Archive for January, 2014

How to teach your dog just about anything!

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

I wish I had a dollar for every time an owner said at the end of a training session “Wow! That was so easy! How did I not figure that out myself?” Training dogs, outside of serious behaviour issues like fear, aggression and anxiety, is generally a pretty easy task, if you go about it the right way. If you consider how dogs learn, what the common mistakes are, and you are consistent with your teaching habits, you’ll find you can teach your dog to do just about anything!

Dogs primarily learn by making associations between their owner’s request for a behaviour, and the consequence for performing the behaviour. Let’s consider the cue for sit; the owner will normally teach to a dog at a young age, and let’s face it, when you ask an 8 week old puppy to sit and he does it, it’s pretty darn cute! We’re very likely to be happy that the puppy sat upon our request, and we’ll reinforce it with either sheer joy on our face, or with a treat or a toy. Then we show off to everyone else – and each time, the puppy gets a great reward. The dog quickly learns that the sound we make by saying the word “Sit”, followed by the action of placing their bum on the floor with their forelegs remaining straight, results in life being momentarily fabulous. The dog is very likely to perform the behaviour again and again, because it is a clear cue with a high predictability of reward. Let’s also consider the accidental training we do; the crinkle of the food bag calling the dog for dinner, the ever increasing amount of barking that we immediately respond to in some way, or the excitability at the door because we’re just so happy to see our dogs when we get home after a long day. Dogs also learn to ignore a large part of their environment because they know it has no impact on their life – such as the neighbour pulling into their driveway, or the can opener that only produces food for the cat, or the incredible number of sounds that emanate from the television. It really comes down to basic survival – what cues from the owner or environment have a consequence for the dog, and which ones have no impact at all.

Common Mistakes in Simple Training:
1. Teaching hand signals and verbal cues at the same time! This usually starts in puppy school, when the trainer will have you hold a treat in your hand and raise your hand in a sweeping upward motion, while saying “Sit”. Dogs primarily communicate through body language, so it’s really much easier for them to understand hand signals versus verbal cues. In the case where the hand signal (hand sweeping upwards) is offered at the same time as the verbal cue (saying “Sit”), the dog will ignore the verbal cue because the hand signal is easier to understand, and the dog has learned to ignore irrelevant stimuli. If we want the dog to learn both, we must say the verbal cue first, and then follow with a hand signal, as opposed to asking for both at the same time.

2. Dogs don’t speak English! Dogs communicate through body language, not verbally, so in essence by using almost entirely verbal platforms to communicate with our dogs, we are making learning more challenging. Where this becomes problematic is when we begin asking for a behaviour (let’s use “Rollover”) and become frustrated when the dog doesn’t do as they are asked. The dog doesn’t know what the word “Rollover” means – he’s not born understanding a pre-defined set of common dog tricks. A good trainer will teach a dog the physical behaviour, ensure it has been repeated many times and highly rewarded each time, and then they will begin saying the cue word before asking the dog for the behaviour. In the case of Rollover, we’ll use food to lure the dog into rolling his body over, sometimes broken into smaller steps, and repeat many times until the dog ‘gets it’. By doing so, we’ve both generated a hand signal (usually a semi-circle near the dog’s nose), and demonstrated to the dog that this seemingly benign behaviour has positive consequences for him. Once he understands that, we can start saying “Rollover” before presenting the hand signal, and the dog can figure out that the word will predict the action and the reward.

3. Not teaching the dog how to generalize a behaviour! This is the dog who behaves wonderfully in obedience class, but not at home, or who is great at home but not out in public. A good example is the person who teaches their dog to run an agility course that has been set up in the back yard. The dog could literally be a backyard agility champion, but when he gets to an actual competition scenario, it’s as though he’s never seen a set of weave poles in his life. If we teach a dog to perform a certain behaviour in one place all the time, he’s been learning what cues from both you and the environment form a part of the request. For example, if we use the structure in parts 1 and 2, but only do so in the living room, the dog is factoring the environment into the equation when he’s trying to figure out what exactly you’re asking him to do, so he comes to believe it forms a part of the cue. Even if he can properly execute the behaviour 100 times over in the living room, if you take him outside in the yard where the environment is considerably different (and where, perhaps, you now ask for this behaivour while you’re standing up, whereas in the living room you may have been sitting on the floor), many of the factors he believed were part of the cue have changed, and he needs to re-learn the behaviour in this new environment. Most dogs will pick up simple cues in new environments fairly quickly, so you’re not starting from scratch, but these changes are not to be ignored when teaching your dog something new.

4. Dropping the reinforcer too soon! You’ve probably picked up on the pattern evolving here that dogs do things that are beneficial to them – not to make you happy, or because you have attained some kind of alpha or pack leader ‘status’ with them. For example, if a dog is asking to go outside, and begins by standing near the door, and you ignore them (or can’t see them), they’ll choose another method of asking. This can escalate to sitting in front of you and staring at you, and if you don’t respond, could turn into a barking request (also known as a demand behaviour). Most owners will focus on the annoying demand behaviour and respond in one way or another, but the issue lies in the fact that we ignored a perfectly reasonable request in the first place – standing quietly by the door. The dog stopped performing the reasonable behaviour because it didn’t produce the desired effect – someone letting him outside. So, if by ignoring behaviours they will disappear (or in scientific terms, ‘extinguish’), we can also claim that by rewarding behaviours they will increase. When trying to teach a new behaviour, we’re pretty reliable for providing positive feedback (treat, play, ‘good boy’ etc), but once we assume the dog ‘knows what to do’, we stop rewarding them. Once we stop rewarding, the cycle above begins, and the dog will begin ignoring requests for the behaviour because it doesn’t produce desired results for the dog. Try to think about it this way; when we first start going to the gym, we’re excited to be on a new regime and go quite frequently, and feel as though we’re accomplishing something. But after a few weeks, we realize we’re not seeing the results we had hoped to, and the visits begin to dwindle. At the same time, we may begin ‘cheating’ on our diet, and eating more and more of the things we promised we wouldn’t. Imagine if you could go to the gym and immediately lose 2 or 3 pounds after each workout, or if we immediately gained 2 or 3 pounds within minutes of eating a donut – the immediate feedback would have a huge impact on what decisions we made about exercising and eating in the future. Because neither has such immediate reward or punishment, it’s much more difficult to stick to the plan.

Things to Remember:
1. Know what your dog will work for! Most dogs are motivated by food, some are motivated by toys, and a few are motivated by praise. The vast majority of dogs enjoy all three, but won’t necessarily work a new behaviour for just praise. Food is the most common method of reinforcing a dog, and it’s important to consider a few things when using it; if you dog refuses the treat he would normally otherwise take, there is something in the training process that is creating too much stress. Secondly, it’s important to consider your dog’s weight and when training a new behaviour you may need to adjust meal size to compensate for added calories in treats. Lastly, you should develop a tier structure of foods that your dog likes from least valuable (usually kibble) to most valuable (like cheese, bacon or hot dogs). Reserve your highest value treats for more difficult training, or the beginning of training a new cue.

2. Capture the behaviours you like! Dogs will quite often perform behaviours that are appropriate all on their own. We often fail to reinforce these behaviours because they don’t capture our attention – such as a dog who lies down on his bed at meal time, or who grabs a toy when a new person comes in the home instead of jumping on them. If we notice these nice behaviours and reward them, the dog will be more likely to keep doing them. Even more complex behaviours, such as the ones you may see in movies (i.e. dogs who ‘talk’) are taught simply by capturing the behaviour, rewarding it, and then assigning a verbal cue to it.

3. Training should be fun! We all have bad days, including dogs, and sometimes either the handler, the dog, or both are just not up for the task. When I’m tired, I tend to get ‘foggy’ and forget the word I want to use, or am slow to reward the behaviour the dog performs. This can result in confusion for my dog. Sometimes, it’s my dog who is tired, or just having an off day, and he’s reluctant to engage in a training session. On those days, we just don’t train! We stick with a few easy behaviours so that the session ends on a good note, but don’t venture into unknown territory. It’s also important to note whether or not your dog enjoys what you’re trying to teach them – I’ve recently been trying to teach my Boxer to play with a flirt pole (basically a fishing pole, with a rope hanging off and a toy attached) and he has, on each occasion we’ve tried it, become flustered with it and ends up spending more time trying to avoid it than play with it, no matter how much I change up the method of teaching. This is likely just going to be something my dog doesn’t enjoy doing, and after several short (3-5 minutes) sessions, I’ve determined that we will likely not proceed with this option. If it’s not fun for both of us, we end up frustrated, and we can inadvertently teach our dog an aversion to that behaviour (can often happen when we use force, such as pushing, pinching or pulling, to teach a behaviour).

Training new cues and tricks can be a wonderful bonding experience between handler and dog, and is a wonderful way to mentally stimulate your dog. It can also build your dog’s vocabulary, and make it much easier for you to give your dog direction as to what you want him to do. By following these guidelines, you can be successful in teaching almost anything to your dog!


Boxer Central – Loose Leash Walking

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Most people know that an effective reward in training is food – and while it certainly is for training most dogs most behaviours and cues, we can also use environmental reinforcers. A reinforcer is anything the dog (not the person) deems valuable enough for her to repeat the behaviour again, and if she does not increase the frequency or intensity of the behaviour, we know she didn’t deem the reinforcer we chose to be valuable. An environmental reinforcer is something in the environment that the dog wants, and it could be permission to chase a squirrel, going to say hi to their best friend, or even just exploring the world around them. When teaching leash walking, the reinforcer is simple; it’s moving forward!

Personally, I’m a not an obedience trainer in the traditional sense of the word, and I sometimes watch obedience trainers and competitors teach a ‘heel’ and in seeing the dog walk right up against the handlers leg without straying at all, I often think “gosh, that must be annoying”! For the average dog owner, we don’t want our dogs to walk right up against our legs without looking at anything but us for the entire walk; what we want is for our dogs to walk on a loose leash and not drag us down the block! This is pretty easy to teach, if you’re consistent, and provided your dog doesn’t have extraneous issues like leash aggression (in which case, you should seek out advice from a positive, professional trainer). Loose leash walking is most easily taught to a puppy, who has no prior habits formed, but in reality, we often aren’t concerned with teaching it until our dog is large enough to become problematic when he pulls on leash, and end up resorting to various types of equipment (choke collars, pinch/prong collars, harnesses etc.) and training ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our dogs are constantly learning, and we ignore what they’ve learned about leash walking already; typically, that they are supposed to be walking on a tight leash. We teach this inadvertently by trying to avoid pulling and keeping the leash wrapped around our hands or body and not allowing any kind of slack. The theory is proven when you do provide your dog some slack, and she immediately moves forward until the leash is tight again. Why does the dog think this is what we want from them? Because we’ve reinforced it by giving the dog what they want while the leash is tight – moving forward!

There are plenty of theories on how to teach loose leash walking, and today I’ll share my method. With larger breeds, like Boxers, I’ll begin by using a front leading harness to provide the handler some control and safety from being dragged, and prefer either the Sensation Harness by Soft Touch Concepts, or the No Pull Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design. Front leading harnesses have the leash clipped at the sternum, and are effective because if the dog does pull, as soon as tension is applied to the leash she will, by the laws of physics, be turned around to face you, and you can then communicate with her what you actually want. This also avoids pressure on the trachea, particularly resulting from collars that sit high on the throat, and are much less likely to cause damage to the dog physically as a result of pulling.

If we know that a dog’s motivation on a walk is to move forward, and that each step forward is a reinforcer, then we also know that if we do NOT move forward and remain stationary, this would be a form of punishment for the dog. Therefore, the best method for training a dog to walk on a loose leash is to provide the dog with enough leash slack to move around you, though not enough that they have the leverage to really yank on the leash. I like to allow enough leash that my dog could reasonably put his nose on the ground to sniff next to me, but no longer than that. The amount of leash I allow is always the same, so that my dog can predict how far he can move around me while walking. We begin this process as soon as the leash is clipped, and only move forward when the leash is slack. If the dog tightens the leash, we immediately stop moving. We don’t talk, instruct the dog, move him backwards with the leash, or ask for a sit – we simply let the dog think about why we’ve stopped, and what he’ll need to do to get us to move forward. In other words, the dog needs to solve his own problem by performing a behaviour that gets him what he wants. The key to this method being effective is timing – we stop the exact moment the leash is tightened, and move forward the exact moment the leash becomes slack (usually, when the dog turns towards you, with a look of ‘what on earth are we stopped for?’). The more precise our timing of stopping and going is, the faster the dog can figure out exactly why we’ve stopped, and exactly how he can get you to move forward again. It is a clear, simple, and highly effective way to communicate to your dog that you want him to walk on a loose leash. By incorporating leash jerks/tugs, asking for another behaviour (like sit), using words the dog probably doesn’t understand, or employing corrective measures with harsh collars, we are more often than not just confusing the dog, and he never really learns what it is that you’re asking for. When owners are consistent with the stop/go method (also known as the “red light green light” method), even when just walking down the driveway, going to the car, or using a leash in a store or vet’s office, dogs can learn within a week or two what is expected of them when attached to a leash. Yes, your first two or three walks may seem tedious, and you’ll feel as though you’re stopping and starting every few steps, but keep it up, and a couple of steps will turn into 6 or 7, then a couple of blocks, and then will become a constant and reliable behaviour. Note: when confronted with something on a walk that your dog really wants to get to, like another friendly dog, consider the reinforcer (greeting a friend) and that if you then allow your dog to pull towards the oncoming dog, he’ll learn that it’s ok to pull in those situations. If you practice red light green light with this type of powerful reinforcer, you’ll not only teach your dog a more solid loose leash walking behaviour, but he’ll also learn that patience is highly rewarded.


Boxer Central – Greeting People at the Door

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

This week’s most popular question on Boxer Central’s ‘Ask Erica’ segment has been about jumping at guests when they arrive at the front door. Boxers are nothing if not exuberant, and the vast majority are very friendly and highly sociable with people. In fact, a new study was released recently showing us that dogs in general actually prefer the company of people versus dogs! Assuming your dog is friendly with people who visit your home (and if he’s not, please contact a professional, positive trainer), it typically doesn’t matter what kind of ‘punishment’ you use to dissuade excitable greetings; pulling them by the collar, kneeing them in the chest, yelling ‘no’ – all common attempts, none of which are generally very effective, either in the moment or on an ongoing basis. The scientific definition of a punisher is that the punishment is effective to reduce the frequency or intensity of the behaviour going forward, with the goal being that eventually, the behaviour stops altogether. Most owners will tell you that no matter what they do at the door, the dog is just as excited and gung-ho every time someone arrives at the door, which means that no matter what you’ve been doing, it’s not working. Typically, the joy of seeing a new person is just so powerful, there’s very little you can do to squash your dog’s sense of joy – but what if we gave them a behaviour that was acceptable, and instead of punishing it, we rewarded it?

One of the most common mistakes dog owners make is asking a dog to stop an activity, but not replacing it with a new one. The phrase I always drill into all my clients’ heads is “Don’t do that, do this instead” when they are talking to their dogs. In other words, ask your dog do stop doing the inappropriate behaviour, and ask him to do something appropriate – without leaving him to make his own choices about what is right (it never is!). Some dogs (and I’m not mentioning names here Pearson!) are just great dogs, who are responsive and relaxed and can easily master a Sit and Wait at the door until the person is ready to say hello. Most are not, and end up looking like they’re sitting on a washer on the spin cycle until the person goes to say hello and then they explode with energy and you wonder what the point of having them sit was. So, in cases where a dog is so excited, but that excitement becomes jumping and bumping and nose kisses, I teach the dog an incompatible behaviour that still allows them to be excited. In other words, I ask them to do something that lets them wiggle around, but also means they can’t do the new behaviour and jump on the person at the same time.

For most Boxers, toys, especially squeaky tuggy toys, are one of the greatest things on earth. Try setting aside one of their favourites (something that makes a sound, and that is long enough that the dog can grab it without jumping, while you are still standing and holding it – like a Kong Wubba), and when a person comes to the door, squeak the toy to get your dog’s attention, and encourage him to play a little gentle tug with you while the person comes inside and settles in (if he tugs too hard, just let go – he’ll be right back again nudging you to grab it and won’t tug so hard next time because he wants you to keep playing). Once the person is settled in, let your dog have the toy on his own, or go and say hello. The alternative can be, for dogs less toy motivated, getting handfuls of small treats and tossing them backwards into your house when the person is coming in the door, luring your dog away from the door and keeping him busy at the same time. Your dog will enjoy this game, and it will soon come to be expected – my own Boxer Toby’s first response when people arrive is to go and get his toy, which he shows off to me and my guest.

Whenever you teach a new skill, it’s very important to set your dog up for success, and train the new behaviour in easy situations first. Begin by starting this when no one is actually at the door, but knocking the door yourself (or using a smart phone app that makes a doorbell sound), then going through the new routine. Then start by having anyone who lives in the home knock or ring the doorbell when they get home from work or school – this is more true to real life, but if you make mistakes, they’ll be more forgiving, and frankly they are actually less exciting for the dog than a person who is new, or that the dog doesn’t see very often. If jumping remains a real issue in the house even long after the initial greeting, teach your dog that jumping up gets them the opposite of what they want – distance from the person they are jumping on. Dogs typically jump for social reasons, and because they want to smell your face and see what you’ve been eating (like dogs who know each other well and lick each others faces), so you can throw out the window any ideas that this is related to dominance. The well known idea of turning away from a jumping dog is partly correct, but I find the dog learns faster if you turn around AND walk away, even if just for a few seconds. When the dog does approach and doesn’t jump, give him plenty of love and affection. If done consistently (without the person pushing the dog, yelling, kneeing etc), the dog will quickly learn that jumping leaves him standing alone, but that all fours on the floor get him love and attention!

Start easy, be consistent, keep it simple, and ALWAYS reward good behaviour (which we usually miss, because they are finally quiet and gentle!)!


Boxer Central – The Hungry Dog

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Boxer Central is a Facebook page dedicated to all things Boxer. My followers know that my own dog, Toby, is a rescued Boxer, and that over the years I have dedicated a great deal of my time and resources to working with rescued Boxers in Ontario. I am proud to have been invited to contribute to Boxer Central’s awesome page, in the format of ‘Ask Erica’, where followers will ask me questions, and each week I’ll answer one of them in my blog!

This week’s question comes from Maria Gauvin, who asked “Our 2 male Boxers are 2.5 years. Recently it seems as thought their appetite is never satisfied. Getting on top of counters etc. They eat 4 cups of food per day each. They eat Nutrience for adult dogs. Should I change their food? Give more? Any thoughts?”

This is a two part answer; one being the issue of weight control, and the other being the issue of food seeking. Let’s start with a common concern of dog owners – weight control. Maria doesn’t mention specifically a weight issue, but I’m guessing it’s on her mind if she’s concerned about how much her dogs should be eating, and of course assuming her dogs are otherwise healthy. A rule of thumb in raw feeding is to feed between 4% and 7% of a dog’s ideal body weight per day. The larger the dog, the lower the percentage of food to be fed, as a large breed dog will generally expend less energy in a day than a small dog (think about a Great Dane getting on the couch, versus a Chihuahua!). When feeding kibble, the company will describe the feeding guidelines on the product, and it should be fed based on your dog’s ideal weight. It’s important to keep in mind that firstly, each dog is different and will require a different amount of food per day to maintain a healthy weight. Secondly, when switching from a lower grade food to a higher grade food, you’ll often end up feeding less of a higher grade food because the ingredients contain higher levels of nutrition, and therefore your dog can consume less food for the same amount of caloric value.

Grains are often the first elimination that should be made in weight control. Dogs do not biologically require grains in their diet, and the vast majority of dogs don’t get the amount of exercise needed every day to burn the grains (dogs who do are often competition sport dogs, or dogs who work all day herding sheep, for example). Grains that are unused in the body become a substance called glycogen, which will become fat. They also cause the blood sugar to rise and fall throughout the day, causing a dog to have sudden bursts of hunger, and to have a malfunctioning metabolism. In cases where, for whatever reason, the dog cannot be transitioned to a higher quality and/or grain free food, I’ll often suggest a veggie puree (which can be made monthly, and stored in freezer containers) with spinach, kale, dark berries, and any other leafy green, blended with sweet potato (mashed into the puree or mashed separately). The greens help to improve metabolism, the berries are an excellent source of fibre and also a wonderful source of anti-oxidants to fight off cancer, and sweet potato helps to balance the blood sugar. I’d also add a healthy source of fat, such as coconut oil, to help the dog feel full. This way, we reduce and dilute the kibble fed, and offset with healthier options.

Something to consider in a dog who is healthy, adequately fed, but always seems hungry is the behavioural component. Have you ever seen a child after Halloween, with a full stock of candy, who happens to be ‘hungry’ all the time? We seem to know that it’s not appropriate to allow a child to eat as much candy as they like, yet when it comes to our dogs, we’re much more likely to give in! Often, requests (including counter surfing) for food are offered simply because they are effective – not only in gaining something to eat, but also in getting some interaction from the owner. Requests for food that are ignored (not denied – ignored meaning the owner does not acknowledge the dog’s request at all) will eventually extinguish (the behaviour of asking for food isn’t effective for the dog, so he stops asking), but we need to provide the dog something else to do in place of this request.

For kibble fed dogs, the best, and in my opinion the only way to feed a dog is through treat dispensing toys. Measure out your dog’s food rations for the day, and instead of feeding in a bowl, instead purchase products like classic Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Busy Buddy toys and any other toy that releases food. This causes the dog to work for his food in a way that appeals to his natural seeking instincts, extends the amount of time it takes for the dog to eat, and is also mentally stimulating. Even well exercised dogs exhibit boredom behaviours if they are not challenged mentally, and research shows us that mental stimulation can have a profound effect on behavioural balance, stress management, and even the dog’s general level of happiness. Asking the dog to work for food they would otherwise get for ‘free’ in a food bowl is an excellent way of fulfilling their daily need to ‘think’!

Don’t forget that if you’re feeding additional treats throughout the day as a part of training or added stimulation exercises, reduce the amount of kibble or other food you’re feeding to maintain your dog’s healthy weight.


Your dog is not Lassie, and that’s ok!

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

My dog is not perfect. He is the most wonderful dog I know, and I love him beyond what he’ll ever know, but he’s far from perfect. Sometimes, when he’s overexcited and I’m inadequately prepared, he jumps on people. He’s terrified of children, and while we work on reducing his fear and managing him so he’s safe in their presence, he’ll never be able to sit happily while a child coos in his ear. He has never ending allergies, and consistently keeps me working to find out what the next reaction will be. Sometimes, when he’s bored or anxious, he gets into the garbage and litters it across the kitchen for me to clean up when I get home. He makes me crazy, but he’s my little boy, and that’s ok.

In my line of work, seeing fear, anxiety and aggression on a daily basis, I often hear the words ‘cure’, or ‘fixed’, or ‘guaranteed’ – all of which are impossible to predict, and unlikely to occur. There are some days when I’m fortunate to hear “I know it will take time, and I will be patient. I have accepted that there are some things about my dog that will always be a part of her, and I’m ok with that”. Those are the most beautiful words a trainer can hear, and in my opinion, the most important message you can convey to your dog. When you have a reactive dog, for instance, you work hard on their issues, you take the time needed, you follow your trainer’s advice, and you reach a sort of ‘tipping point’ where you’ve seen so much success, you forget how far you’ve come, until you have a moment of regression. It’s frustrating, it wears on your patience, and it often makes you question everything you’ve done up to that point. We tend to ignore all the positive progress and focus on that one bad moment, and it’s in that moment that we begin to set up expectations for our dogs that are just not realistic. We see that perfect Border Collie trotting nicely beside their owner, happily greeting every dog and person, immediately responding to their owner’s cues and doing all of this flawlessly. But I assure you, that dog isn’t perfect either. And you know what else? That is not YOUR dog, and like us, every dog is different, and our version of perfection needs to adjust to our own, individual dog.

In the vast majority of cases, I’ll provide a client and their reactive dog some foundation work, and though it may not seem as though it relates to the dog barking and lunging at another dog, I always explain how it does. For example, if the dog’s anxiety begins with putting the leash on, we start working with the process we follow just before the leash is clipped on – perhaps putting on a harness, or donning your ‘dog walking jacket’, and conditioning the dog to believe these are all good things. I’ll often hear from a client between sessions that the dog is now tolerating well the process of being leashed, ‘so I took her for a walk to the park and she’s still reacting to all the dogs that pass!’, even though we haven’t come close to working on the dog’s perception of being outside in the world attached to a leash. As training begins and progresses, we need to adjust our expectations of our dog. Often times, even as the formal training comes to an end, there are some dogs who have simply been so damaged, and are so fearful, pursuing further behaviour modification is just inhumane, and at that point, we need to accept that ‘my dog is just never going to be that perfect Border Collie’.

My husband has Asperger’s Syndrome. There are certain things in life that simply cause him extreme discomfort and such an aftermath of anxiety that we just don’t do them. Being around large amounts of people in a social environment with lots of noise and lights is one of those things – so we don’t go to dance clubs. He can, however, go to concerts, where no one is really ‘socializing’, we’re all engaged in the same activity of staring at a stage, it’s music he chose himself and that will absolutely be present and predictable (we won’t go to see Band A and hear only music from Band B), and he is surrounded by people that, at least with respect to music, are of like mind and are also relatively predictable. I’m never going to ask him to go to a dance club, and it is certainly not something that is going to frustrate me, diminish my love and respect for him, nor is it something that I feel is intrinsically necessary in our life, so I don’t ask him to engage in the painful activity of desensitizing himself to that kind of environment. I have accepted and am ok with that limitation, as he is of mine.

It’s an incredible moment of freedom when you say to yourself ‘Today, my dog is capable and happy to stand on the front porch and watch the world go by. She’s not at all happy when I take her for a walk, and she’s getting plenty of exercise in the yard and mental stimulation with games. I’m ok with where we are today, and I’m ok if we’re there tomorrow too.” Take baby steps, be patient, and don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Be reasonable about what your dog may be able to achieve in the next six months, and be overjoyed when you reach that point, and can then potentially set new goals. Your dog is not required to be perfect by anyone’s standards but your own, and if your version of perfect includes the fact that your dog has limitations, you’ll both be happier for it. Your dog loves you, and you love your dog – don’t let anyone else tell you what that entails.

NOTE: This post was inspired by the email below that I received recently.  I am incredibly proud of this owner and her dog, and I hope it inspires every dog owner out there who struggles with leash aggression – even though the dog and owner have a long road of work ahead of them, they appreciate each little success, and are not deterred by setbacks.  They are focussed on the right thing – baby steps, accomplishments, and most of all, trust!

“He’s so much better now!! He’s so much more relaxed on our walks, doesn’t feel the need to be hyper vigilant. He spent 20 mins with a non-reactive female dog, complete stranger, and he was a bit unsure, but he sniffed her a few times, initiating the sniff each time. I was so proud of him!!!

And during our cottage vacation, we got run up on by 3 dogs and each time, I got in front of him, made the dogs stop and run back home. And (my dog) stayed behind me the whole time and trusted I would keep him safe.

All this from pure positive reinforcement. Our bond has grown so much more, with your training, than any other training I’ve tried. He trusts me more and I trust him. I “listen” to what he’s telling me and I do it. And the more I do it, the more he trusts me.

We’re still working on the reactive dogs, but he walked, on the same sidewalk, as a smaller dog, coming towards us. It’s baby steps, but we are definitely moving in the right direction!”


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