February 22, 2015 by Julia
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a two-day Advanced Socialization seminar with Chad Mackin of Pack to Basics. The idea behind his approach is that we can harness a dog’s social (pack) drive to help them work through their behavior issues. The seminar was geared towards professionals but a handful of us were pet owners who wanted help with our dogs.
The BMOD program we’ve been attending at Finish Forward Dogs incorporates some of Chad’s methods in addition to Kayce Cover’s conditioned relaxation. My goal for the seminar was to get Chad’s perspective and build on Dash’s progress. My hope was that we would take a significant step forward in both my understanding and his behavior. I believe we achieved both my goals and hopes.
Our first challenge came before the seminar began. This trip down to Kingston was our very first “solo” trip together. I call Dash a sexist because typically when Aaron is away from the house, Dash is on alert. He seems to think he has to step up guard duty when it’s just him and the “girls.” So I was ready for a rough time spending two nights in a hotel that we’d share with most of the other seminar participants and their dogs. But, as he likes to do, he proved that he was capable of more than I expected. Not that it should be a surprise – we’ve put in the foundation work. He settled without much fuss, could be called off the door when there were barks and bumps in the hall, and he was very responsive to reminders to get “easy.”
After a half-day of presenting, the balance of the seminar’s time was broken up into socialization sessions and rest/debrief periods. During a session, the humans and dogs walk a large circle around the room and adjustments are made to help the dogs and group at large attain a calm, steady state. If a dog was having trouble, Chad would move the dog to the center of the circle to help them acclimate and settle.
The dogs in the seminar were split into three groups – they weren’t named but I’ll call them stable, iffy, and ut oh. Dash was a group 3 dog, but not like the others. He doesn’t have a bite history and hasn’t shown intent to harm. In fact, he’s been described as having a solid temperament. However he becomes hyper-adrenalized very easily and has a low frustration tolerance, which has the potential to be dangerous.
To say I was nervous was an understatement. I wanted so badly for this seminar to make a difference for Dash and I wanted Chad to understand him. Despite trying to restrain myself, I suspect I was “that” person. The one who bends the presenter’s ear during breaks and tells everyone about their very special dog.
When it was finally Dash’s turn, I took some deep breaths and tried to handle him calmly. We made it from the crowded crate room into the main room without incident. After a couple of moments in the presence of 30+ news humans and a handful of new dogs, he blew up. It is hard to describe what Dash looks like when this happens, and while it would be helpful, I’ve never gotten video. I’m sure to an outsider he doesn’t look like a dog with a good temperament as he roars in frustration and lunges at dogs and humans alike.
Chad stepped up, took the leash, and walked to the center of the room while Dash jumped and mouthed at him. What happened next is hard to describe because so very little actually happened on the surface. Chad handled the leash, talked quietly, and Dash just… leveled out. No jumping, no lunging, no vocalizing.
After some time acclimating, he was able to join the circle and even had brief, appropriate interactions with some of the stable dogs who were off-leash. A short while later, Chad handed the leash back to me. Dash and I began making our way around the circle together. Dash looked up at me every few steps and I could swear his facial expression matched how I felt. A bit of disbelief mixed with pride. “I’m doing it, do you see me doing it? Am I doing OK?” I quietly assured him that he was doing great. We navigated the rest of the round without issue.
Talking to Chad during the break (see, I couldn’t help myself) he agreed that he’d seen what I was talking about – but he also saw how much Dash was feeding off me and how well Dash responded to calm, consistent handling. Despite my best efforts, I was obviously wound tight and Dash was almost using that as his cue to act out. In short, Dash could do the work but we needed practice so that I could “calm the hell down.”
The following round, Chad decided that Dash and I start out together in the center of the circle. After seeing that he could do it, I was able to bring Dash into the room and work on keeping him calm for the few moments before everyone started to move. He glanced at several dogs but didn’t “lock and load” and I praised him for looking away. We took our place in the middle of the circle and I did my best to stay calm. People passing would give me little reminders – relax your hand, take a deep breath – and I’d smile and do my best. To his credit, Dash remembered his earlier lesson from Chad because I really only had to “be there” for him. He watched and checked in with me and watched some more. At one point he turned and sat on my feet, keeping me close while watching everything around him. He was nervous and it was obviously hard, but he was doing it.
It didn’t take long before we got the all-clear to join the circle. Dash continued to do a good job. During both the second session and the last session, he “asked” for time outs from the group. Asking to pause at a water bowl or take for a quick pee break in the fenced area adjacent to the room. Earlier in the day, one of the dogs that was off-leash had repeatedly hopped on a raised bed in the corner, settled herself, then rejoined the group. Towards the end of Dash’s second session, he began to look meaningfully at the bed. I decided to bring him around the circle one more time and let him choose our direction at that corner. He got on to the bed and faced the room, looking tired but interested. I stood beside him and watched quietly. He began looking at me, then at the chair next to the bed, then back at me. As soon as I sat, he moved into a down and settled with a small grunt. He repeated this at the end of his third (and final) session, settling and watching the group. He didn’t want to leave the room, but he needed space.
The remarkable thing about this seminar and our experience is how much work the dogs did and how little the humans did. We acted as guides rather than directors. The dogs’ own social inclinations drew them to participate with even loose dogs choosing to circle and keep pace with the group. Dash’s issue, simplified, is that he is a “frustrated greeter” – he is very social, but lacks skill in managing his excitement. Even at the start when he stood in the middle with Chad, he showed that he wanted to move with the group and follow the pattern. He just needed guidance to contain himself so he could do it.
At the end of seminar, Chad broke owners he typically sees into two groups – those who think their dog is great but has issues, or those who think their dog is a terror. And there is a tendency for people to have it backwards.
I would put myself in a third group – I think Dash is great… and an asshole. We aren’t a pair that tends to fit the mold and that is something I’m learning to appreciate about us.
We may be odd, but don’t count us out.