This past weekend for Labor Day, the pup, the partner, and I took advantage of some extended time off to take our first ever short road trip together.
Mentally, I tried to prepare myself for the worst. I knew there was a possibility that Nala would be too overstimulated by being in a new place to remember any of the skills I’ve painstakingly reinforced for the past year.
Still, it went better than I could have expected.
Overall, being in a different house, with two extra people, different furniture, the smell of cat (although never the sight of cat) didn’t change the fact that Nala is just a pleasure to be around.
She didn’t do too much pacing–although she definitely seemed happiest when all of the humans were in one room, so that she didn’t have to track anyone down and bring them back into the fold. After the first day, she didn’t even obsess over the door that led to the suite of rooms in which the cat was staying. She didn’t exhibit any distress over being left alone in a puppy-proofed bedroom when there were no humans in the house–no destruction, and emptied puzzle toys.
She also generalized most of her commands, including her door manners, and even did them for my partner’s parents (who have never given her a treat for anything in her life, and never have food in their pockets). I guess reward based training works, huh?
She really took to some of the details of the house–a flight of stairs from which to survey her domain. Uncovered front windows (and I confess that I loved seeing her smiling shepherd head at the window whenever I returned to the house). A door she could stick her nose under and huff deeply whenever she wanted to smell cat. Extra humans to solicit attention from whenever she felt like it.
She was a great little buddy on the car ride up, too–aside from needing a break to stretch her legs and empty her bladder every hour or so, she was content to chill in the back seat. And after an exciting weekend, she slept through the whole ride home.
It was also a little worse than I hoped.
When Nala walked into Michael’s parents’ house, I thought that my worst fears–that all of the hard work and reinforcement I’ve poured into Nala over the months would fall out of her oversized ears in a new place–were confirmed. I know enough about dog training to have practiced all of Nala’s tricks and cues all over the house and yard and anywhere else that she’s able to work. But for the first fifteen minutes or so, I thought it hadn’t been enough.
Nala rocketed around the whole house sniffing. She did a few drive-by check-ins with me, taking a treat each time, but it fell out of her mouth without being swallowed–never a good sign. She immediately found the door to the rooms with the cat inside–and the cat did not help, swiping her little white paws under the door in greeting. I tried calling her away from the door–nothing. And then I decided to shut up and let her acclimate.
After a little while, Nala had calmed down. She started soliciting attention from me and Michael and his mom. She remembered that sometimes I deliver multiple treats in a row, and how to swallow, and how to ask to play some of our focus games.
Still, some of her brilliance didn’t fully recover. I had a lot of trouble calling her away from the cat door. Her door manners were clearly really, really difficult for her–a fact aggravated by the fact that she had to be patient for three doors, not one door, in order to go outside. Michael’s parents only have a fenced in patio, and Nala wouldn’t eliminate on the rocks behind their house, so we had to take a short leashed walk in the neighborhood for every bathroom break–and that was really hard for her, too. The neighborhood was a gauntlet of weird shapes, semi-feral cats, open garages (okay, Nala mostly just finds those hilarious and wants to sniff all the stuff in them), and cars–there was some regression to Nala’s hypervigilant ways, and some loss of the good behavior on leash that I’ve come to take for granted.
Worst of all, I had carefully prepared for the weekend by dehydrating over a pound of chicken hearts and two sweet potatoes the day before. I had spent more time than I care to remember carefully chopping them into tiny pieces so that I had lots of little training treats to reward good, calm behavior in a new place. Alas, it was not to be. The first time that we left Nala alone in her puppy proofed bathroom, we put the two jars of treats on the bathroom counter and shut that door. Nala discovered that the bathroom door didn’t latch, pulled the glass jars down without breaking them, carried them to her bed, opened them (!), and licked them clean. Dang puzzle toy savvy dog–we had a serious dearth of training treats all weekend, and a dog who had eaten the equivalent of a whole extra pound of quite rich raw food. And two sweet potatoes. I considered buying more treats, but felt like that would just be asking for diarrhea, so we ended up doing without.
So–overall, given that I wasn’t able to slowly dole out a pile of treats in the manner that I intended to, Nala did great. But the lack of training treats helped reveal some big gaps that I might otherwise have kept ignoring to our detriment, particularly with regard to Nala’s sensitivity to changes in her environment, and her tendency to become too aroused or shut down to respond to me.
The seasons are turning (or so they tell me. I’ll believe it when I see–or more importantly, feel–some rain and some days without highs in the 90s). What better time to evaluate what we learned on our road trip, check in on Nala’s progress toward our life goals, and take small, specific steps toward achieving them?
Like an adolescent witch at Hogwarts, Nala has a lot of subjects to cover in order to become a well-rounded citizen. We’ve made good starts on all of them, I think–but it’s an important exercise to try to figure out what our intermediate steps are. So to that end, I’ve divided these up into schools/subjects, then specified what specific skill we’ll be working toward.
And yes, this looks like a lot to train–but it works well for us. We won’t be doing any of these things every single day (except recalls). I like to have a variety of behaviors to choose from to keep Nala well-balanced and interested in training. She gets worried–and, well, sometimes bored–if we do the same thing over and over for too long.
School of Life Skills:
- Continued work on Nala’s environmental sensitivity: Being sensitive to changes in her environment might be part of who Nala is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to train in a way to help her be more comfortable more often. I think that if she could ask, this would be an important goal for her–once she gets over her initial anxiety, she usually seems thrilled to be in a new place and, most importantly, spending time with her people instead of by herself at home. This fall’s course selections for addressing this problem: take Nala to more places that are challenging but not overwhelming for her (probably new hiking spots that aren’t too close to traffic and dog friendly stores). Observe her to see what her ideal acclimation time is, and play easy focus games in these places with her. Figure out how much stamina she has for being in new places–at what point does she lose her brain, and what affects how long that takes?
- Recalls: I’ve gotten a bit complacent about Nala’s recall, but no more! Nala’s recall away from other dogs, even playing dogs, is pretty great. However, her recall away from a squirrel is just awful, even at home. No wonder I couldn’t get her away from the cat door! So, we’ll do a refresher on surprising but easy recalls at home, then easy recalls in more places. If all goes well, I’ll try to think up some predatory set-ups in an easy environment (our house) before trying them out in the world. I’ll also brainstorm safe ways or places to work with Nala without a leash or long line on outside of our house and yard.
- Door behavior. It was looking really good for a while, but it’s fallen apart recently. I’m going to retrain from the beginning, and add a check-in once Nala has gone through the door but before she gets to blast out into the backyard. I think that will mitigate her over-arousal about the possibility that there might be squirrels! on the ground! that she can terrify! I’m also going to be thinking about how we can generalize this behavior to other doors.
- Play skills: It might seem weird to include this as a training goal–of course Nala knows how to play! This is more about refining my technique so that I can be more fun for her. I’d like to build up to better, more sustained personal play, and mixed more into training. We do need to move toy play off property–but I’m not committing to working on that until the weather cools down. Our ultimate goal is to be able to consistently use play as a reward for training, so that we can use personal play and praise in situations where we can’t use treats (like the CGC test).
School of Tricks:
- Shaping a tuck sit–this will take a while, as Nala will need to develop the muscular strength to do it consistently. Fortunately Nala is amused by it. This is a pre-requisite for refining our fronts for Rally-O.
- Independently pivoting with paws up on a platform–and then expanding that into really beautiful heelwork. This is for rear-end awareness; the heeling is for Rally-O. For what it’s worth, Nala seems to really enjoy heeling; if she didn’t, we wouldn’t do this sport.
- Scent discrimination–picking out the object that I’ve touched. If Nala enjoys this as much as I think she will, I might look into doing some actual nosework with her!
- Expanding Nala’s burgeoning retrieve–taking a variety of objects, calmly holding them for multiple seconds. Incidentally, while scent discrimination and the retrieve are obedience behaviors, my dream is to combine them for service dog tasks–I’d love it if Nala could find and bring me my keys and glasses, which I am constantly misplacing.
- At least one purely fun, familiar training session per day. All of the new behaviors we’re working on require a lot of concentration, focus, and precision on Nala’s part, and two of our “life skills” goals revolve around impulse control. I need to make sure that some of our training lets Nala cut loose, have fun, and throw herself around gleefully to maintain her positive associations with training.
We’ve already gotten a good start on all of these–after I typed up a draft of this post, I really wanted to train! So I did, and Nala had fun, too. Obviously making clear goals with small, achievable steps helps reinforce my behavior of having fun while training my dog!
This is part of the positive pet training blog hop! Make sure to check out everyone else’s posts, too–lots of great ideas for goals for both our dogs and ourselves as the weather cools down.
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