I am working with a soft-spoken gentleman and his spunky over-the-top Border collie mix. I am called because his dog is chasing the chickens when they are let out of their fancy coop to meander and peck here and there. When I ask him, he in informs me that he wants the dog to stop stalking and chasing the chickens. Period.
In his defense, this is his first dog. So clearly he is not yet versed in “dogness”. I begin working with the dog away from the chickens and I am impressed by the ability this dog has to follow instructions while enjoying himself tremendously as I toss treats at him that he gets to catch mid-air. My kind of dog: alert, responsive, over the top. I see potential. I see also a fantastic learning partner.
I almost want to tell the owner that his problems will be resolved as I am taking this dog with me- I like him that much! But no, I know I shall not covet my client’s dogs so I get back to dog-centric training and the task at hand.
Instead I tell Jim, the owner, who also reports to me – that his dog pulls so hard on lead that it makes it impossible to walk him without fearing his shoulder will be pulled out of its socket, that if we work on the loose leash not only will he be able to take leisure walks with his new best friend, but this will also help with the chickens.
Huh! He sort of retorts back to me. How can the two things be related?
You see, I tell him, we are working with the individual: the dog and not the “symptoms” or the behaviors that we don’t like. I believe so strongly on this premise that I have the adjective of “holistic” in my dog training business (C.H.A.C.O.) A Compassionate, Holistic, Approach to Canine Obedience and Training”.
I continue by explaining that his dog, Spark, is chasing chickens because the chickens are moving and moving is something that triggers predatory behaviors in dogs. With the orientation to the prey as one of the first behaviors the dog engages as part of the chain of behaviors (7 in total) to secure food.
In addition, Spark is truly unable to listen to him because he is just too close to this incredible stimulation.
Seeing all this from the perspective of the dog is so important. As we continue discussing the options for training Spark, I remind Jim that his goals might be obtainable but definitively not a weekend project.
Jim is now more in tune with how dogs learn and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep his pal and the chickens safe. Good, I tell him. My second task now is to explain to Jim that his goals are not the process, but just where the process might lead us.
Again, a truly important aspect of teaching any living creature. We must know where we want to go – as if following a road map that will take us to the correct location and once we know our specific goal (s) we must sharply have focused on the how we will get there. Process and goals are both important aspects of co-existing peacefully with our dogs. They are as well, essential components of any training.
The following week Jim and I are meet again and I begin working with both of them with loose leash walking. Teaching Jim what to do when Spark’s pull but mostly teaching Spark that the fastest way to get to where he wants to go is by not pulling at all! We continue working with other fun games that will promise to turn Spark into a dog that can wait for directions versus acting as a ‘bull in a China shop”. Jim is picking up things very quickly.
Thru the weeks, as the team progresses with the exercises that I leave behind for them to practice we begin working with the chickens. Now we can incorporate all the hard work we have done away from the chickens because Spark has great reliability on behaviors that at first were unthinkable for Jim to see his dog execute. Our efforts begin to pay off.
Jim has also learned that there is no reason why we should expect Spark not to act like what he is – a predator, so he has learned that managing Spark with the chickens is essential to the success of our program.
Sure, it is possible that with continuous and deliberate practice (and adding a dose of age for good measure) Spark will learn to relax in close proximity of the moving, pecking birds. For now, Jim appears more accepting and also more willing to see his beloved dog as a dog; meeting him half way in the journey they are both embarking on.
For my part, I feel so very happy that Jim is willing to work with his pup from a dog-centric perspective. As a result, he has come to the understanding that his dog must not be put in a situation that he cannot possibly be successful at. Since, just like us, his pup will be more successful at the task at hand on some days and struggle on others.
Dog-centric training requires a deep understanding of the species we are working with and a true willingness to work within their nature and capabilities as well as adjusting our own expectations.
Isn’t this what we all want from others? Our dogs are not that different from us in this respect.