Watching Paint Dry
Or… Why I’ll never be a teevee star.
If you believe what you see on television, dog training is a thrilling profession where remarkably photogenic people with exotic accents spend their days hugging puppies and going mano-a-mano with potentially lethal red-zone killers. The action is like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where, as kids, we watched breathlessly as Jim Fowler wrestled deadly cobras, grizzly bears and piranhas while Marlin Perkins stood safely in the background and provided golf tournament style commentary, “We’ll wait here while Jim wrestles the angry pit viper rat terrier with his bare hands.”
Unfortunately I’ve moved around the country enough that I have a television newscaster’s generic accent and I’m only slightly more photogenic than Steve Buscemi. Most importantly, when it comes to working with dogs I’m more Marlin Perkins than Jim Fowler.
Being a dog trainer is more like defusing bombs than wrestling alligators. Working calmly and carefully, I want to avoid explosions, not create them. As a spectator sport, it’s about as exciting watching paint dry.
My foster dog Charlie is a volatile little fellow so it’s important to defuse him. Practice really does make perfect. The more times a dog is allowed to practice the wrong kinds of reactions to stressful situations, the better he gets at it. This is why when I’m working with a reactive dog (one that is extremely excitable, fearful and /or aggressive) I work very hard to prevent the dog from having bad reactions in the first month or two of his training and rehabilitation.
While I’m keeping the dog away from triggers to the extent I can, I also work on building his self control. With young Charlie this means we practice “sit to get”; long sit-stays; sits at a distance; “leave-it” with food and his favorite toys; “wait” at all doors; polite walking on the leash and to accept being in a crate.
In this program I am attacking Charlie’s reactivity in two ways:
First - I’m doing all I can to keep him from practicing bad reactions. This means that Charlie gets a whole lot less freedom, attention, exercise and time with my family than a less reactive dog would get. Limiting these things now will help him earn a lifetime of privileges, so I don’t feel the teensiest bit bad about it. He’ll enjoy privileges more after he’s earned them.
Second - I’m teaching Charlie how to exercise his own self-control in situations that are carefully calibrated for success. I started with simple things like having him sit very briefly before I threw his toy and making him move back away from the kennel door (instead of leaping up on it) before I’d open it. In a little over a week, we’ve progressed to one minute sit-stays (on leash), a stop and sit at 15 feet, a sit-stay while I pretend to throw the frisbee, sit before I open the kennel door, down for treats, and “leave-it” exercises with food in my open hand or on the floor.
As Charlie learned how to exercise self-control in moderately stimulating situations I introduced him to new dogs and new people. I did this with him on a leash and each situation was carefully structured to help him maintain his composure. So far there’s been no snarkiness and no drama*. This is exactly what I want. As Charlie’s skills improve, I’ll introduce him to increasingly challenging situations and if I go too far and he reacts aggressively, I’ll smack myself upside the head with a rolled up newspaper (bad trainer!) and move a couple of steps back in the program.
* SMACK – Ok, since I started this post we did have a bit of drama. Since Charlie cheerfully lets me touch any part of his body and because he’s started to shed profusely I decided to brush him. Touching him with any thing but my hand or the leash is apparently a Big Deal to Charlie. Stay tuned for updates on how we handle this.