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Posts Tagged ‘Clicker training’

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear takes a break out on a solo walk

Little Bear takes a break during our solo walk

If you have more than one dog, chances are you probably walk them together.  I actually still recall the “Walking two dogs is no more work than walking one” argument I used as part of my case for a double dog household.  Oh foolish fool, how wrong could I have been?!

The reality is, if you have reactive dogs like ours, combined walks can sometimes do more harm than good.

Tipping point

Just like us, all dogs have a tipping point. Now for your laid back, confident pooch the circumstances needed to reach that tipping point might never ever arise but for the nervous, under-confident dog the line between calm, rational thought and an emotional, amygdala driven outburst is always that much finer.

In the fourteen years we had our beloved Springer Spaniel, I only once saw him aggress and that was when a Rottweiler  jumped into our garden and cornered him in the yard. Even our sweet old gent found his tipping point that day and acted to defend himself much to our utter amazement.

For reactive dogs like Bear and Annie, their equivalent of a Rottweiler over the garden wall can be as seemingly benign as a dog on a lead 300 yards away. Through an unfortunate mix of temperament, experience (and lack of it), they see threats where there are none.  But when they bark and lunge, it’s out of the same fear my old Springer felt all those years ago, it’s just that their tipping points aren’t as obvious to us.

A life lived in fear

They say a life lived in fear is a life half lived and this can certainly be the reality for many dogs. On Little Bear’s scary list were: bikes, skateboards, other dogs,  horses, velcro (?!) and thunderstorms to name but a few.  A walk invariably encountered at least one of the things and so for a long time, practically every trip out of the door would mean he’d end up in a frenzy of fearful barking and lunging.

Positive reinforcement 

Over the years we’ve worked to raise his tipping point to a more comfortable level.  Armed with clicker and treats (and a swift and unapologetic about turn if we spot something that I know he won’t cope with) we’ve slowly built up his tolerance to the point that he can now see a dog across the street and remain calm enough to sit and get a treat for his non-reaction.

Bikes and skateboards no longer get a second look thanks to the same positive reinforcement and he can walk past a field of horses without batting an eyelash. That said, he has learned to flutter them a little in the hopes of a reward when he thinks he’s been especially good.

The key to the training has simply been to encourage him to feel differently about the things he was once afraid of.  Get rid of the fear and the over-reaction just isn’t necessary anymore.  Which brings me on to the need for solo walks.

Going solo

Part of the ethos of positive reinforcement is that dogs are alway set up to succeed. Considering his naturally anxious disposition, Little Bear has achieved a lot over the last few years which is why asking him to be cool, calm and collected while his best friend Annie is freaking out by his side is really a bridge too far.

So, as much as I love walking my dogs together, until he and Annie are at a similar level in terms of tipping points we’ll continue to walk them separately as often as we can. The good news is that judging by Annie’s progress, she’ll not be far behind him.

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Little Bear finds a shady spot

Little Bear finds a shady spot

When it’s hot its hard to keep dogs properly exercised without the risk that they’ll over-heat. Little Bear especially finds the warm weather quite tough and although he knows his limits, it still leaves us with a problem: One very bright, very active little dog who has no outlet for all his get up and go.  As we know ourselves, being happily tired after a good workout is very different to the lethargy that sets in when it’s just too hot to move.

Putting the fun back 

So this morning , before the day had chance to hot up, we booked the local agility course with a friend of ours. LB has done agility before. We had a couple of one-to-one lessons and then joined a group class. Given his anxiety levels, the group class was incredibly challenging, but he coped admirably and seemed to forget about the other dogs once he was doing the course.

Teaching resilience

He’s loved agility from the off and proved that although he wasn’t built for speed or endurance, he’s a brave little chap.  To my utter amazement he tackled a full height A frame on his first ever session (see the video here).

Taking a break at the end of the session

Taking a break at the end of the session

I was reminded of this today as he lost his footing on the walkway but pressed on regardless. Then again when he misjudged a jump and took a tumble. He picked himself up and with a bit of lighthearted encouragement took the same jump again and again as if to prove it hadn’t beaten him.

 Building confidence

Nervous dogs usually lack confidence and depending on their temperament, use either aggression or retreat (fight or flight) as their only means of coping with the things that scare them.  Watching LB face his fears today and overcome them so swiftly was a timely reminder of how I need to be constantly finding ways to build his confidence and boost his resilience. The other bonus is that before the sun had had a chance to take too much of a hold, Annie and Bear were back home, happily tired, mentally stimulated and quickly snoozing.

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Mini Schnauzer Little Bear sitting in a field

Little Bear in his Spring clip

As anyone with a reactive dog knows, a walk is anything but relaxing.  I go out kitted up with clicker (+spare clickers should the first one break or get lost), treat bag (+ back up treats just in case) squeaky balls (+back ups) and a pet corrector for real emergencies.  Thats as well as the poo bags, ball chucker, wet wipes etc etc. I know all of the fields and parks in the area and a bit like Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity, every exit and roughly how long it will take us to get to it should we need to.

I can also spot an ‘It’s okay, my dog’s fine’ owner a mile off. Maybe you know the type? They’re the ones with the big lumbering dogs that flatten yours while their owners laugh and say things like “It’s okay, he’s only playing.” Gee thanks, but what about mine?!

They seem oblivious to the fact that you might be trying to avoid them or that in letting their friendly lummox of a dog ‘play’ with yours without checking first, they might be putting your behaviour training back weeks if not months.  For all they know, they might even be putting their dog at risk of serious physical or emotional harm.  Even when you call your dog, pop him on a lead and walk quickly in the other direction, they STILL don’t get the hint!

Real treat

So, today was a real treat!

As we went into the field, two Huskies bounded up to the gate. Little Bear froze and whined and then looked at me which in itself was a fantastic result as he looked to me instead of kicking off!  His reward was a swift retreat away from the thing that was worrying him.

The owner looked a bit miffed and said a bit tersely ‘It’s fine! They were brought up with Schnauzers.’ We get this a lot.  People we big dogs or bull breeds often assume I’m being a breedist in avoiding them and I don’t usually get the opportunity to clarify, but with LB at a distance he was comfortable with and happily hoovering up treats from the floor, I was able to explain over the fence that it wasn’t his dogs I was concerned about, but my own.

Penny dropped, he walked his dogs away from the gate so that we could come in. With LB in ‘stuff your face with treats mode’ he was happy to focus on me and we passed the Huskies without incident.

Great manners 

We had a lovely walk, LB exploring and snacking on grass here and there, then chasing the ball and working on his retrieve.  Whenever I see another dog I don’t know, I pop him on a lead.  I do this partly because of his bullying towards timid dogs but also because it’s just good manners.

To my delight, another other dog walker on seeing me pop LB on the lead as they approached immediately called his dog and popped its leads on too.  A mutual round of ‘thank yous’ later and we went our separate ways.

Seconds later, we saw the Huskies again and as soon as he saw us, their owner recalled them, popped them on their leads and asked for a sit.  Little Bear was fantastic and again passed without even a grumble. I thanked the owner again and we even had time for a quick chat about the joys of training and what a difference well-mannered owners made.

This may seem silly, but this truly made my day.  As anyone with a reactive dog will know, it can sometimes feel like your best intentions get undermined by other people’s assumption that all dogs are friendly and docile. They are also usually the first people to tut-tut and mutter things about ‘always the owners fault’ as your dog gets tipped over the edge and aggresses because they feel so threatened by the situation that the tut-tutter has unwittingly helped kick off.

Nature vs. Nurture 

As I’ve come to learn, nurture can only do so much and nature has a heavy hand in deciding a dogs temperament.  Just like people, some dogs have a shorter fuse than others and try as we might, there’s no way of changing that, we can only manage it as best we can by giving them the tools and support to cope with the things they find threatening or frustrating.  But owners need support too and as I found out today, a little help and understanding from fellow dog lovers can go a long long way.

 

 

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I’ve blogged before about how sometimes it’s easy to miss what’s right under our noses. Changes happen so slowly that we sometimes fail to see the process. Trees are a good one – you drive down the same stretch of road each day and then WHAM! One day you notice that the bare branches are now chock-full of bright spring leaves.

Dog training can be a lot like that. Walking the dogs the other day Annie kicked off at the sight of another dog on the other side of the road. Little Bear woofed a few times, but with a seriously lack of commitment which in no way matched her level of arousal. I walked him away calmly and despite her lunging and barking, he remained quiet and kept glancing up at me – which of course got him a lot of praise, clicks and treats.

Just like the tree, I’d missed the bud stage, but was pleased I’d at least spotted the unfurling leaf so that I could reward and encourage it. I took a lesson from that.  Even when you think nothing’s happening, the time we all, if we’re honest feel like giving up, it’s good to remember that there’s progress being made that we just can’t see.  Little buds of progress waiting to burst forth and surprise us.

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In my last post I mentioned Emma Parsons’ book ‘Click to Calm’.  In it she advocates the use of a head collar such as a Gentle Leader or Halti. Now as Little Bear is on the sensitive side, I’ve learned not to change too many things at any one time for fear of unsettling him. But, as he hates his harness with a passion and chokes himself if walked on a collar, I decided it was worth investigating.

After a root around on the internet I called our trusty dog walker Louisa (aka Auntie Lou) to ask for some pro advice and she raved about them. Suitably convinced, I decided to give it a go. 

Now I’m as keen on new things as the next person, but with a day job in marketing I’m also far more cynical than is maybe healthy when it comes to product claims.  ‘Unique patented designed prefered by many leading trainers, vets and behaviourists around the world.’ Hmm….. ‘Results occur in minutes – not weeks.’  Ha – sure they do – are they made by fairies too?

Back at home, I decide that we’ll start with some positive reinforcement.  We get off to a shaky start as LB shoots off at the sound of me opening the packet – then decides that tiny bits of cheddar in return for touching first the packet and then the collar are worth the trade. 

Resigning myself to not being able to return the head collar if it didn’t work due to odour issues, I pop it in his treat bag and give it a shake just to make it extra smelly. This seems to have the desired effect because once I’ve finished fiddling with the adjusters and put it down to read the instruction book again, LB decides to lay with his head on the collar and give it the occasional lick. Good start – and something unheard of with his rather smart but hated harness.

I pop it on and off him a few times that afternoon.  Each time is accompanied by extra nice treats and for the last and longest trial he gets to keep it on for the 3 minutes flat it takes him to polish off a chew. 

After umming and ahhing over whether to work on this for a few days longer before venturing out in it, I decide to give it a go.  If he hates it once we’re out, I can pop him on his collar and build up slowly over the week.

Once out of the front door he decides that he can’t walk a step.  This is his usual reaction to his harness or any type of dog coat.  He becomes super-glued to the floor and refuses to budge until the offending item is removed – or in the case of the harness, he gets a better offer.  

Silent protest over (he decides that playing with his tennis ball is more fun) off we trot on our evening walk.

So this is where I eat my cynics hat.  We walk around the block, through the wood and around the dog field without the lead becoming taught once.  

He pawed at the collar twice within the first 5 minutes of the walk but then left it completely alone. We play ball, practice his recall and then trot home without incident or any tension what-so-ever on the lead. In fact, he seems incredibly calm and totally unphased by it.

Back home he sits as usual to have his lead unclipped and as I slide the head collar off his nose, he gives it what I hope is a lick of approval.

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