Dalai Lama

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Whether you are teaching your dog new behaviors or trying to fix problems, your positive/rewards-based trainer will often say to ignore the behaviors you don’t want.

While this makes sense for some things — barking at you for attention, for example — many other behaviors will be unaffected by ignoring and can cause many a frustrated POG to conclude positive methods don’t work, and the only way s/he can get the desired result is to resort to correction and punishment.

Truth is, you can ignore countersurfing all day long and you won’t stop it because the reward for it is usually not attention, but rather getting some good stuff off the counter. (I say usually — I had a doodle in group class who had actually figured out a great way to get his POG’s attention was to jump on the empty counter. Every time he did that, the POG would rush into the kitchen shouting “Hey!” The dog would get down immediately, but would go right back up when the POG left the room. Dang smart doodles!)
There are many other examples like countersurfing where the dog’s payoff is not attention, thereby rendering ignoring useless in most cases.

What I usually tell clients is ignore the behavior BUT ALSO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Well, that certainly makes no sense on the surface, does it? You can’t do something and not do something at the same time.

That’s not what I mean. But that’s often what my clients hear. And that may point to the real problem here: The word “ignore” is a poor choice to use when describing for our clients what we need them to do.

So I am calling myself out–time to step up, take responsibility and fix it!

Introducing: Low Energy Interruptions (LEI)
Before I went to the dogs, I spent close to 20 years in the writing, editing and publishing fields. Not surprisingly, I am very fussy about word choice. (See my Words Matter! document for suggestions on how to replace out-of-date training vocabulary.) So I am prepared to take a swing at redefining the “ignore” method of behavior modification.

In most cases, what I am really talking about is not ignoring the unwanted behaviors but rather interrupting them — with as little energy as possible. Pair that action with rewarding the desired behaviors with a lot of energy, and the dog now has clear communication: the desired behavior benefits the dog more, and the pragmatic dog will choose that behavior over the one that benefits him less.

Most of us tend to ignore our dogs when they are behaving themselves, but then give tons of attention whenever we see a “bad” behavior — we talk, yell, snap the leash, grab the collar, etc. (i.e. gasoline, meet match). This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing! (My book, Reverse Dog Training, grew out of this observation.) We need to reverse course completely — emphasis on “right” behavior, well rewarded — to get the results we want.

I want to replace “ignore” with Low Energy Interruption (LEI). I believe it better conveys the idea that you do need to do something, but that something needs to be minimal. A minor course correction, if you will, on the way to the behavior that will be clearly more desirable for the dog because of the difference in energy (reward/benefit) it produces.

Example time! #1 Jumping
I have dealt with a LOT of jumping, including that of my own dog, a pogo-stick bouncer as well as a pile-driver (36 pounds launched right at my chest) who hasn’t jumped on anyone for a very long time (she’s been with me since 2004 and stopped jumping altogether within the first year).

I always start by telling clients what doesn’t work — coincidentally all the things people think will work — including saying “No,” “Off” or “Down”; asking for a Sit after a jump; turning your back; or any rough stuff like pushing, kneeing, stepping on leash, etc.

Invariably, the client asks, “What do I do then, just ignore it?”

While the best situation is preventing the jumping altogether so it extinguishes, for most POGs it’s not realistic because they are not watching their dogs constantly, so mistakes and “bad” behavior will happen. And since we humans tend to be reactive rather than proactive, we often will react without even thinking, whether we intend to or not. Reacting in a big way will confuse the dog and cause him to try it again, so we need a different reaction. A small one.

Enter LEI. This is how I do it:
1- Dog jumps.
2- I look up and away (think snobby), and take one step forward/toward the jump (LEI).
3- I wait to see if the dog gets down. If not, I help him by rotating a hip slightly to slide him off but maintain my position (LEI). Note I DO NOT turn away.
4- Dog gets down.
5- I look at him and say “Hi, buddy! How are you? Are you a good dog?”
6- Usually, the dog jumps again at that point.
7- Repeat steps 2-5 till he doesn’t jump when I talk to him. Then:
8- Immediately say GOOD and squat/bend down to his level to love on him for making the right choice.

(If he starts to get jumpy at this point, simply go back to step 2.)

Using this technique allows the dog to clearly see the difference in payoff to him between jumping and not jumping. Obviously, “four on the floor” (all feet on the ground) is the better choice, i.e. the one he should want to repeat, because it gets him tons of what he wants (attention).

This can work even for attention-seeking situations where you could ignore the dog, like barking. Barking drives me nuts, and usually it goes on way too long, well beyond my maximum patience level. I want to interrupt that barking so I can create and reward quiet. Yelling uses too much energy and gets us so frustrated that if he does finally shut up we can’t reward him because we don’t even want to see him at that moment!

Example Time! #2 Barking
Before I give you this one, I must state that barking is a complicated issue because there are many reasons why dogs bark! Ask yourself “What is he getting out of it?” before deciding how to deal with it.

Here is one real-life example of how I used LEI for barking:

A rescued adult beagle mix was carrying on loudly and relentlessly at the feet of his POG at every feeding until the bowl was on the ground. This soft-spoken woman got so frustrated she would scream at the dog thusly: “SHUUUUUT UUUUUUP!” Since I was standing there in her kitchen, this obviously was not working. I asked if I could try dealing with it my way, and 10 minutes later, he was quiet during the feeding prep.

Here are the steps I followed in this case (NOTE: every dog is different, and there are many small adjustments that can be made here to more effectively communicate with each dog):
1- Put bowl and food on counter. (Have some food already in the bowl.)
2- Dog starts barking.
3- Look up and away, silently count to 10.
4- Dog keeps barking.
5- Make a slight, quick LEI movement (in this case, I turned my head and upper body one way, then the other, took about a second)
6- Dog stops barking for a second to figure out what I’m doing.
7- IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD.
8- Dog starts barking.
9- Look up and away, silently count to 15.
10- If dog pauses for even a second, IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD. If not, repeat steps 5-9 until he starts pausing on his own. Then:
11- When he is quiet, say GOOD and pick up the bowl.
12- If he stays quiet, keep saying GOOD and lower the bowl towards the floor. EVERY TIME HE BARKS, PUT THE BOWL BACK ON THE COUNTER AND LOOK AWAY TILL HE STOPS.
13- Repeat 11 and 12 until you have the bowl on the floor.
14- Repeat, repeat, repeat! until he is quiet from start to finish.

Because there was such a clear difference between benefit for barking (no food) and quiet (here comes food!) PLUS it had the assistance of an LEI (to limit frustration and barking time), the change came quickly. Over time, the support would be peeled away so the end result would be the normal procedure of pouring the food and placing it on the floor while the dog quietly watches.

I hope this new term and its explanation helps POGs everywhere to fix problems quickly, with minimal frustration and maximum joy!

Warning: I am jumping onto my soapbox with both feet!!

If I were made queen for a day, one thing at the top of my to-do list — besides beheading any critics — would be to forbid anyone from ever establishing any routines for their dogs other than those for teaching a specific behavior.

I am on my soapbox today because I just spent a considerable amount of time with yet another client who is mystified as to why her new puppy, who was fine at first with going into the crate when she left, suddenly is freaking out about this process. She described to me the routine she carefully followed every time, right down to the puppy “lullabye” CD she put on for her, then asked if there was anything else she could do. Imagine her stunned silence when I said yes, definitely: Dump the routine. NOW!

“Everyone” had told her that routines are good for dogs. (Everyone except a trainer, I hope. Why does everyone think they are dog training experts just because they have a dog? I have a car, but I don’t for one moment think I am a mechanic. But I digress.)

I explained why I said it, then gave her suggestions about how to bust up the routine and work on what really needed to be done, which is to teach her pup to be okay by herself and to self-amuse so she is not dependent on interaction with a human all the time.

What’s wrong with routines?
There are many old beliefs that undermine your relationship with your dog, creating training challenges and missteps. The dominance myth takes the top prize — don’t get me started — but the second-place award in my view goes to the benign-sounding, but truly insidious and slyly damaging, “routines.”

What’s wrong with routines, you ask? After all, humans love routines. We take great comfort in our rituals, plus they help us to remember stuff, like locking our doors and not leaving our coffee cup on the roof of our cars.

But, to state the obvious, dogs are not humans. And they do not see routines the same way we do. For example, you may be shocked to learn routines are a huge contributing factor to separation anxiety. Here’s why:

Human thinks: I’ll do everything in the same order so my dog knows what to expect in the morning, so he’ll be okay with my leaving.

Dog thinks: Oh no, he’s doing all those things that end up with him leaving me! No, no! Don’t go!! I can’t take it!!

When you create a routine, the dog knows exactly what is going to happen. If he doesn’t like what happens, he is going to have a bad reaction to the routine. He doesn’t want you to leave, he wants to be with you. So with every step in the process, he gets more and more nervous. By the time you pick up your keys, he’s a basket case. Let the crate escape, peeing, pooping, chewing and curtain shredding begin!

This very same type of pattern, if used to teach a behavior like a sit/down or pottying outside, is how you get your dog to reliably respond when you ask him to do something: Just like he is sure you are leaving in the prior example — bad for him — he is sure a good thing will happen once his butt hits the floor or he pees in the back yard. The key difference is, once the pattern is established, we start to change it so we can progress — wean off treats, do behavior longer, ignore distractions, etc. In other words, this is not a routine but rather a progressive exercise. It changes, and the dog adjust to the changes, improving his response. In trainerspeak, this is called proofing or generalizing.

When you do the same things in the same way, your dog then expects that same pattern every time, along with the same result. Even when it’s a good thing — you pick up the leash, he’s going for a walk! — if the routine gets altered somehow, he will not handle it well. Put the leash back down without taking him out, and what happens? He might start pacing and panting, going over to the door and back to you as if to say Hey! Why aren’t we going? We always go when you pick up the leash!

(I cannot tell you how many clients tell me they have never used the leash for anything other than walks. I often ask them to leash up inside for work on specific issues, and it gets messy real quick because the dog lathers up when the routine is changed.)

Routines are rigid patterns that can create rigid dogs — they don’t bend, they break. They are incapable of flexibility, become beside themselves when presented with it, and can become quite insistent about returning to the usual pattern. A common example would be the dog who tells YOU when it’s time for dinner or for bed. A less-common example would be the dog who lays across your feet, and if you try to move, growls and snaps.

Create a ‘whatever’ dog who is calm and confident
Breaking up routines allows you to develop a “whatever” dog, the go-with-the-flow pup who adjusts to whatever is going on around him. (“Going with you? Staying home? Eating now? Eating later? Whatever!”) It’s actually a critical part of socialization, but one that is often missed by humans. Socialization is showing the dog the world so he is not afraid of it and knows how to act in it. A well-socialized dog is calmer, more confident, and very much a “whatever” dog.

This is so important that I am getting up on this soapbox and shouting, trying to get everyone’s attention: STOP WITH THE ROUTINES ALREADY!!! Your dog will be happier, and so will you.

So, to recap:

— Routines are BAD!

— Break up your routines to help your dog become a “whatever” dog.

— To teach specific behaviors, use progressive repetitions, slowly changing one detail at a time to help them generalize the behavior (e.g. Sit is the same no matter where I ask for it).

Need more help? Ask a professional — but be sure to ask them if they think routines are good or bad. If they say good, keep looking!

Ah, spring! 

As  the weather warms, and the spring flowers bloom, another less heralded spring event begins: the rush of panicked calls and emails I receive from dog POGs wondering what is up with their pooches.

They are terrible walkers; jumping all over everyone; charging fences; going after people, kids, dogs; destroying the back yard; barking nonstop; not listening; not coming. I could go on for days, but you get the idea.

They weren’t doing this before, you cry. Why is this happening? 
Ah, spring. Or rather: Uh…spring. 
I live in Northern Ohio. We have winter here, and this year like many other places, we had a fairly nasty one. So we tended to stay in, hibernating, seeing and doing less, hunkering down, waiting for…spring!! Then we burst from our house-caves, raced to the garden centers, parks, ball fields and all that other outdoor stuff we haven’t been able to get to for months. And many of us took our dogs with us. More fun with a dog along, right?
Maybe. See, we happily adjust to the new circumstances, but many dogs don’t. If your dog is new to you, or a puppy, she may have never seen all these places, activities, people before. And she doesn’t know what to make of it. And you did not tell her what it is and what to do with it because you didn’t realize she doesn’t get it. It’s outside! She’s been outside! It’s all great, isn’t it??
I walk my dog Tawny every day, 365, unless it is life-threatening to one of us or she doesn’t want to go. In the winter, I see absolutely no one else. Fine with me. Not in a mood to be neighborly in 10 degrees and a wind-whipped snow storm. Come spring, the fair-weather walkers come out, and Tawny and I have to review our exercises for how to act around other dogs (she is scared of them and gets defensive), while working to avoid as many bad walkers as possible (defined as person casually holding leash loop, usually on phone, and dog yee-hawing all over the place. Danger, Will Robinson!).
In plain terms, most people stop socializing their dogs during the winter (and other times too) and think the dog will be just fine when they pick it up again months later. But think of it this way, if your dog is less than a year old, most of his life has been spent isolated in a house. How would he know what to do in a park, in a crowd of people, around other dogs, around screaming kids, around a ball game, when squirrels and birds are racing around? Same thing for an older dog who has been with you for less than a year. 
They don’t know!! And we, instead of realizing and helping, freak out. Many thankfully call a DogLife Skills Instructor/trainer for help, but many more try to deal with it, mishandle it and make it worse. Suddenly, they have That Dog. They are mystified as to how it happened.
That’s how, people! The solution is proper exposure. The well-socialized dog is the one that has experienced the environment, understands it’s not a threat, and knows how to act when she’s in it. Happy news: It’s never too late, so get going! You want to be outside anyway, right? Fix the problem, and you will enjoy it much more.
Want to know more about dealing with bad reactions? Visit my store http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/ and look for the DogLife Skills Guide “Fear and Overreaction!”

When you are in this business for awhile, you see a fair number of dogs cross over the Rainbow Bridge. This is a tribute to two extraordinary dogs with whom I have had the privilege to work. Both have recently passed. I want to share a little of their second-chapter lives with you, and to celebrate them and the humans who never gave up on them.

SNICK

SchnickReitzloff

Snick was an old boy when he came to me. His parent/owner/guardian (POG) Barb had taken him in after her mother died and was struggling to make him into a safe dog. He had bitten her and others, snapped at people who reached to pet him, bark-lunged at other dogs and was pretty much a doggie train wreck. When I suggested trying him in my group class, Barb was unsure, concerned they would be thrown out because of his appalling behavior and non-stop barking. I assured her that wouldn’t happen. I had a nice, big room in the Cleveland APL building that would allow me to separate him from the class while I assessed him.

Snick came rampaging into his first group lesson, in full-throttle defense mode, pulling poor Barb, who had an apologetic smilie frozen in place. We went to work immediately, and, by the end of the hour, Snick was on his back with Barb rubbing his belly. We had cracked the shell and found the real Snick, a funny, silly boy just dying to trust someone. That’s the boy you see in this picture.

I saw Snick on and off over the next few years, as Barb continued to work with him. What a great time he had with her in his second chapter. Yes, there were bumps in the road, but because Barb was determined to do right by this dog her mother adored, she kept going.

I loved Snick. He was the one and only dog I allowed to jump on me. Every time he saw me, he immediately rushed over, put his paws on my leg and licked my fingers till I petted him. I asked Barb to never correct him for that. Because he had been so distrustful of humans, I wanted him to feel completely secure around someone. So I made sure he never attached a negative to me. Interestingly, that allowed me to trust him completely.  Snick had a profound impact on the way I looked at other “doggie train wrecks” that have rumbled my way since we met.

—————

PRETTY GIRL

Pretty Girl and Me

Pretty Girl was actually gorgeous–a striking black/white, 90-pound pit who was taken in by Mary even though she had bitten. She had also passed two separate temperament evaluations. Mary, a huge animal lover, felt PG had been wronged. Instead of allowing her to be put down, Mary took her home to add to her furry family. She called me in for help in making sure Pretty reached her full potential.

That was nearly six years ago. I had been working steadily with them ever since.

When I first met her, Pretty was a tornado encased in dog skin, possibly the most hyper, overstimulated dog I had ever seen. I could see every bone in her body; she seemed to be vibrating away every calorie she took in! Mary and I stood outside her kennel, waiting for her to calm down a bit so I could reward a better behavior. That was a loooong wait. After 15-20 minutes of bouncing on her hind legs and barking, I was finally getting what felt like nanoseconds to stuff treats through the fence.

She had come a tremendously long way since then. The super-hyper girl had calmed a lot and gotten more focused. She still struggled sometimes with self-control (for example, she would sit but tap-dance with her front feet, waiting to be released), but she always worked very hard to do what we wanted. She built a strong bond with a small group of trusted humans who helped her understand and cope better with our world. She became good friends with Mary’s cat Smokey, who liked to follow her around the house and roll on his back in front of her, batting at Pretty’s nose. She was smart, sensitive, goofy, fun. She improved to the point where I felt comfortable bringing my frail 84-year-old mother to meet her. The only challenge we had that day was Pretty showing how eager she was to meet Mom by plowing her head into her chair…and moving Mom and chair a good foot before we restored order. Mom petted her the whole time; she thought that it was all pretty funny.

That was Pretty Girl — she put her whole heart into everything she did. That heart gave out way too soon. There was so much unexplored potential in her. I still can’t believe she’s gone.

——-

I make no secret of the fact that I feel the dogs I work with are part mine. If that’s unprofessional, so be it. This is the only way I can work. I half-jokingly say these are my dogs too.  I’ve been honored with the trust of both human and dog, which has allowed me to do my job to the best of my ability, and to keep improving through all I’ve learned from these marvelous creatures. And occasionally to connect with extra-special dogs like Snick and Pretty Girl.

Rest easy, pups. You’ve earned it.

———

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen, though. That’s the problem. 

– A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

At a client’s house recently, working with her adorable nine-month-old, 95-pound puppy.

She mentioned that, after early success following my instructions, her dog was once again bothering/chasing their cat. “What’s going on?” she asked with exasperation.

Diagnosing time! Here’s roughly how it went (my questions, her answers):

Happening in specific places/situations? No, random.
Cat starting any of it? Possibly, somewhat.
Pup runs up and what happens? Bugs, starts pawing, cat doesn’t leave but starts hissing.
What do you do? Yell and charge over there.
Is that effective? No.
How much are you telling pup she’s wonderful when she exists peacefully with/doesn’t bother the cat? Not at all. I thought that was fixed.

Ah. There it is.

I titled my book Reverse Dog Training for a very good reason: because I believe most people, when faced with a behavior problem, don’t just do the wrong thing, they do the exact opposite of what they should to solve the problem.

This client is further proof of my point. The kickers here are:

– She had already been given the right thing to do, had used it, and it had worked beautifully. The cat was left completely alone.
– After a brief period of success, she stopped using the mark/reward system completely. Dog was “fixed” in her view. (Wished she had told me this!)
– The dog, no longer getting the attention reward she was getting used to for ignoring the cat, slides back into the old habit of going after the cat, which she knows will get the desired results (yelling is attention).
– Everyone is back doing the same thing, and getting the same bad result. And she is wondering what went wrong?

Good/bad of marking
What is wonderful about a mark/reward system is it can work really fast. This can also be a bad thing if you don’t realize that to keep it working, you have to keep doing it (albeit slowly scale back on how often, aka progressing) and permanently change YOUR habits.

When something works immediately, it is thrilling to the owner/POG and makes us trainers/DLSIs look like geniuses. But we — or at least I — always caution that the problem is not gone. We have started the process of eliminating it. It is “fixed for now.”

How to ‘fix forever’
To get “fixed forever,” you have to continue to follow the instructions you were given, slowly varying the exercises and making your dog aware that s/he should do this same thing no matter the circumstances (“proofing” and “generalizing” are the words trainers use).

Put simply, a new habit usually will not erase and replace an old habit in a matter of days or even weeks. And I would contend the longer the old habit (problem behavior) has been in place, the longer it will take to get a reliable new-habit response.

Instant success may be fun — heck, it IS fun! — but long-term success is sooooo satisfying. Well worth the extra work.

If you need help expanding your exercises to get your dog “forever fixed,” see my e-booklet Next Steps! How to Progress Beyond Treats.

POG: parent/owner/guardian

Anyone have a dog that is sound-sensitive? Bad with, say, smoke alarms? Fearful, even? You will relate to this story.

It happened to me and Tawny the Wonder Dog, my at-least-10-year-old mix who over the years has been my baby, frustration, teacher, lab rat, best friend, partner. As a trainer, I couldn’t have asked for a bigger challenge or a better dog. As a POG, I am hopelessly in goofy dog love with her. As a person, I am a crazy Gemini, and I often feel the twins fighting over who I should be when dealing with her. Since she came to me in 2004, we have worked through many of her issues, including lots and lots of fear problems. These days, she is not easily rattled, even by the big semis thundering past us on our walks and the earth movers tearing up the concrete at the end of my street.

With that background in mind, here’s the story: Recently, I was in my bedroom folding laundry, Tawny snoozing on the bed. I had just turned the TV on (ancient TV that had been giving off a slight burny smell for a few days. No biggie, I thought, still works! [Yes, I am a cheapskate.]).

Apparently, this was now more than a slight smell, because the smoke alarm went off. Tawny flew off the bed; I said something unrepeatable in polite company, turned the TV off and turned the bathroom fan on. The alarm stopped but then started again, and the other two alarms that are waaaay too close to the first one (thanks, design geniuses) went off too.

As I was standing there contemplating my next move, I noticed Tawny cringing in the hallway, shaking hard enough to rattle the teeth out of her head. I had never seen her like that before, scared yes but not terrified. She was terrified.

When I saw that, I reacted as any loving dog POG would. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her everything would be all right. I wanted to comfort her and make her feel better.

It took every bit of inner strength I had not to do it.

It killed me, but as a trainer I know that comforting a dog when s/he is frightened is the worst thing you can do because it reinforces the fear reaction. I had to help her, but I couldn’t do it that way.

Instead, I led her into the garage, where there are no smoke alarms, while I turned off the circuit breaker that powered them. I left her in there while I pulled all the back-up batteries so they weren’t chirping. I then called my mom, even though it was very late, and asked her to if I could bring Tawny over while I sorted this out.

After I was reasonably certain I had the alarms reset/back to normal, I retrieved my girl. Clearly, she was still freaked out–following me everywhere, crouched low, tail down, eyes bugging, heavy panting. Did not want to go in the bedroom. And omigod that bone-shattering shaking. I was afraid she was going to have a heart attack.

Still, I resisted the urge to hold her and calm her down. It was agonizing, but I had to. Instead, I did what I tell all my students, clients, friends and family to do. I completely ignored her fear and went about acting as if nothing had happened. I returned to folding my laundry. I plunked down on the couch and turned on the non-burny-smell family room TV. I yawned. I sighed. I talked to her when she looked like she was less tense.

After what seemed like forever, she lay down and rested her chin on her paws. Later she followed me back into the bedroom, clearly stressed, and eventually went up on the bed and fell into an exhausted, snore-filled sleep. I stayed awake for a long time after, watching her sleep, hoping the alarms would stay quiet, and worrying how she would be tomorrow. I was fearful this had traumatized her, and that I would have to work hard to recover her.

But here is the best part of this story. This is why I love being a trainer, and why I’m glad my trainer twin won over my POG twin.

It worked.

Tawny woke up the next day just fine. I noticed a slight hesitance on her part to go into the bedroom, but it quickly went away. And I have seen no lasting effects whatsoever.

I know my methods are sound, and I had every confidence what I did was right and would work. But like every other person on the planet who suffers when their dog suffers, my first helping instinct was the wrong one. Had I not fought that urge and followed my trainer instincts, I would have had a very different outcome. And a lot more work to do. Instead, after one long night, I had my dog back 100 percent.

Still, it was really, really painful. I love T to pieces and never want her to struggle. I’m glad I managed to do what was best for her. I hope it never happens to you, but if it does, maybe this will give you the strength to do the best thing for your dog as well.

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