(Originally posted on Aug 5, 2010)
One of the many lessons training has taught me is that good dogs start at home. I'll be the first to admit that I've been horribly lax about getting B (her name is RuBi, it still works) out and working on her reactivity. Part of it is pure laziness, part of it is that she doesn't demand to be worked with, part of it is business - I have three other dogs, am changing jobs, the car broke down (twice!), blah, blah, everybody's got excuses, they're like opinions, right (and you know what they say about opinions . . . ). But the truth is that Rubi's home life is just as important, if not more important, than her work life. No matter how many training classes we go to, if we don't follow through at home, if she doesn't get the structure and consistency she needs every day, it's all for naught. I just as well save the money and buy more collars.
The cornerstone of my dogs' life - that's right, all of them - is a strong NILIF program. The Nothing in Life is Free program has been around for a few decades and has several different names (here we call it the "No Freeloaders" program), but no matter what you call it, NILIF makes almost any dog easier to life with (and I say "almost" because you never says "always" when it comes to real life, especially real life dogs). The philosophy behind the program is that dogs must work for the things they want. More specifically, they must work with you to get what they want. And, of course, in the process, you get what you want. It's an owner-approved system of mutual manipulation.
The underlying cause of B's reactivity is twofold: First, a lack of socialization (definitely a topic for another day), and Second, a total lack of ability to control her impulses. NIILIF is a fantastic tool for impulse control because it ensures that she doesn't get rewarded for undesirable behaviors while still allowing her to get what she wants - and allowing me to get what I want.
Okay, enough with the run-on sentences, how about an example? Take, for instance, SQUIRRELS. SQUIRRELS are smallish, furry rodent with cute, fluffy tails who exist purely and only to torture dog. Oh, and eat seed from my bird feeders. Like many reactive dogs, Rubi isn't justreactive to one thing. When she came here, Rubi screamed like a banshee every time she saw - or thought she saw - one of the little monsters out at the squirrel feeder (yes, I have a squirrel feeder; quality canine entertainment, there). Since I'm not obsessed with squirrels, B always sees them and starts reacting before I do (which is very bad of me, shame on you, owner, shame! ). At first, I interrupt the undesirable behavior by making myself impossible to ignore - in this case, I stand between her and the window until she looks at me. As soon as she glances at me, I mark the behavior and we go get a treat. After a few days of this, I can call her name, and she'll leave the squirrels to come get her treat. Here's where I throw in the NILIF - if she's particularly quick about coming to find me and get her treat, we run to the sun room, I throw open the door, and she gets to CHASE THE SQUIRREL!!! w00t!!!!! After a couple of weeks, B would see the squirrel and run to find me without any cue from me at all - seeing the squirrel has become her cue to come see if I have anything good for her. Eventually, she'll do what the other dogs do when they see squirrels: come find me, lie at my feet, and sigh lustily to make sure I notice how good they are. I get what I want (peace and quiet) and the dogs get what they want (treats and the occasional chance to chase naughty squirrels). This same method works to control B's insanity when seeing dogs outside the wondows or in the backyard. Just because we're not going places doesn't mean we're not working on her reactivity.
You'll notice in the example above, I also constantly upping the stakes. Once she figures out how to get what she wants, I make it harder for her, forcing B to control herself even more. Her thought process goes from see, want, MUST GET NOW!!! to see, want, how do I get what I want . . . better check with mom. NILIF doesn't fix everything, but it's a place to start.