Brain Bombs: Canine Edition

I see people with their dog babies at dog parks, on the beach, off leash, pulling skateboards (which is awesome by the way!) walking with dogs who don’t pull, bark or generally act like lunatics when they see other dogs.

Enter our 3 dog babies.

Shortly after we had adopted Hippo, someone came by (as I was very ungracefully detangling myself from three leashes) and said, “As if your life isn’t busy enough? You got a third one?!” Translation: You can’t figure out the first two, why would you attempt another? As much as I really don’t give a rip what people think, I want to be a responsible dog owner. I want what’s best for our animals. 

When I walk them all together, for the first 15 minutes it’s basically a 3 ring circus. They then settle into our walk and we are good to go. 

Hippo and I have been attending puppy obedience classes and I’ve been learning and applying the techniques on our other two. What I’ve learned through our instructor (who graciously stays past the class time to talk dogs and answer all of our questions) is that there are 2 main schools of thought when it comes to dog training: positive/reward based and negative/correction based. I came across this article that succinctly explains the basis for each method. 

Of course everyone who loves a dog has at least heard of Cesar Milan. Curious, I asked our trainer what she thought about his methods. She smiled slightly and then asked me how, as a personal trainer, I feel about Jillian Michaels. 

(Before I get a bunch of nasty messages from fans of both, hear me out.)

Cesar Milan has done wonderful things for the dog community, getting people out walking their dogs more often, adopting pets instead of buying from breeders, etc., but, what if there was a gentler way? What if we can get our dogs to do what we desired and still have them wagging their tail and happy and eager to please? 

(As for Jillian Michaels, I should probably save that post for another day. There are many fans who get up and move to her videos and gain something from her, and that’s great. In my experience, both as an exercise enthusiast and as a Personal Trainer, berating people into fitness doesn’t motivate anyone in the long run. And a highly-edited, sentimental chat with soft music playing doesn’t soften the negativity. People as a general rule do not respond well to yelling and being made to feel worthless.)

What our instructor went on to explain was that while Milan has done much for the canine community, there’s been a bit of damage as well. Milan’s methods are correction based. She challenged me to view an episode with the sound off and simply watch the dog’s body language. 

I was astounded. 

And then it clicked. Walking all 3 dogs, I’ve felt frustrated. I could give a correction, but I lacked the ability to teach, to ask the dog to do what I wanted. It’s like never speaking to your kids, except when you catch them doing something wrong. All of your interactions then become negative associations. As stated in the above article, and then watching the body language of the dogs on television with the sound muted, the dog then associates the person, the leash, training, etc with negativity. 

How can that not damage your relationship? With kids or with your dog?

Classical conditioning of emotions provides one reason why reward-based training procedures should work better and establish a stronger bond between the dog and his trainer, than punishment based systems. Every time you give the dog a treat, or some other reward, you set up the event sequence “sight of you-treat-pleasant feeling.” Even if your timing is off and you are not a very good and knowledgeable trainer, there is no harm being done in this case. Every instance of reward makes it more likely that the dog will feel better about you because you are actually conditioning the emotional response “sight of you-pleasant feeling.”

-Stanley Coren, emphasis added

I’ve since been walking the dogs individually, working with them one by one and using only reward based methods, and showing them what I want them to do. 
I cannot stress enough the difference; both for the dogs and myself. I’m more relaxed. The dogs aren’t feeding off of my tension. And the best part? They are doing what I’m asking them to do! They are being set up to succeed!

I haven’t been brave enough to let them play off leash. We have neighbors whose dogs come when called, take a couple of laps, tails wagging, tongues out happy as can be. “But, what if ours don’t come when I call them?” I thought. “What if they take off and I can’t catch them?” As a high-stray animal area, the last thing I want is for our dogs to run off and get lost or hurt. Not only would it break my heart – it would crush the kids’. “What if they start barking at another dog and bite them?” What if something happens?” It’s fear again, but of another kind.

But what if all this training I’ve been doing works? What if they get to run themselves breathless, happy and free?

What if?

I started with Buck. I went to the end of our dead end street and where we have a great trail. Taking a deep breath, I unclipped the leash and took the ball out of my pocket. I used my clicker and treats, but really didn’t need it. That dog LOVES fetch. For hours! He came when I called Every. Single. Time. Tongue dangling sideways around the ball, panting, tail wagging, running merrily and dare I say smiling! To say it was joy-filled would be a gross understatement. We then walked all the way home – off leash. He stayed right with me. This was huge! 

But would the other two behave as well? Whitney is the one that really flips out when she encounters other dogs on the leash. Dropping them off at doggie daycare last week (I know, it is ridiculous. But it’s SO amazing!) our son was having a hard time leaving Hippo there, so much so, that he started to cry. Generously, they offered to let us walk back and see all three playing with their dog friends. We got to peek without them knowing we were there and see just how they do with other dogs. 

Seeing them happy and chasing with other dogs was great for Jake as he had a visual that they really were having a blast. 

For me? Holy crap! **Ding ding ding!*** Brain bombs! 

First of all, I think 90% of our issues when encountering other dogs is my energy, my bracing for the worst. And then that’s exactly what happens. Later when a neighbor’s dog was off leash, I let Whitney off and they played and chased for about 10-15 minutes. Both dogs breathless and panting, I called her and she came right to me.

I’d never seen her interact with other dogs in a positive way – until we got our sneak peek. My expectations changed, my tension lowered, and she was set up for success. Her frustration was simply because she wanted to play, not rip the other dog’s head off! And play she did!  

                     Tuckered out after!

And today I did the same, fetch with Buck, off leash playtime with Whitney, and then Hippo’s turn. 

The way to the Hippo’s heart is through his stomach, so we went armed with yummy treats and a fetch toy. 

And he came when called. Every time!                      Uber happy and worn out!

We will continue our off-leash work, continue to keep them socialized and continue the human training (i.e. ME!)

Because it works. 

And it works with kindness. 

(And perhaps a clicker and some treats!)

 

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