THE LITTLE DOGS THAT COULD
One of the best parts of my job is that I get to travel around the country teaching people how to train show dogs, handle their show dogs and help shy or fearful show dogs. In order to save the hosts money, I always offer to stay at someone’s home so that they don’t have to pay for a hotel. I end up becoming friends with the hosts and it is a lot of fun to stay at the homes of new friends and live with breeds that I usually don’t get a chance to live with. It is a great way to not only learn more about different breeds, but it also helps me see individual dogs in their homes and observe how they live and behave.
This past weekend was no different. I was invited to teach From Shy to Showy in Colorado and stay at the home of the host, Dachshund breeder Dawn Watters of Ruger Dachshunds. Dawn and her friend Christine Kim organized this seminar and hosted me. This was the first time I was hosted by a breeder, rather than a professional trainer or training club and it was extremely successful. The seminar went great and was well received, but some of the greatest learning moments were those spent at Dawn’s home training her and Christine’s dogs. Dachshunds are, of course, one of my favorite breeds so it was a great pleasure to stay at Dawn’s home surrounded by miniature wirehair Dachshunds, one miniature smooth Dachshund and a very affectionate Afghan Hound named Fiona.
Dawn, with Christine’s help, is an amazing breeder. Dawn and Christine work together to do Puppy Culture with their puppies. Their puppies are given early learning opportunities, enrichment, mental stimulation and along with an impressive breeding program is producing wonderful dogs. However, even dogs that are well bred and raised with an extraordinary amount of work from the breeders can have behavior concerns. Christine and Dawn had been struggling with some reactivity with a few of their dogs despite the same healthy socialization and early care of the litters. I had already worked with Dawn remotely with Logan, a sweet and sensitive 8 year old male Dachshund and now I would get to work with him in person along with Christine’s Jonah (Logan’s brother) and Cherry, her younger female Dachshund.
While all three dogs present with the same observable behavior, the body language and responses is different depending on the dog and the trigger. The issue is that each dog barks at new people, sometimes dogs and sudden environmental changes. This means that they bark and will rush up to new people in the home barking. There is frequently obvious conflict where they seem to want to come up close, but then bark and seem unable to disengage when they are worried. Additionally, Cherry has an issue with being examined on the table by a judge. So, these were all things we wanted to work on.
Some background information to consider first.
- All three of these dogs were born in Dawn’s home. Christine’s spend a lot of time there as well.
- Dawn has other dogs that were born there and are related including Cherry’s littermate Eden, who does not have the same behavioral responses as Cherry
- All dogs have a lot of reliable and sound training under their belts.
- All compete in agility and regularly attend training classes.
- While the dogs can be barky, none have displayed outright aggression and none have a bite history
I wanted to observe the dog’s behavior, so I sat on the couch and Logan, Jonah and Cherry were brought in separately to meet me. The other dogs, who can also be barky when excited were loose in the house as well. I set myself up sitting on the couch, no treats on me, just sitting there ignoring the dogs. All three dogs behaved similarly, but with subtle differences:
- Jonah ran up to me barking, but stayed on the ground and could be distracted by Christine
- Logan ran up to me barking and also stayed on the ground, however, when I started to eat a sandwich he came up closer and sat beside me.
- Cherry was the most bold, running up to me barking and actually jumping on me to get as close to my face as possible. She needed to be picked up by Christine, she could not disengage on her own
- Even if the dogs begin to settle, if you get up they react again.
- All of the dogs have a hard time disengaging and actually walking away when they are worried, so they stay close and bark.
- All of the dogs bark when excited, concerned, alerting or worried. They are very vocal dogs, so while some of the behavior is fueled by emotion, I believe quite a bit is out of habit as well.
Now that I have observed the dogs I am ready to put together a training plan. Generally, I plan on tried and true proven behavior modification techniques while always being willing to be flexible based on what the animal needs and the responses we get. I am also always trying new things and experimenting with ideas that I think may be helpful. Sometimes my ideas work and sometimes we go in another direction, but in this case, I am happy to say that the plan I came up with for our sessions with these dogs worked out really well.
The Training Plans
The great thing is that since these dogs all have some training under their belts, it makes it much easier to start on the training plan because many foundation behaviors are in place.
- I plan to work with each dog individually with the other two put away, however there were typically other resident dogs loose in the house.
- Before each session, just before they, enter the house with the dog we are going to be working with, I have them do a short, 3-4 minute warm up training session with the dog. They could work on anything they want as long as the dog is thinking and responding. Getting the dog thinking before working will help to decrease the chance of a reaction because it is harder for the animal’s brain to become emotional if it is working and cognitive.
- We may do different things with the dogs depending which each individual needs and would benefit from.
Logan with guests
Logan has a lot of conflict when it comes to people. He is definitely interested, but also gets worried and doesn’t know how to disengage when he is up close to a person and gets concerned. Also, even if he settles down, the moment someone gets up, he runs around barking.
- Dawn brought Logan in and invited him onto the platform and began to do some warm up training with him.
- We then began to desensitize Logan to my getting up. I would move my feet and when he looked, Dawn would feed him. We do that a couple of times until he not longer looks at my feet or looks at them and then quickly back to Dawn. Then, I start to get up, then sit back down and Dawn feeds him. We do this a couple of times until he either stops looking or looks comfortably and then looks back. Next, I stand him, Dawn feeds and I sit back down. What we are doing here is slowly and in a controlled way introducing someone getting up without Logan feeling the need to react.
- At this point, I had Dawn begin to add a “heads up cue”. By this I mean a verbal cue that tells Logan that someone is going to get up. Dawn says, “She’s going to get up”, I get up and then she feeds a treat or two.
- At any time the dog reacts, I stop and go less further than I did in that trial. The goal is always to set the dog up to be comfortable and successful.
- By the end of the session, I could stand up and walk around and out of the room with Logan staying quietly on his platform.
- At this point, Dawn still needs to be close and reinforce him often, but as he gets comfortable and really understands the game, he will be able to be given a heads up, run to his platform or otherwise prepare himself for the person to get up.
I feel strongly that for a dog like Logan, predictability is important. He didn’t know what to do when he got worried or someone got up. We are teaching him not only to be comfortable when people move around, but we also taught him that if he gets worried or doesn’t know what to do, to go to his platform and Dawn will recognize that as him communicating that he is uncomfortable or unsure.
- For this particular exercises we started with Jonah. Dawn has three Klimb platforms that I wanted to utilize in these sessions. In a previous session the day before we had worked all three dogs on the platforms just doing different tricks and behaviors with Dawn and Christine.
- I set up two platforms in the house approximately 8 feet apart. Loaded with high value treats I set myself up behind the platform farthest from the door they would be entering through. I sat myself with my side to the platform so that I would be less intimidating.
- Christine brought Jonah in and invited him onto the platform closer to her and she sat behind her platform.
- She began to ask Jonah for behaviors he knows while on the platform. She would cue sit, down, spins, sit pretty, wave, etc and offer a treat for every correct response. Jonah was happily responding and working with Christine.
- Then, I called Jonah to me and then had Christine walk him to my platform at which point I offered him several treats on the platform.
- I had Christine call him back and she offered a treat.
- I called him and the moment he turned his head I clicked which encouraged him to run back towards me. Again I offered several treats to Christine’s one treat. We continued this a couple of times then we added something new.
- After calling Jonah back to me and offering a treat, I asked for a simple behavior, sit, and then offered a treat. I asked for a hand touch and offered a couple of treats for that. After cuing and reinforcing him for several behaviors I had Christine call him back to her platform where she offered him one treat.
- We continued this for quite a while to the point that Jonah did not want to return to Christine when she called him! He began to enjoy our training so much he was not wanting to leave.
- After quite a bit of very relaxed, calm work with me we decided to end the session.
Christine had not seen Jonah willingly work with someone new so quickly before. We were anxious to try it with Logan and Cherry. Cherry was next and also ended up working with me to the point of not wanting to return to Christine. We then worked on it with Logan who was also successful.
Another thing that I really like about this exercise is that in addition to it encouraging the dogs to approach and work with a new person, it helped to teach them to disengage and move away. This is a much needed life skill for dogs who get reactive and worried about people.
The next day, we had another person available, so we did the same exercises with Jonah, but with Kelly, a new person who he had not worked with before. Jonah began to go back and forth with Kelly immediately and was performing known behaviors for her on cue shortly after.
Learning to disengage
All three dogs seem to have an issue with disengaging and walking away if they get worried or reactive. I wanted to start working on teaching them this skill of walking away and finding their owner when they are worried.
We worked on this with Cherry by putting her leash and taking her outside. Dawn and I would talk and Christine would walk Cherry up to me and allow her to sniff my leg, while I ignored her, for about 3 seconds. After 3 seconds Christine called Cherry to her while moving away from us and rewarded Cherry heavily. After just a few reps Cherry would sniff me and then look at Christine who would call her away and reinforce her for coming to her.
These dogs are barking, reacting because they don’t know what to do instead. This is important to consider because when we want to change a behavior or get rid of a behavior, the easiest way to do that is to train the animal to do something else.
Cherry table exam
Finally, we wanted to work on Cherry’s exam on the table. Cherry is a really pretty dog and would easily finish her championship, except that she doesn’t really enjoy showing. Sometimes she is better than other times, but in general she is not a fan of having strangers touch her all over her body.
- Again, I had Christine do some warm up training with Cherry before bringing her in the house to start the training.
- We had the grooming table set up at the far end of two rooms near the door they would enter in. I was standing as far away as possible.
- Cherry came in and was placed on the table. She was stacked and offered a treat.
- I took a step forward and Christine fed her a treat. I stayed there, Cherry glanced at me, Christine offered another treat and I walked away. This is important because most dogs need that release of pressure during a training session. Duration of time can be a trigger for some dogs, so it is also important to take breaks in the training session.
- Next, I took a step towards them, Cherry looked and then Christine fed a treat. I would either stay there, move away or come closer based on the responses I got from Cherry. I progressed to approaching Cherry, putting my hand out, putting my hand out and holding it there and then step by step progressed until I was able to completely examine Cherry on the table while she remained comfortable and relaxed.
My recommendation was that Dawn and Christine continue to practice what we worked on with new people. It is important that they choose people that are dog savvy, but who are willing to take direction and stick to the plan. In addition to that, I recommended the following:
- Bring a platform to training classes so that the dogs can have a familiar, comfortable place to station and hang out on.
- Do a short warm up training session before going into training classes and before sessions working on these things.
- Remember to move slowly and at the dog’s pace.
On my last morning there, I was sitting on a chair drinking tea. Dawn, Christine and Dawn’s husband Jody were all sitting on the couch. Logan came up to me and asked for attention. I reached down and pet him for a few seconds and then stopped and looked away to give him a chance to leave. He didn’t leave so I petted some more. He climbed up and allowed me to lift him into my lap where I held him while watching TV for quite a while. Being invited to pick him up and spend time with him was both an honor and a testament to the training method. Allowing the dog to choose, giving space and choice goes a long way in building a trusting relationship with an animal. I think Dawn and Christine not only for bringing me to Colorado and hosting a workshop, but also for allowing me to work with and learn from their dogs. I am so grateful for the opportunity! I am excited to be returning in March of next year for three days of training and can’t wait to see where Logan, Jonah and Cherry are in their training programs.