Our dogs do just about anything to make us happy. They listen, learn, love and work to make us happy. I'm sure my dogs get frustrated, upset and angry at me sometimes just as I do with them. Like all relationships our special bond that we have with our dogs changes and grows overtime. We often ask a lot of dogs, and I wonder if we are holding up our end of the deal as good dog owners?
This summer I started taking Chico and Rue to a beginners dog agility class. Rue is my agile, bouncing border collie. She took to agility very quickly, and I'm certain she believes I haven't taken to it quite as fast. Chico is very meticulous about doing things perfect in agility, but the truth is, he doesn't spend much time working on the agility equipment. Chico spends most of his time working on reactivity.
Last week we started our second agility session, the group of people and dogs were brand new. Since Chico was familiar with the group in our last session we were able to progress nicely through class. Last week, I made a mistake of pushing Chico too hard and in return he was extremely reactive. There Chico was in class barking, lunging and carrying on. My classmates expressions were, priceless... And until I took Chico to the car I didn't even consider that I had asked too much of him. I believe Chico viewed this new group of people and dogs as a brand new situation. We all have good days and bad days and I strongly believe dogs do too. I simply didn't work the dog I had that day. Why wouldn't I pay attention to what Chico was telling me? I wasn't being true to Chico's needs.
On occasion we loose our tempers and yell at our dogs. Most owners get upset when their dogs make choices to bark at the mailman or a doorbell on TV. But we rarely take the time to teach them what the correct choice is. Dogs spend so much time learning our "communication" (verbal and none verbal) such as sit, stay and down. But how much time do we spend learning what they are telling us?
Instead of working on the fun stuff like agility, I'm working on ways to help Chico get to the point in which he can enjoy those fun, super stimulating situations. Chico and I have an incredible relationship, however, I don't trust Chico when he is in a state of reactivity. So what was Chico telling me by this behavior? He was frightened, overwhelmed and wanted away from this situation.
The behavior Chico displayed is called "reactivity". According to experts in the field of dog behavior, reactivity is: barking, lunging and growling , etc. This behavior could be followed by other more progressive behaviors. But in itself reactivity is not "aggressive." Rather than push through training agility I'm staying true and now stopping to work on Chico's reactivity. Below is a short description of a few of the techniques we are using:
BAT: (Behavior Adjustment Training) developed by Grisha Stewart. This training technique teaches the dog that they will be reinforced with a sound (verbal or clicker) marker for looking at whatever the dog is reactive to. Then the dog is moved away and given a treat after the sound has marked “looking at” whatever the dog is reactive to. This technique has 3 stages all in which work your dog under their "threshold" of reactivity. Read more about BAT on Grisha's website.
Positive Reinforcement, On Cue: The dog is taught that the stimulus is a good thing. This can be taught with treats or a game (tug) and naming the stimulus “Where’s the Dog” or "Where's the Person." Initially the dog will turn away and look at the stimulus then turn back to the owner for a treat or play break. You can read more about this technique described on Patricia McConnell's website and in her book The Feisty Fido.
Chico taking a break from herding
What Are You Doing to Stay True?
Thankfully, Chico doesn't appear to hold it against me that I'm not the greatest handler, and I have on occasion set him up for failure. But I promised to stay true to him and help him overcome his fears. What are you doing to stay true to your dog?
Chico and Rue and Curt Gowdy State Park