There are probably as many personality types of dogs as there are personality types of the people who live with them. Which is to say there are either many or just one, depending on how you cut it. Are you a lumper or divider? Maybe we are all just dog-people and our dogs are just dogs. But there are also vast differences between all of us dog-people and between all of our dogs. I like to the think that dogs acquire some of our personality, they mirror us to some extent, or perhaps we acquire dogs that are similar to us. I’m thinking of the movie “Best in Show” and the neurotic couple with their neurotic weimaraner. This movie took a humorous look at the idea that dogs mirror their people or people mirror their dogs.
I am certainly not exempt and I think I have something to learn from Rio’s specific neuroses if I look closely. He is high-strung and excitable. I certainly can be too. Kavir says my spirit animal is a hummingbird. I tend to flit about from one flower to the next and rarely sit down for long. Rio is especially excitable in new and busy environments. He doesn’t handle changes in his routine very well, or at least changes get him worked up. He will start to scratch from the stress. When I take him to the pet store or hardware store to try to help him acclimate and cope with new environments, he needs constant feedback about what to do. He will look to me and if I am not helping him he might start barking at me. In a high stress situation, he does best with lots of cues to follow and a high rate of reinforcement. With these things in place he can thrive and even enjoy himself. He absolutely loves to work and delights in the tasks I give him. But he is easily overwhelmed if it is not clear what he should do next.
I train with Rio’s kibble as much as I can, but sometimes you just need to up the reinforcement value such as when you are working in a more challenging environment or when you have a particularly difficult training task, a so-called “expensive” behavior 🙂
Pup really likes these and they were very easy to make. Mine turned out really soft and gummy but I had a pretty large sweet potato. If your dog is on a special diet, be sure to talk to your vet before trying out new foods. Canned fish can be high in sodium so keep this in mind when using these tasty treats.
Pup has his own plans. He has his own needs and motives. The emotions he feels are as real as anything I’ve ever felt. I just can’t know exactly how they feel to him. I can’t know exactly what it is like to be a dog. The things that are important to him I might not even see. Everything looks different through a dog’s eyes. Maybe everything is more real and present. I can try to imagine the scene made up of scents and the sounds that drift in from far away, the ones I don’t even hear or smell. I can try to imagine, but I bet I can’t even come close to appreciating the differences.
Try to imagine this before you start a training session. What is going to matter to doggie in your environment right now? What is he going to be paying attention to? What will motivate him to focus on you? What makes him angry?
Rio had a rough start after our move. Sometimes he still goes back to barking at every little thing. He can be a very reactive dog. Reinforcing calmness along with managing inappropriate barking helps him to become calmer and more confident in his new environment. When he was young it was hard to catch him during any sort of calmness. For him at least confinement seemed to increase relaxation. It still does. I can put him in his crate after a barking fit and he might settle right down and go to sleep.
When he was a pup we sectioned off a portion of the house with a playpen fence so he only had access to the kitchen and dining room area. He learned to be calm here first. I remember watching movies on the sofa in the living room and periodically walking over to reinforce Rio for lying on his bed calmly while we were on the other side of the fence (in plain view) watching movies. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to pay much attention to what we were watching because I kept looking over for moments to reinforce. Every time we let Rio out of the fenced area into the living room he would get a bit nutty. He would want to play or rub his muzzle all over the floor excitedly. Gradually I started letting him out in that room for longer periods of time and looking for times to reinforce calmness in this new area.
Rio and I, we are more alike than I knew. Similarities appear across our species’ barrier. “You get the dog you need.” It’s a statement I have heard before, but it takes on new facets of meaning as our time together lengthens.
We have joined an obedience club, and boy do I feel out of place. This is no TAGteach environment. They say they use something called positive reinforcement, but it’s a harsher brand than the one to which I subscribe. I joined because I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to learn obedience exercises and become familiar with the way people move in the show ring – obedience, agility, rally, rally-o; it’s all new to me. It sounded like a fascinating way to further explore the depths of our relationship with our dogs. New learning motivates me strongly. I had been feeling restless, in need of a way in which to grow.
Sometimes you learn best by jumping in. Sometimes you fail and have to pick yourself back up out of the mess.
I’m sure there is a way to keep obedience lighthearted and fun, to make it a positive experience, a safe place to learn from each other and from our dogs. I’m sure there is a way to ensure that Rio enjoys the experience, that he gets lots of goodies and doesn’t get scolded or jerked around. There has to be a way because that is a part of who I am and it comes with me everywhere, inside every experience into which I venture with my pup. There is space within this structure that feels so rigid now, space for pup and I to move and learn with ease and joy.
I joined the Beginner Obedience class. I am well aware of Rio’s struggles with highly stimulating environments, in part, because they are my own struggles as well. Kavir points it out sometimes when we enter a busy restaurant. There is panic for a moment in my eyes. I try to hold it in, to pretend that it doesn’t phase me when I don’t know where to order, where to stand, but there are so many people, so much bustle. On top of all that, there are decisions to make about what I will eat and drink! Take a deep breath. Come back to your body and out of your mind. As I am able to relax and feel at ease, Rio will join me, lying down by my side to nap in trust and peace.
Over three quarters of the way through Karen Pryor Academy, I can hardly believe how fast it has gone. I have nothing but positive things to say about the program. I will be a little sad when it is over. I love the structure and the support, and I hope I can find a way to stay in touch with my classmates.
I share some reflections after the third workshop:
I see us all here casting about, trying to settle on who we are and who we will choose to be. We are making decisions about how we want to live and about what’s important to us. Laura leads us by example, being unapologetically who she is – a dog trainer, yes, but also a TAGteacher, a master costumer, a gamer, a geek. “I am an unapologetic geek,” she announced on day one. She has a story for everything, and shares uninhibitedly. As for me, I have to shape my way to unapologetic. I can’t be and act one way – afraid, always adapting my styles and comments to what I think is acceptable, caring what others will think of me – and then suddenly shift to not caring, to just being how I am. For me, it takes a conscious effort – an awareness that fades in and out.
I am on the path to shaping longer and longer stretches of awareness, longer states of flow. In the flow state there is no inner dialogue about the moment; we just do what we do, we flow with what is. When we train it happens if we let it, then we work as a true team. Rio and I have fun! We are both goofy and excitable. I laugh easily and he makes me laugh often. When we get to that state, we are a partnership – a dog-human team. We connect across language barriers, across species, with feeling, joy and love.
There is nothing more comforting than the sound of four padded feet plunk-plunking up the stairs behind me as I retreat to my den to write. Pup is always there with me. He takes his place on his cushioned bed in the corner, lets out a deep sigh, and dozes off. I know if I glance back at him he will lazily open his eyes and return my gaze. How does he know I am looking at him? Perhaps it is the cessation of my typing that cues him or the sound of my body turning and the quiet pause as I watch him. Another deep sigh issues from behind. I pause, sip tea, and listen to the rain. I treasure these moments of calm quiet with pup.
In the kitchen when I cook he lays on his blanket and regards the entire process. Every time I look at him, his eyes are wide and fixed on me. He waits for me to finish so we can play. “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you,” Kavir jokes that this is Rio’s song as he watches us so intently and unceasingly. It makes me laugh and I sing quietly while I chop summer squash and tomatoes, peppers and green onion for stir fry.
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!).
Rio rests on the wood floor by the door with his head on Dr. K’s slipper. His eyes are partly closed and his breathing is even and slow. He finally ignores the muffled voices and sounds of maintenance being done in the adjacent townhome – for the time being the creaks the house makes don’t rouse him anymore. If anything is too fast or too loud he will go from peacefully sleeping dog to fully awake – up on his toes, hackles raised, barking like he can’t catch his breath – in seconds. It still gets me. Even after three years with this creature, my blood pressure goes up just hearing him bark like that. It doesn’t help; the more worked up I get, the more he feels his anxious barking is justified.
We regard each other peacefully for the moment. I have a pouch full of treats and any time I hear a noise rise slightly above the background I say “yes” and calmly reach over to deposit a treat between his paws. It takes me back to his puppy days. I was constantly rewarding him for just lying there peacefully. It helped. The world needs more rewards for peace.