New Easy Dog! - Dog Training Article by Shane Windatt
Perhaps you recall reading in one of my blogs last month (The Temptations of Petfinder) that I was considering adopting a new dog. At that point, I was debating the merits of Happy, the dog I was fostering, vs. Stevie, one I had discovered on the Petfinder website. Well, I'm pleased to report that today Happy is flying to Vancouver to join her new family. Stevie, whom I've rather hopefully rechristened "Easy," has been in my home for exactly two weeks. I haven't signed the adoption papers yet, but I've committed to doing so.
Last winter, when I noticed my dog Jack beginning to slow down, I realized that I would soon be in the market for a new companion. I told several people, "I want my next dog to have a really great temperament. I don't want another rehabilitation project. No separation anxiety or aggression. I'm really attracted to fearful dogs, especially border collies, but that's not the dog I should have."
So what's Easy? A 10-month-old undersocialized border collie cross who growls and snaps when meeting new dogs. She is fearful of children and not too sure of strange adults, either. She thinks motorcycles and shopping carts are very scary. Even waves at the beach are alarming to her.
She is definitely a project. I guess I can say I want my life to be easy, but I don't really mean it. I'd rather have my life be Easy.
One thing I have learned from past dogs is, putting out a lot of effort in the beginning pays long-term dividends. Done right, training helps the dog to learn proper boundaries, feel more confident, and prevents her from inventing her own (usually negative) strategies for dealing with situations. So we started on day one: introduction to the clicker.
Hopefully all of you know about clicker training; it's a great system for communicating to your dog what you'd like him to do. Basically, you mark the good behavior with a signal, usually the sound made by a clicker. (see link at bottom of this page for detailed information about clicker training.) I was quite prepared for Easy to be frightened by the sound, so I started off by using a very quiet clicker and then progressed to my usual one. Before trying to train anything, I spent about 15 minutes pairing the sound of the clicker with a treat. She soon caught on that the sound was a signal that I was about to feed her. Then she was ready for her first lesson.
Being an affectionate and insecure dog, it was no surprise that she wanted to crawl into my lap every time I sat down. I love snuggling with a dog as much as anyone, but there are times when it's not appropriate, so I like dogs to wait until I invite them. The first thing I wanted to teach Easy was the cue "off." In the beginning, I needed to follow up the cue with a push, and then a click and a treat when she was on the floor. Soon she began hesitating before jumping up, and then I was able to click and treat BEFORE she did anything wrong. Anytime she lay down by my feet rather than hovering anxiously was cause for a snack AND a hug.
Easy was not in an optimum learning state at first. She was unsettled in her new environment and she had no experience in being consistently rewarded for good behavior. It took a few days for her to really "get it." I could sort of see the light bulb coming on: "OHH...okay, when I do THIS, you give me THAT. Things are predictable here. It's not like in my old life." She began to learn faster and with more enthusiasm.
Currently, she has learned or is in the process of learning ten different cues: off, sit, stay, Easy, come, down, touch, back, get it, and crate. We're working on looseleash walking and targeting, too. But the big challenge will be overcoming the fears.
I'm hoping that the obedience training we're doing will boost her confidence in herself and in me. Exposing her to the things she's afraid of and making that a good experience (lots of treats and other fun stuff) may take us the rest of the way. How long it will take is an unanswerable question at this point. In the meantime, I'm using a tether in the house and rewarding her for lying down on her mat and any other calm or friendly behaviors I see. Thankfully, she is very attracted to food of all kinds! Next, I plan to get her hooked on tug toys.
I am lucky in that I have enough experience to know that all the small steps will eventually add up, and that Easy may eventually become the dog I've always wanted. It won't happen tomorrow, certainly, but I don't intend to give up.
For more information on clicker training, including free video demonstrations, click: www.clickertraining.com
Click this link for information on rehabilitating aggressive dogs.
Shane Windatt, CTC, CPDT