Thursday, January 3, 2013

How Hayden Keeps Me Humble

Hayden's training progress has always been a roller coaster of successes and set backs.  Between her random health issues that always seem to come up (intestinal surgery due to a blockage, UTIs, spider bite reaction, hernia, etc.) and her behavioral issues which have ranged from full-blown reactivity to new people and dogs (including lunging, barking, and snapping at people coming into the house, and barking at any dog or person she sees when on a walk or at a new location) to intense fear of random things, her training process has been a challenging one.
The reactivity issues have been slow to progress, but we have had some wonderful results!  Through counter conditioning and creating positive associations, Hayden will now only bark briefly at a knock at the front door, and then go and happily greet the guest.  What has been essential in this training process is that we change how she feels about greeting new people.  Before we even began to work on the actual greeting we worked on just reinforcing her for remaining calm AROUND people.  If she didn't bark at them, she was rewarded heavily with high value treats, which gradually became fewer and fewer as her behavior became more consistent.  Then I taught her, first on a leash, to go and greet people (originally by just touching them with her nose, and later by giving them a paw) and as she did I would click (her positive marker) and have her come back to me to get a treat.  We used this same process with greeting people out in public.  Having her come back to me was a very important decision, as I did not want her running up to strangers assuming that they were the ones doling out the treats.  For a reactive dog running up to strangers assuming they have treats could easily cause a very bad reaction.  If a reactive dog in training runs up to a stranger, that stranger will likely assume that the dog truly IS friendly, and they may go to greet the dog in a manor that could overwhelm the dog.  The dog will then quickly realize that the stranger does NOT have a treat, and could easily panic and bite as they are now in an overwhelming situation.  Hayden now LOVES saying hello to new people in the house as well as out in public (dogs are still a work in progress...).
The other major issue that we had gone through with Hayden previously, was her random fear of the teeter-totter in agility.  For about her first 8 months of agility training she had absolutely no problem with it, and then out of the blue she became deathly afraid of it, to the extent where she would not take the most high-value treat if she was within the area where she could hear the sound of the teeter.  The fear became so overwhelming for her that she refused to do agility all together, and would tuck her tail and head for the gate whenever we went to class.  So, we took a break and I began working with her at home on overcoming her fear of the sound.  I recorded the sound of the teeter and played it at a very low volume at home while engaging her in her favorite games and rewarding her with high value treats.  Gradually I increased the volume, and eventually when she heard the sound she would get excited for treats and playtime.  Eventually, we went back to class, practicing all of the other obstacles, and rewarding her whenever she heard the sound of the banging teeter.  Although it took quite awhile, she eventually totally overcame her fear, and has competed confidently and successfully in AKC Agility since then.

However, we have hit some snags in our agility progress.  Hayden always reminds me that as well as we may do during training, she has her own mind, and will decide that she doesn't want to work or play  at certain times.  This was specifically evident at one trial where we had two runs back to back and it was quite hot outside.  Towards the end of the second run she stopped, looked at me and headed for the shade.  I attempted to call her back to no avail, and after she realized that I wasn't going to give up and leave, she headed for the exit, calmly walking out of the ring on her own and waiting for me on the other side of the fence.  Can I blame her?  It was hot, she was panting, I was sweating, and I really should have just decided to skip the second run altogether, but I didn't.  I decided that we should try it anyways, when I really should have quit while I was ahead.  This is just one of the ways that Hayden keeps me humble. . . she reminds me that as much success as I may have with my own dogs as well as my students, there is always more to work on, and that ultimately each dog is their own unique being, and it is much more important to listen to what they need, and how they like to learn, than it is to try to make them do something my way.

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