May 14, 2013 by Julia
For 3 years of college, I was on the rowing team. Every summer we were sent home with a simplified set of workouts which I diligently completed. Every fall when I returned to school and found, despite my best efforts, I had lost weight and strength during the summer while my teammates had remained fairly stable. My coach said my metabolism caused my body to “eat” muscle if I wasn’t frequently and vigorously using it. OK, you ask, and what does THAT have to do with dog training? It turns out that Dash is a dog who’s brain “muscle” reabsorbs his learned behavior more than most. And whether it is strength training or dog training, you can’t make progress if you don’t put in the reps.
Dash’s Behavior and Learning Style
As I explained previously, Dash missed all the key socialization periods as a puppy and was essentially isolated for his entire first year. I’ve been told by various experts that he was unlikely to fully overcome this disadvantage and I have found that to be true despite my best efforts to prove it wrong.
In the 6 years we’ve owned Dash, I’ve described him to many people. I’ve frequently been told “I understand, my dog is hyper too” or similar sentiments. But when people actually meet him, they are still caught by surprise. There is an element to his behavior that is hard to capture with words. At the extreme end of the scale, he’s been called hyper-adrenalized or even manic. This past year our new vet, after talking to me extensively about his health history and behavior challenges, said she had a dog like him at home. After meeting him, she modified her opinion, saying her dog was “similar, but less.”
I like to say that if Dash were a human, he’d have to take immersion courses. The only way he can consistently behave around a new person or animal is if he had consistent exposure for an extended period of time. Every time someone new goes away and reappears, they are “new” again. When he first came home, it took several weeks to for him to remain calm near Shady (our cat) while we kept the stairs gated to give Shady a “safe” area. When we moved in with my parents last spring, it took a week or so before he could hold himself together when they got home from work. When Delta came home, he nearly hyperventilated the first night but 24 hours later he was relaxed enough that Delta climbed on top of him and fell asleep.
Dash’s Training History
In the summer of 2007 when we began taking classes at my training club, he was overstimulated simply by being in the building. His hackles would rise up and the end of his nub would puff out like an oversized Q-tip. This state of arousal could last all or most of class in the beginning.
As we went through a class session, we made small strides of progress. His stimulation level when he entered the building would ratchet down a notch a couple weeks in. During class, we worked in a far corner outside of the group to help manage his excitement. We’d be able to join the circle towards the end of the night. His attention and response to commands would improve. But every time we missed a week or started a new class with new dogs, we would regress significantly – 2 steps forward, 1.5 steps back. He was better than his first class, but the amount of change was small in relation to the amount of effort we were putting in. I kept him in Beginner I and Beginner II for 2 sessions each because I knew that we hadn’t made enough progress the first time through.
Dash’s Beginner I graduation (second time through, late 2007/early 2008 – pardon the quality)
In the fall of 2008, I was able to bring Dash to a Suzanne Clothier seminar to be a case study. Suzanne’s analysis of him was that he lacked self control but had a solid temperament and was “scary smart.” She set me up with a greeting protocol to use so that he could learn to meet new people politely. All the work was supposed to be done by him – present him with a friendly stranger at a distance and have him “figure out” what behavior would get them to visit. The friendly stranger was instructed to approach him *only if he remained down and on his hip*. They would give him a couple pats, feed him a treat and then walk away, giving him a positive experience and limited opportunity to practice bad behavior.
This was a great experience, but I ran into trouble when I tried to put her ideas into practice. If you watched the video, you saw there were were some rules around the interaction and people needed to be directed as to how they’d behave before they approached. I tried to find ways to organize practice for Dash – I contacted a behaviorist at Cornell who worked with a student group, I contacted a student I was referred to, I asked club members to work with him. I even got some coworkers to meet him outside the office one sunny afternoon. In each case, I got just one session before schedules or willingness got in the way. He may have gotten a couple hundred reps in that first month, but that wasn’t nearly enough for us to “keep” the behavior on a permanent basis. What I got from that exercise was a dog who will sometimes lay on one hip when he wants people to greet him then leaps on them as soon as they get close. (As Suzanne said “Come into my trap…”)
In the spring of 2009, during Dash’s second round of CGC class, we hit a perfect storm of circumstances and he was kicked out of club classes. First, we were several classes into the session and he’d acclimated to his classmates when a new, animated Golden Retriever joined the class. Second, he’d recently been regressing and, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was due to not-yet-diagnosed hypothyroid (his symptoms were skinny, glossy coat, hyperactive – the exact opposite of what you’d expect). Third, the trainer became distracted just as the Golden caught his eye while he doing a long recall exercise. He veered sharply toward the Golden and the trainer dropped the long line. He ran over to the Golden, it ran around its owner in a panic and they got tangled in the long line. Thankfully we were able to untangle them and no one was injured. Dash had no malicious intent, but the situation could have easily turned out much worse. Nearly 5 years later, it is hard for me to write about. The way the club handled it left a lot to be desired and, while I understand why he couldn’t be in their classes, part of me still argues that the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the trainer had held on to that long line.
Being unable to participate in club classes significantly reduced our opportunities to exercise Dash’s behavior. Just as with the Clothier greeting protocol, I had work I could do with him, but not enough of the right “human resources” to get in the necessary practice. There were many public places we could go, but working with the general public does not allow for the same sort of practice as working with dog-savvy people. Often times, the general public was likely to set him back in behavior as they chattered high-speed, high-pitched baby talk at him or said “it is OK if he jumps, I like dogs!”
From 2009 to 2012, between our limited options and my focus on Xena’s competition training, Dash didn’t get a lot of repetitions. We doodled around the house and I took him for walks on local “Dash-friendly” paths, but we didn’t make any significant progress on his behavior.
This past January, I was able to put Dash into a class based on Control Unleashed. Suzanne Clothier’s suggestions had included teaching him a default down on a rug/blanket which we had used frequently at home, so we had a head start. It only took a little work to have Dash generalize and expand on CU’s “mat” behavior.
He learned to play the “look at that game” from his mat, but his progress on the moving exercises was limited. Once again, we also faced the challenge of getting in the practice. Winter in Maine does not offer a lot of options when your dog isn’t an appropriate visitor to dog-friendly businesses. So we worked in different areas and surfaces around the house and even on the porch or driveway during dry sunny days, but there were no “novel” distractions. When the weather warmed up a bit, I started bringing him to strategic locations outside of local businesses. Since March (when I lost my job) I’ve been able to take him on longer and more frequent visits to exercise the behaviors. We’ve done well with our practice and most people understand to keep their distance.
When I’m feeling optimistic, I daydream that I submit Dash for his PAL (his registered name would be Wynkyn’s Dashing Young Man) and we earn a title. Nothing fancy, maybe Rally Novice or Beginner Novice. Maybe just his CGC. It would take a lot of work and some creativity, but if the stars align, it might just happen.
When I’m feeling realistic, I imagine him living life just as he does now – and that’s not so bad.