The three short lessons:
- Keep it short
- Focus on the positive
- Make it fun!
The salvaged walk:
Rio and I went to John Bryan State Park this morning to do some walking and training. Lately we have been working on developing our loose leash walking and attention exercises in more challenging environments. Woodsy trails are very challenging environments in which to keep Rio’s focus and once water is involved it becomes even more difficult. The trails at John Bryan wind through a hardwood forest down to a river wide and deep enough for Rio to swim (what joy!).
I began the walk in reasonable spirits and with what I thought were reasonable expectations. It took me awhile to realize that I was asking way too much of my poor pup and neither of us were having fun anymore. I required him to walk at my left side with a loose leash. I let him stop to sniff at intervals and at first he did quite well, though I couldn’t get much eye contact from him. We practiced stops and sits. He was doing marvelously and that is where we should have stopped. I got greedy. As we approached the river, Rio would lift his nose into the air and sniff excitedly. He knew we were getting closer to what to him is probably the most reinforcing thing in the world – water, a chance to swim! As the environment got more difficult I would have been smart to relax my criteria, but I continued to ask for more. You will give me eye contact, you shiny black beast!
By the time we made it to the river we were both feeling stressed. I unclipped his leash to play some fetch in the water, but even then I was requiring too much. He never fails to retrieve his toy from the river and will stay in searching for it until he has it, but once he is out of the water he is less reliable about bringing it back; he might just drop it on land and then go off to sniff something. I was getting frustrated with his inattentiveness. All these expectations were stressing him out and I could have picked up on this if I had been more attentive. Sniffing, a displacement behavior, displayed during times of stress, and avoidance – he wasn’t sure he wanted to engage with me as my expectations were too high and he couldn’t win.
I pulled out another toy – a good tactic – to try to get him to come back and engage with me on another level. He did come play with me, but he was over the top already and the extra excitement of play gave him the zoomies and off he went zooming back and forth on the trail near me, butt tucked and head thrown back. This can be another sign of stress, he just needed a way to get it all out. After this I decided it was best to just start walking again.
We walked in the middle of the trail, him at my side, no wandering off to sniff. This is where I had to change my mindset to salvage the walk. Rio and I were both stressed and not enjoying each other, it was up to me to fix it. We stopped and I pulled the tug toy out of my bag. I waved it around excitedly near Rio, encouraging him to grab it. He looked at me with that look that says, “You’re insane.” Okay, that’s not going to work.
I heard the phrase in my head repeating, “The dog gets to choose what is reinforcing. The dog gets to choose what is reinforcing.” It could be a training mantra. I know perfectly well how to fix this. I unclip his leash and attach a drag line, so I can grab him easily in case I need to. “Go sniff!” I tell him and off he goes, completely changed – mouth softly open, tail level and waving loosely back and forth as he trots off at his own pace, stopping to smell the scents that capture his attentive nose.
I let him go on ahead and then call him back to me. He turns upon hearing his name and dashes back to me, feet thundering on the hard-packed trail. I click and treat him and have no reservations about sending him off ahead again. In no time we are both back to our happy walks – me laughing and babbling to him and stopping to pop the jewel weed seed pods on the side of the trail and Rio stopping to bury his nose in the weeds and lifting his leg to leave his doggy messages then trotting past me and down the trail again. He stops and turns back to look for me when I go out of view. I see him waiting just as he comes into view on the trail ahead, and as soon as he sees me he dashes off again.
Our walk together is salvaged and we are happy, together in our separate worlds. It sprinkles on us and then begins to rain, but we don’t care. We stop to play fetch in the river and Rio returns his toy each time.
Had I only remembered at the beginning: Training sessions are best kept short. We can work on loose leash walking in the woods, but we need to have lengthy breaks between short spans of practice with a high rate of reinforcement. I can’t require him to walk with me for miles without engaging his nose!
Focus on the positive. Do what works and stop doing what isn’t working. At the same time, focus on what you want and stop focusing on what you don’t want. I almost got caught in this trap on this walk. I kept worrying about poisoning my cues with our stress levels. I just couldn’t think of what I could do differently to change my and Rio’s emotional state. Then I remembered my mantra “The dog gets to choose what is reinforcing,” and I stopped trying to push my agenda on Rio and let him be who he is on his own terms. What resulted was our having fun together again!
Sometimes I think life consists of very few lessons that we learn over and over again, deepening our understanding and our ability to apply these lessons to our lives with each new challenge. Rio is a wise and patient teacher. The peace and joy that comes from deepening our relationship are reward enough to keep on learning and growing together.