Dogs and Dirt – Frustration in Living and Training

Dogs: beautiful creatures, good at changing all our well-laid plans. Disruptors for the greater good.

I am still figuring out how to train with Roscoe. Of course, figuring out how to train with him successfully will make me a better dog trainer. It will also make me a better person. How many times have I caught myself thinking and speaking about how dogs make us better? About how they teach us the things we need to learn – about ourselves, about our relationships with other people, with ourselves, and with the world? Our dogs have a tendency to bring to light the places we need to grow – they show us how we could do better – how we tend to manage our emotions and navigate our relationships with others, what works and what could work better.

It takes me back to when Rio was a baby. God, was he frustrating at times! I also had no idea what I was doing with him and no experience as a clicker trainer or as a human responsible for another being. The thing that got me the most with Rio was when he jumped on me and started humping. He always jumped on me and started humping me whenever he got over-aroused or anxious. I didn’t really make the connection about when and why it was happening, I was just focused on trying to get him to stop. You know how as clicker trainers we are always talking about preventing problem behavior and asking the question: what do I want instead? Yeah, it wasn’t so much that as “F—, just stop!!!”

The same sorts of emotions present in several cases with Roscoe. It’s probably not as bad; I’d like to think I’ve gained some amount of emotional control in the intervening years. When Roscoe eats dirt in the yard, when he cries while Kavir and I are eating dinner or trying to watch a movie, when he gets frantic trying to predict what we are doing next and starts running back and forth from one end of the house to the other or pushes past me through the door – I can get a bit irritated with him.

Good thing you are cute, Roscoe!

Especially when we’re out in the yard together. The weather is now turning from mud to ice at intervals, and apparently mud popsicles are a huge motivator for Roscoe. There is actually probably some kibble dissolved in the top layer of dirt in places from all the scatter feeding we’ve done trying to build calmness in the yard. Well, that works lovely, but I now also have dirt eating doggies. I don’t know why that gets me so irritated. It’s not actually a huge deal. Rio started doing it sometimes too after he learned about it from Roscoe, “Oh, that’s a great idea! Eat dirt!” I imagine him thinking. Rio gets really excited and runs around the yard playing chase with Roscoe, then when they stop he wants to take big mouthfuls of dirt. Is it because he is thirsty? Does he just need some transition from crazy play? Maybe.

Roscoe does it when he is bored, which is to say, the moment I take my attention off him (it seems like!). Sometimes he will dig or pull up clods of grass and dirt and run around with them. Sometimes I can call him away from it, but apparently it is a very fun activity. He needs constant direction – unless he is searching for kibble in the grass or playing with Rio.

We are going to avoid yard play for a little bit in favor of walks and training games in other areas. We’ll see if preventing the behavior for a little bit will help. Then we will have to set him up to make different choices while he is in the yard.

Sitting on the couch with Roscoe while typing, I experienced another moment of frustration. Since the doggies are allowed on the couch, we keep blankets over it to make it easier to wash. When Roscoe gets bored or frustrated that someone is taking up too much of the sofa real estate, he likes to start biting and pulling on the blankets. Sigh. Chew on your antler instead, please.

Sleeping so innocently.

Roscoe is both frustrating and easily frustrated in training. Rio and I have a much longer history of reinforcing each other and so our training sessions are usually so much fun! Kavir commented when we were traveling with the two of them that Rio’s training walk was much longer than Roscoe’s. That got me thinking. It is true that Roscoe needs a bit shorter sessions. He will get bored and frustrated easily and need a change or a break. But it is at least in equal part me (if not more). I need a break from him! I can only handle so much Roscoe training! He is go, go, go! He is fast! Try to do a shaping session with him, you’d better be ready. As we learn to work together, he will make me a better shaper, a better trainer, no doubt. But wow, I need to shape myself there too.

Yes, Rio and I have a long history training together. I enjoy all the signs that he is enjoying the session – his tail waves loosely, his mouth is gently open, his ears pricked, he makes frequent eye contact – the Oxytocin loop.

My six year training history with Rio puts us on a pretty solid foundation. Even then he can still frustrate me at times. (Why are you just barking into thin air?!! Why??! And are you still seriously afraid of the FLOORS?!) Sigh.

It makes me realize how far we have to go yet.

Roscoe, he is intense. Of course, he is a different dog. So of course he is going to train differently than Rio. You would think I would know this by now, especially after working with so many different kinds of dogs as a trainer! But he is my dog, so I see him and his faults day in and day out. I compare him to Rio. I get upset whenever Kavir makes an observation that puts something Roscoe does above something Rio does. “Roscoe is better at traveling. He is more relaxed in new environments,” he observes. “Why do you say that?!” I ask. (Rio is the greatest, he can do no wrong). Roscoe has different strengths and as we train together more I will begin to find and appreciate more and more of his strengths. We will learn to work together fluidly and have more fun together. But for right now, I do have to plan out his sessions carefully, end them before either of us gets frustrated (him whining, his movements becoming more and more frantic, me dropping my shoulders and sighing – which is, of course, aversive to him). Plan carefully, end early. And bit by bit we learn what makes us all happy together.

Appreciation for Roscoe: He is easy to reinforce with play (tug). He is not super interested in sniffing in the woods. He could care less about other dogs on the trails. He is highly food motivated even in challenging environments (after he is reasonably comfortable). He is super cute. He loves to cuddle. His intensity, enthusiasm, and speed are really something to be appreciated as soon as I learn to channel them appropriately.

Let’s check out some training:

Here is Rio – shaping left paw on left box while right on right box. For all my training faults he is doing very well.

and Roscoe:

He is just getting started with this (while we have done lots of practice on 2 paws on the same object). His criteria: right paw on right box OR left paw on left box. Again, for all my training faults, this is a fantastic session with Roscoe. I see no frustration behaviors (that was my criterion)!!!


May a good dog be with you!

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