Friday, March 2, 2012

*insert fun here*

For dogs, gaining confidence is like throwing a pebble into a puddle: it ripples out from the center. A dog who isn't comfortable at home isn't going to be comfortable out on walks. A dog that isn't comfortable on walks isn't going to be confident in more stimulating environments. Like good behavior, confidence starts at home and works its way outward. Jai's confidence has been increasing steadily since day one. He no longer pancakes at strangers in the house, he loves the "training game," he doesn't startle when he hears the word "no." It's time to take our show on the road.

Jai is an interesting, ambivalent dog. He approaches new experiences with curiosity and courage, but he worries. You can see it in the tension in his shoulders, the tightness of his ears, and the carriage of his tail. He likes going for walks. Jai meets me at the door, excited to go, but he seems to spend the walk concerned that at any moment, zombies will appear out of nowhere and try to eat our brains. It makes things a little stressful for both of us.

Picture by Paige Reyes.

So I stepped back and looked at what I wanted from our walks. In the house, Jai is relaxed. He does keeps his ears a little tighter than most dogs, but his body is relaxed . He doesn't constantly wag his tail the way most pit bulls do, that slow metronome tick that shows they're alive, the faster flag back and forth when they've found something fun, the whole body wiggle when they're thrilled to be alive. Still, when he's happy and engaged, his tail wags. So that's our current goal for walks: increase the fun as measured in tail wags.

And holy bejeezus is a big effort. Jai likes to work, so I've been finding ways to insert training into our walks. I've been marking and rewarding eye contact, and as a result, Jai is paying more attention to me and less attention to where zombies might be. But this in and of itself isn't fun enough for tail wags. So we've been stopping periodically to do a few sits, downs (he downs on cold asphalt! this amazes me), and touches. This works to get his tail moving, but once we start walking again, he goes back on zombie-watch. I've started teaching emergency retreats and adding brief spurts of running into our walks. Jai likes running, so these are usually good for a few wags, but like I said - it's a lot of work. Right now, we're averaging about seven wag per mile. Hopefully, I'll start to see this number rise. Otherwise, it's back to the drawing board.

Picture by Paige Reyes.

Each foster dog I take on makes me a better trainer for my own dogs. As I worked to come up with a plan for Jai's walks, I took a hard look at what Rubi and I are doing on her walks. I tend to view Rubi's walks as a way to get her more exposure to other dogs. As a result, we tend to cruise around, looking for other dogs, then stop to do a little training. Do you see what I have done here? I have taken the fun out of walks. It's like giving someone super-awesome candy only when they're nauseous. I have taken something she really loves and am only offering it to her when she's in a moderately-aroused, highly distractable, slightly anxious frame of mind. If I let this go on long enough, she may start associating the two, and my asking for behaviors could become a cue for her to start looking for the other dog - even if there isn't one around.

Whew! That was a close one! I potentially could have screwed up my dog. Instead, I'll start adding some fun play-training into our walks when there aren't other dogs present. Rubi's farther along in her training, so in addition to sits, retreats, and touches (Rubi does not lay down on cold asphalt thankyousoverymuch), we also practice formal heeling, stays, recalls, and a few tricks. In anticipation of our trip in May, we've also dug out Piper's old backpack to wear around the neighborhood. It doesn't fit the best, but it's fine for short trips to get used to carrying extra weight. I've also started to reinforce Rubi for just walking at my side without heeling. This will be an important skill for her to have when we start taking Piper Ann along on our walks.

I'm careful, though, to allow Rubi plenty of free time to explore her environment. I'm not one of those trainers who insist the dog walk by my side at all times. That's always seemed rather cruel to me. It's like taking a little kid to an amusement park and forcing them to walk next to you and not go on any of the rides. If it weren't for me, Rubi would not be on a walk; but if it weren't for Rubi, I probably wouldn't be walking, either. We do a little of what I want, and we do a little of what she wants. Freedom on walks is earned through not pulling and providing me with regular attention, but I make sure that Rubi has ample opportunities to do what she enjoys on our walks. It's a team effort, and everyone should be having fun.

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