I’m new to this bloggin thing, obviously, and part of me had been hoping to convince you all, at least for a glorious little while, that I am always thoughtful, observant, respectful, patient, and wise when it comes to training Nala the Wonderful.
Spoiler alert: I’m not.
Honestly, though, it’s a little bit of a relief to admit to you that I’ve made myriad training mistakes, even if it did take a little bit of a push from this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme. Honestly, I’ve made so many mistakes with Nala that it’s difficult to choose! I could tell you about any number of obnoxious attention-getting behaviors I’ve inadvertently cultivated and had to fix. Or about the time that I taught Nala to play keep away with her toys. Basically, I’ve screwed up a lot.
But I’ve decided to tell you about what might be, in retrospect, my most embarrassing mistake, because I think that it might help others, too.
The first time that my partner and I clipped a leash onto Nala’s collar was within an hour or two of meeting her. She had spent the last few months in, basically, an off leash doggy paradise–virtually all she did was play with other dogs and throw herself in patches of sticker burrs, usually without even a collar on. We wanted to walk with her around the property and chat, and her caretaker, Lisa, encouraged us to leash her up. The second that leash went on, Nala went from a dog who cheerfully explored and checked in with her human every few minutes to one who heedlessly dragged us around like an eager freight train.
“Okay,” I thought. “She’s got anywhere from 8 months to a year or more of reinforcement history for pulling. That’s okay. We can teach a dog to walk on a loose leash.”
I spent the next few months walking her on the back clip of a Freedom Harness (for the sake of a bit of mechanical control–big dog, tiny human woman) while we practiced loose leash walking inside. Eventually, when Nala looked great inside, in our backyard, and even pretty okay when we practiced in class, I took the plunge, clipped the leash to the front of her harness instead of the back (just like when we practiced), and attempted to transfer our skills outside.
That walk was terrible. And for the next few months, it didn’t get significantly better. I could always think of excuses related to my (lack of) training skills–my partner and I were being inconsistent, or I was being inconsistent, or I wasn’t using a high enough rate of reinforcement for the correct behavior because it was cold and Nala would shark the treats out of my fingers, bloodying my cuticles. But really, it was because Nala almost never looked at me outside. There was precious little for me to capture and reward. She was always scanning, sniffing, and hustling forward. I groaned and moaned, both inwardly and to anyone that would listen, over how much more boring I was to our dog than the environment, and how frustrating and difficult walking her was.
Then we audited an online class called Get Focused! at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and, quite suddenly, Nala was doing a lot better. She could walk on a loose leash in the neighborhood some of the time. She could do some of her cues, sometimes. I had no idea why–I couldn’t figure out the pattern, the chain of events, the antecedents and consequences, that brought out either Pully Nala or Aware and Interested that the Human Exists Nala. I had finally moved past thinking that the only thing at work was reinforcement history, I knew that she was environmentally sensitive, but I had no idea what she was so sensitive to. I thought it might just always be this way–that she would always take multiple visits to acclimate to new locations.
Then, one day in early spring, I decided to plan a walk to a new place–a little neighborhood park that we had never been to. It was totally within walking distance–all we had to do was walk along, and then cross, a large but probably not too busy street to the north of us, and then we would be able to try out our focus exercises in a new location and generalize some of the work we had begun closer to home.
Nala walked cheerfully on a nice, loose leash almost all the way to the big, main thoroughfare. Then her pace picked up. As we went down the street, it picked up more. Her huge ears airplaned to the side and rotated all the way back. Her tail, despite her fast gait, was low, almost between her back legs as she trotted so fast she was almost galloping. And there I was, being dragged along behind her next to a busy road with no escape for at least another block, my arches cramping and seriously concerned that I would be pulled on my face.
Eventually we were able to escape the busy street, and we walked through parking lots until we got back to the quiet streets of our neighborhood, Nala’s nose clapped firmly to the ground the whole time in fast, frantic, huffing-sniffing. She seemed to have forgotten me, but at least her pace had slowed enough that I could keep up.
At the first opportunity, I plopped down in a stranger’s driveway. Nala noticed that I had sat down and came over to check on me. We shared some water. I rued my horrible mistake of attempting this walk at all. I tried to remember the last time that I had seen her behave that way–it had been months. It finally dawned on me.
It had been the last time we walked next to a heavily trafficked street.
I sat there, finally looking, really looking, at my dog. As I did, an 18 wheeler rumbled past on a street to our left. I watched Nala’s ears twist around to the back of her head, watched her disconnect from me to turn away from the truck and plummet her nose into a tuft of grass, huffing, her tail lowered but not quite tucked.
Nala was scared–really, really scared–of cars. She stressed down so, so subtly that it took me seven months to notice what she was telling me as clearly as she could. She wasn’t just pulling and ignoring me because of reinforcement history and a preference for smells. She was scanning for cars, working herself up, and attempting soothe herself by sniffing.
From that second, our walks changed. I had a new mission: Retreat and Counter Condition Every Car. We stayed in our quiet neighborhood for a while (or hiked in places where she won’t see or hear a car), and every time a car went by, we would move up away from the street into someone’s yard as I said, “Oh WOW, a CAR!” as cheerfully as I could and scattered cheese between Nala’s front feet. Soon, she began to smile and wag whenever I said, “Oh WOW!”
In under two months, Nala became a totally different dog on walks. These days, she mostly walks next to me. The leash rarely tightens. Her tail is higher, her body looser, her gait prancey. She checks in frequently. She responds quickly and cheerfully to cues (well, unless a squirrel is running away from her). Strangers comment on how she walks right next to me, and turns to check in whenever she sees cats or I slow down and stop. She might not be perfect, and we still have work to do, like generalizing her new associations to new locations and eventually working with heavier amounts of traffic. Nevertheless, I love watching her cheerfully and confidently explore the world, then turn a willing and happy face back to me.
I still can’t believe how long it took me to realize that I didn’t really have a training problem. It wasn’t my skills, or my mechanics, or the value or rate of reinforcement that was keeping Nala from learning to keep her head on straight and maintain her connection to me when she was out in the world. I didn’t need to be more exciting. I needed to figure out what she was afraid of and show her that I had her back, that she had nothing to fear.
Fortunately, I don’t seem to be a hopeless case! I’m getting better at reading my dog’s body language, and maybe someday I’ll be as good at noticing and acting on her behavior patterns as she is at noticing and acting on mine!
Have you ever had a training problem that you couldn’t seem to solve? How long did it take you to learn to read your dog?
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Edit to add: I’m not sure the linky tool is working! But this blog hop is hosted by Cascadian Nomads, My Rubicon Days, and Tenacious Little Terrier. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week!