Over Zealous Dog Trainer Run Amok

As printed in the The Clicker Journal, November/December 2000 & January/February 2001
May not be reprinted without written approval.

Hormonal delusions. There can’t be any other reason for me to have rescued this dog seven weeks ago. One year old Border Collie, male, history of lunging at people. Rescue organization said that he was a great dog and he only needed to be taken away from his previous owner, who, although well meaning, was in over her head. At the time, I was feeling cocky (after all, I had adopted 5 other dogs with varying degrees of behavioral problems and they all turned out fine) and said that I would take him. So, I packed up Carrie, Cody, Beau and my husband Jim and drove 4 hours each way to meet Fitz. Praying all the way there that he wouldn’t get along with my dogs so I could bail out. No such luck.

Our first two weeks with “Shadow” (I renamed him because I did not like his original name) was pure hell. He was constantly fighting with Cody and Beau and they were completely freaked out, which of course, was upsetting me. He would attack them if they came anywhere near me. He would attack them in the hallway or doorway. If I moved away, he would attack them anyway. During our training sessions Shadow was responsive, but in an out-of-control, frenzied way. His eyes were like a wild animal – pupils totally dilated, whites showing, full of fear, hurt, and mistrust. If he didn’t understand something, he would quit. During the first 10 days, we worked on hand targeting, eye contact, moving backups, back chaining the halt, the 2 toy game, the 3 cookie game (recall game), fronts, finishes, dumbbell work, sits, downs and god knows what else I crammed in there. Shadow would beg to be petted and then either show some displacement anxiety or turn his head as if to bite me. If I walked away, he would attack the nearest dog.

In addition, (while in my “Super Woman, Perimenopausal, Dog Trainer” mode) I was taking him out on a daily basis, introducing him to select people. Shadow would rush up to them, grab food from their hands, sit down in a very submissive way, eyes glaring, then lunge and bark at them. My thinking (if you can call it thinking) was to show him that nothing good or bad happened if he “popped off,” speculating that perhaps he was punished for aggressing in the past. During the lest session, he attacked my friend Sandy 3 times and it finally sunk in that “Houston, we have a problem!”

That night, I called and emailed the rescue group in a complete and utter panic, telling them that I was giving up and would bring him back.

Cooler heads prevailed the next day and I called my friend Carolyn Holmgren. As fate would have it, she was giving a three day aggressive dog seminar, starting the following day.

I had an epiphany that weekend about many things. The ridiculous part was that none of this information was new to me. So what was the difference? Now it was MY dog! I was crushed! I had been unable to take my own advice – “build a relationship,” “rescue dogs are like refugees,” etcetera. I hadn’t given Shadow a chance to settle in, to not only learn our routines, but to learn to trust me as well. Here I was, putting him into situations that he wasn’t capable of handling, with no relationship with me to fall back on, sending him “over the cliff” on a daily basis. How could he trust me?

At this point, I knew I had to go back to the basics and develop a connection with Shadow before any real training or desensitization could occur.

The first behavior I wanted was calmness. Considering we can never really know what a dog is thinking, I had to go with his body posture and expression as a guide. I broke this down into the smallest approximations I could think of. If his eyes looked normal (pupils at a normal size) I would call him to me for petting or click and throw him a treat. If they changed, I would walk away. Then I moved onto his ear position. If they were up and alert, click and treat. If they went back against his skull, I would walk away. If his sit was submissive, I would walk away.

Training sessions were kept to a few minutes or sometimes, just a few seconds. When I was getting clear eyes and upright ears on a fairly consistent basis, I raised the criteria, adding in a gentle touch from me. In the beginning, this brought on glazed eyes, so I decreased the touch to one finger on his chin for ½ second before the click and treat. I felt that the sessions still seemed to be too intense for him, so I included Frisbee throwing into the equation to help relieve some of his stress. I would throw the Frisbee; he would bring it back and give it to me. I would touch him and if his expression stayed normal, I clicked and threw the Frisbee. If no, I turned away, counted to ten and tried again. Within a short time, he was letting me pet him all over his head, neck and shoulder areas, all the while remaining calm and alert. To start desensitizing him to my posture, I started leaning over him or having him run between my legs, clicking for calmness. At times, I added a straight front or a front and finish before clicking.

I became more cognizant of my body position in relationto all four dogs and learned to react faster (with warp speed!). I remembered what Sheila Booth told me, “Freedom is not a right, it must be earned.” I started crating Shadow more often, even if it was just for a few minutes, to give him no time to practice the obnoxious, bratty and overbearing behaviors towards Cody and Beau. (Surprisingly, he has always been wonderful with Carrie and never bothers her at all). I started to see and almost immediate improvement in his increasing calmness around the other dogs. Beau and Shadow started playing beautifully. Shadow stopped aggressing in the hallways and doorways (tight places). If their play would start to escalate (in my humble human opinion), I would run out of the room and it would break up.

I kept a close watch for calming signals directed towards me and turned away or walked away if I saw them. I learned what usually set him off and tried not to put him in those situations where he would be nervous. He was still very sensitive to gentle touch during petting, especially on his hind end. I tried Ttouch, the body wrap and we weren’t progressing. Furthermore, STILL being “Super Woman, Perimenopausal, I would take the Gingko if I could remember to take it, Dog Trainer, Hear me Roar,” I was getting a little upset about this and even though I tried to hide it from Shadow, he obviously sensed my mood. Then I noticed that when my husband Jim interacted with him, Shadow was fine. Here I am, breaking down everything into the tiniest components and Jim is doing nothing, knows nothing about dog behavior, calming signals, training, behavior modification and he was getting the better responses! What was the difference? It took me a few days to figure it out. Jim was breathing, petting him firmly and acting normally!

The instant I realized this, Shadow has been a changed dog. When I walk into the room and smile at him, he thumps his tail. He doesn’t rush up and dive-bomb my face in that frantic submissive was he was doing. His ears and eyes are normal 95% of the time, he is great with the other dogs, he doesn’t quit after one or two tries during training and I have been able to lengthen our sessions to 10 minutes. He isn’t as frantic anymore and if I do see a glimmer of brattiness or if he starts to give Cody his darn “Border collie eye,” I put him away for a few minutes to relax.

I am gradually acclimating him to new people – slowly – with the tiniest of approximations. If someone comes to the house, he is crated in a separate room and clicked and treated for calmness, while he hears that person speak. If we are outside, I am constantly scanning the environment, making sure that he is focused on me, starting out by staying at least 50 feet away from any possible provoking stimuli.

So, here we are at week seven, constructing our relationship, one brick at a time. I have stopped looking at “the big picture” and am concentrating on the approximations. And one day, we will have rebuilt the Empire State Building and be ready to compete in Competition Obedience, Agility, tracking, sheep herding, flyball…OOPS! Down Super Woman, down!…where is the kryptonite when you need it?

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