Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Relationship Part

Eight years in, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of the relationship part of dog training. The respect and trust part. The part that puts one's own agenda aside and listens to what the dog is telling you.

Not that anyone reads this blog I never post on, but there is a new kid in town. Meet Ira.
Photo by Sara Bruekse

Ira is perfect. He is the most honest dog I've ever met. He has a huge work ethic and is so very full of try! Ira is a dog who will work his heart out for his person. But he is also sensitive.  He needs his person to be his anchor. He needs his person to support his choices. Eight years ago, I wouldn't not have been able to do that. The concept truly would not have even crossed my mind! I am so thankful for Lok, Jun, and Elo for slowly chipping away at my ego and selfishness. If it weren't for them, I think I would have truly struggled with this dog. This fantastic, amazing, perfect, willing dog who wants nothing more in life than to make me happy. I don't think I would have been able to see it. I would have pressured and been overbearing and constantly disappointed. Me--a "positive trainer!" I would have ignored him when he told me he was uncomfortable with strangers touching him. I wouldn't have heard him when he told me he didn't want to be touched anywhere other than his head. I would have gotten upset when he didn't let me trim his nails or bathe him. When he was unfocused in training, I would have seen a stubborn dog, not a worried dog who was doing his best.

Because my previous dogs taught me (or maybe more accurately, forced me to learn) to listen and respect their choices, my relationship with Ira is starting out on a foundation of trust. And it's beautiful. He has a choice. Always. For example, I made it clear to him that he had a choice in interacting with strangers and that I would respect his choice and make sure others did as well. And now instead of hiding behind me or rolling over at people's feet like he did in the beginning, I have a dog who happily greets people---some people, the ones he wants to--and he knows that when he is done he is allowed to be done and he can just come back to me. I have a dog who trusts me to touch him all over, because I worked on desensitizing and counter-conditioning, rather than forcing. I have a dog who will lie still for nail trims. He knows when he gets overwhelmed he can just get up, and he can make the choice to lie back down when he is ready.

A couple months after Ira came home, I was working on teaching him a dumbbell hold. He was NOT getting it, which made no sense, because he loved putting toys in his mouth and he had proven to be a quick study at shaping. He was very operant and creative with offering behaviors. I blamed the training first. My criteria must not be clear enough. I must not be splitting the behavior down enough. I must not be explaining this to him well enough. I put my "good dog trainer" hat on and made a better plan--short sessions, clear criteria, HIGH value rewards. The first session I got mouthing. The second session I only got nose touches. The third session, I got sniffing the ground....... Despite the fact that Ira had JUST had a dental a few months earlier and his teeth should have been fine, I thought, I should check his teeth, just in case. Sure enough, he had a canine that was absolutely mangled! Broken in half the long way and the short way. He also had a premolar that I suspected may be abscessed (it was). Wow! All this time he had been playing tug, catching discs, chewing on bones. There was no indication that he was in pain, except his "refusal" to learn a hold. I suspect the higher arousal nature of toy play allowed him to work through the pain. But the pain was there and it was our entire problem. After surgery to remove the painful teeth, we had our hold in one session.

Ira likes to stare at other dogs. He's a border collie. He's motion sensitive. It's normal. But 99% of the time he redirects easily and focuses really well on me when we are working around other dogs. Then occasionally he doesn't. To others, it probably looks like bad behavior. It looks like a dog I need to be harder on, to demand focus from. But in reality he fixates on other dogs when is nervous or afraid or over-the-top aroused, and has nowhere to hide. It's like a default behavior. A familiar behavior pattern he reverts back to when his brain just can't process anything else. Thanks to my previous dogs' lessons, I figured this out after the second time and not years down the line.  He was like this in class the other day. I'm not sure why--maybe the weather (he doesn't like storms, but it wasn't really storming), maybe he wasn't feeling well. The reason doesn't matter. What matters is, he was clearly telling me with his behavior, "Mom, I can't." And I listened! We went home early. Despite external pressures (that, lets be real, were probably all in my head) of potential judgment from others, and internal pressures of the need to perform well in class and the feeling that my dog should be ok. It didn't matter what should have been. Only what was. I respected my dog that day first by hearing "I can't" where I would have previously heard "I won't" and then by responding to "I can't" with "that's ok, you don't have to." I think it's that kind of thing that builds trust. And trust builds relationship. And when you have a relationship with turns out, that's what this dog training stuff is really all about. That's where the magic really is.


  1. I absolutely agree - this is what dog training is all about, and this is where the magic happens. It sounds so simple and straightforward, but - oh, what a hard lesson it is to learn! Like you, I am proud of myself for having learned to really listen to my dogs. I don't understand them all the time, but I'm slowly getting better - and our relationship continues to improve.

  2. Ninso, may I use this post in a "Resources For Reactive Dogs" class I'm teaching? It's perfect - and you've said it far better than I could. And...yay for you and Ira - and the dogs that have taught you so much!

    1. Yes, of course! Thanks for asking!

    2. Thanks so much! I'll of course credit you.