What’s in your toolbox? (part 2)

Last month (remember my intention to post every other week? HA!) I wrote about using the basic tools you and your dog already have at your disposal, this week I want to discuss specialty tools – the things we teach our dogs that we never would have taught if we didn’t need to.

Some dogs get get through life easy-peasy with the basics they learn in a group class while others have more, greater or just different needs. The people who live with these dogs are often the ones who call professional trainers to help: they can’t figure out how cope with particular challenging scenarios with their dog. Sometimes the answer is as simple as creating a new and functional cue to circumvent the issue completely.

Here are a few real life examples:

Bear, a puppy I worked with a few months ago who would regularly growl if one of his family members tried to move him off the couch with physical prompting (a nudge, gentle push, etc). While he had more generalized handling sensitivities that we dealt with, for this particular situation we taught him an “off” cue, which meant, “get yourself off the couch and onto the floor”. It worked beautifully.

Lilly the Goldendoodle who played keep-away when it was time to go for a walk needed to learn a “get dressed” cue that prompted her to voluntarily place her face and head through her harness.

Tomlin and Winston, canine brothers-from-another-mother who would rush the front door and explode with barks when visitors arrived. For them we worked on a stationing cue: where they would “go to [their] couch!” when prompted verbally, or, with the eventual goal of being cued by the doorbell.

…but obviously this post finds its foundation with Kit. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kit necessitated me training a bunch of stuff that I’d never needed before. Here are a few:

  • “Back it up” to reverse him out of my personal space bubble, especially when tying my shoes (this is almost certainly followed by a sit-stay).
  • “Easy” to slow his pace down on walks, not to reduce leash tension but to anchor him back into his body when he would get hyper-aroused.
  • “Couch” to station him on a piece of furniture & keep him out of the way (and from giving Shine dirty looks) when I’m preparing the dogs’ meals.

These are clearly solution oriented cues: used to address specific problems or scenarios. None of these are taught in your standard group training class, but as you can see they are wildly practical.

How how do you know if there’s a specialty cue out there to help you resolve one of your doggy dilemmas?

It’s worth noting that cue-based training is not typically effective on it’s own for addressing behavior concerns that involve a dog’s emotions. By that I mean if the dog is doing something you find undesirable because she is scared, anxious, or otherwise upset, you will (as in the case of Bear mentioned above) almost certainly need to develop a behavior modification plan that focuses on the dog’s emotional state, not just the external expression of it. A specialty cue may be a support, but it is almost never the solution.

Let’s try a quick visualization exercise: think about the issue you’re having–again, try to think about one that does not center on an emotional reaction–now back up, what is the scenario, your mind set, the dog’s location, yourlocation, maybe even your intention immediately before the problem occurs? Is there something you can think of that you could ask the dog to do, in this moment before the dog does That Thing that would prevent it from happening?

Let’s break down some of the above examples:

Kit’s Back it Up

The scene: Human is about to bend down to put on/tie laces of shoes
Dog’s undesirable response: Leaping forward to lick human’s face
Solution: PRIOR TO bending down, dog is prompted to back up away from the person, sit, and stay

Bear’s Off

The scene: Human wants to move the dog off the couch (to sit down, adjust position, etc)
Dog’s undesirable response: Growling when dog feels hand pressure applied to body
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to move physically, dog is verbally prompted to jump off the couch

Lilly’s Get Dressed

The scene: Human moves towards dog, harness in hand to put harness on the dog
Dog’s undesirable response: Moving away from the human & harness
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to walking towards the dog, the human prompts the dog to place her head through the harness

You see how it works? The real key is the “PRIOR TO” part – we’re not looking for a fix once the dog has started doing That Thing, we want to know what we can do to avoid that behavior completely.

Of course, it’s important to note that all of these specialty tools have to be honed PRIOR TO (there it is again!) actually using them in the situation. To go back to our tool box analogy, you wouldn’t try to use a saw that hadn’t been searrated yet or a drill bit that was blunt on the end: you need to have your tools fully formed before putting them to work.

So, what’s in your dog’s toolbox? Probably a sit and a down–our hammer and screwdriver–but is there an empty slot where some specialty tool needs to go? Maybe it’s a chainsaw, maybe it’s bolt cutters, or perhaps a pipe wrench. There’s no end to the cues and tricks you can dream up to find creative solutions to suit your and your dog’s needs, but the responsibility to discover that missing tool, to train it, and then, ( most importantly!) to remember to use it, is in your hands.

What’s in your toolbox? (part 1)

At some point in your life you probably bought your first tool, probably a hammer or a screwdriver. It was likely shortly after you moved out of your parents’ home and you realized you needed a tool to perform a particular task: put a nail in the wall, put together some DIY assembly furniture, something simple that you needed a simple tool to complete. Depending on your needs, over the years you more likely than not have assembled a whole tool box with a variety of tools for all your different needs. Some you may use frequently, others only rarely, but on those occasions you are so so glad to have that specialized tool (for me it’s the specialty drill bits for ceramic and tile).

When we first bring home a dog, if they don’t already know “sit”, that’s likely the first thing we teach them. That’s our hammer: the most basic tool in our training toolbox. We can use sit in a whole mess of different ways that create behaviors or behavior chains that we like or use it to stop other behaviors that we don’t. It’s simple, it’s useful, and easy to teach, but just as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll go through life only needing a hammer, you gotta add more tools to your dog’s repertoire.

In group training classes most dogs are taught to respond to sit, down, stay, come, leave-it, and maybe one or two other things. The thing that isn’t always taught is how and when to use them. Some applications are obvious (dog loose on the street? use your recall!) but so so often we don’t use the tools that we have spent so much time and energy crafting at the times that they could be really useful.

I regularly tell a story in my group classes about Kisa, my first dog, and how she reminded my why cue-based training is really really valuable. The super short version is that I was able to use her “stay” to keep her from getting mud all over a carpet. It was a lightbulb moment for me because I really hadn’t used a ton of her training in real life scenarios up to that point. Some, yes, but never in a way that I really saw what the outcome of the situation would have been if I didn’t have a particular behavior on cue. That moment to me really solidified why most “regular” dog owners (as opposed to dog sport & activity people) should really train their dogs – it’s not for the sake of having a dog who has been through multiple training classes, it’s to give the dog and the person the hammer, screwdriver, drill, wrench, and staple gun that they’ll need to get through life together peacefully.

Here are a short list of common cue-tools, and how we can use them. This is SO SO far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start to get your brain going so that when you’re doing life with your dog, you remember to reach into your toolbox and use the tools that you have invested in… don’t let them rust!

Name recognition (to the dog: “Make eye contact with me”):

  • To ensure you have your dog’s attention prior to giving another cue
  • To orient your dog towards you when on a walk (rather than pulling the leash)
  • To provide a quick, easy to reinforce behavior when your dog is frustrated

Sit (to the dog: “Put your put on the ground, duration optional”)

  • Preemptively to curtail jumping during greeting
  • To create a pause before entering exiting doorways
  • To create momentary stillness on the scale at the vet’s office

Stay (to the dog: “hold your current position”)

  • To maintain a sit or a down while you open the front door
  • To keep your dog in place while you walk away from your sandwich for a moment
  • To keep a Malamute with huge and muddy paws outside while you grab a towel for her feet

A Really Good Dog

Some time back, on a walk with Kit, a neighbor spotted us strolling along: Kit frequently looking up at me, making eye contact; me marking the behaviors I liked with a clicker and feeding him treats. She called out to us, “Looks like you have a really good dog, there!” I laughed and replied, “About fifty percent of the time!”

If only she knew, I though. This is the dog that has made me cry on dozens of occasions, the dog that came pre-loaded with explosive reactivity to other dogs, rabbits, skateboarders, running children, and mourning doves (yes, just specifically those birds). The dog that has to be muzzled and sedated at the vet in order for staff to get within 3 feet of him (Dear Pandemic, thank you for brining us vet-visits on Zoom). The dog that, when he first arrived at my house, would practically vibrate with stress and tension as he lay panting, shallow and hard, with nothing actually going on around him. The dog who is on a finely-tuned cocktail of medications, supplements, and Chinese herbs to bring his arousal level down to the point that he can live a normal-ish doggy life.

This is my “really good dog”.

Her words got me thinking, not just about what people mean when they say a dog is “a good dog”, but also about Kit, himself, how far we’ve come, and what we believe we are seeing when we glimpse dogs walking with their people.

I regularly refer to Kit as my “monster” or “30 pounds of fury”, but, in fairness, he’s come a long way since I fist brought him home and he unpacked his behavioral baggage. We’ve made a lot of progress, he and I. He hasn’t made me cry for a good long while. He’s able to rest and relax in the house instead of frantically barking, spinning, panting, or chewing on something. I can be in the bedroom without him vocalizing extreme displeasure at being left in the living room and I can leave the house without fear of what happens while I’m gone. He no longer spikes up so high when my partner comes over that I feel punished for having a personal life. We can pass telephone wires adorned with a dozen cooing mourning doves and he no longer blows up like a landmine.

That smile.

Kit’s more in-tune with and responsive to me than any other dog in my life, past or present. He picks up on language-based cues as though he could actually understand the words, and he’s even learned to snuggle without trying to violently and lovingly force his way underneath my skin (well, sometimes). He’s not that bad anymore: he’s still a really challenging dog, in many many ways, but we have found a way to live with one another successfully, and with more peace and mutual affection between us than strife.

I can’t take all the credit for the progress he’s made. Outside of the actual training we’ve done, we finally worked out the right mix of meds and supplements for him, he’s nearly 3 years older, and therefore (theoretically) three years mellower, and my own effort to integrate the yogic/Buddhist tenets of acceptance and nonattachment have been a huge help in keeping my own behavior from amplifying his. The last three years have also tied us closer together, and the more clearly I’ve seen and understood him, the easier it’s been to give him the support he needs when he gets over-stimulated and his brain is reduced to a string of firecrackers. When I can meet his needs, he no longer fires up and erupts (at least as much or as frequently), which in the past would have set off a chain of emotional responses in me, and the cycle of anxiety and stress is broken.

I know that I’ll have many more blog posts about Kit, so I’m going to hold off on going into the details of some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the work we’ve done to get here, to this place of predominant peace. It’s enough now to say that we made it. Imperfectly, arduously, haltingly, and ungracefully, but we made it.

This is certainly not to say that we’re done making progress. I’m still looking for and working on anything that may help bring Kit down a decibel or two, and decrease the strength of his responses to certain triggers and situations, but if this, the Kit of now, was as far as we could go? I could live with it without feeling overwhelmed, and just as importantly, so could Kit.

My neighbor who saw us walking together didn’t see all that.

We never see the whole of each other in a quick glance, whether we’re looking at a dog or a human. We never see the full story when we notice a dog behaving well or poorly, but we quickly make assumptions about the dog’s temperament and personality based on the snapshot of behavior we are witness to. We boil these judgments all the way down to a declaration that a dog is “good ” or “bad”. My neighbor couldn’t have looked at us and been privy to the last three years of literal blood, sweat, and tears, just as no one could see all the progress we’ve made if they caught us during on a Bad Day when Kit erupts like an angry volcano and I have to carry him for long stretches of road to calm him down.

My neighbor just saw a devastatingly handsome Cattle Dog paying attention to his mom, and she saw a really good dog.

And you know what?

He really is.