Thursday, November 24, 2011

Slinky's Separating Sojourn: Day 15 of Slinky with Misha May - Off Leash Training. He Gets it! Falling through the cracks.

Slinky does well with all of our transitions now. She is always very happy to see Gina and Gene who know to keep the greetings low-key. She greets me like a best friend. Her experience of the world is expanding to include more and more safe places and loving friends. Our routine is that Gina waits as Slinky gets in my car and we drive off. She is always interested in the beginning looking out the windows and not registering the separation yet.

This time, we drove to several places and she did very well overall. A little whining which I ignored and then made a fuss when she was quiet. As soon as we arrived at my house she was fine and has been hanging out with the dogs! My neighbors were outside so she met them and received attention there, too, before we came in.

We are planning my visit to their house in the next week. It’s time to add additional exercises and for me to observe Slinky in her home environment. That helps me to be more specific in my recommendations. It also helps that I’ll be the one transporting her to her house and leaving her. It will be another reason to trust me and another reason to trust her world.

Today is the day before our annual Moment for Mutts event at the Golden Hotel. There is still so much to do to prepare. It is such an important fund raiser and I want everything to go well. Thank goodness we received so many donations and that one of the founding board members was willing to create all of the fabulous baskets like Small – Medium - Big Dog, Cat, Little Girl, Sacred Ceremony, Self-Indulgence, Stationery, Tailgating Party and Veggie Queen Vegan Starter.

We are also indebted to our sponsors: Mile High Natural Awakenings magazine, Trish Kelly Realty, Janice Cook Intuitive Pet Insights, Schwab and Golightly Auctions, VCA Park Hill Animal Hospital, the Golden Hotel, Single Volunteers of Greater Denver, and Courtney Ayres Graphic Design. Mile High Musical Tails Canine Freestyle, and Dahlia and her Belly Dance Troupes will perform.

Slinky was quite relaxed as I came and went from around the house including the garage carrying out event tasks. Lovely to see her so settled in and not worried.

I mentioned off-leash training in the previous post as an option for dogs who don’t do well on a leash, either when walking or when meeting other dogs. Off-leash training is not, however, an option for all dogs. Certain breeds and individuals with certain characteristics are not receptive to coming when called if they have spotted or scented something more interesting.

Even compliant dogs must be conditioned to come when called and proofed under a wide variety of circumstances and amidst high distractions. Otherwise, a failure to come can result not only in disobedience but in injury or death. Many times I’ve heard people say, ‘but it was just this one time that she bolted across the street toward another dog or bunny or cat’. It only takes that one time and they are gone. It is a huge risk and quite irresponsible to allow one’s dog off leash without proper training.

I wouldn’t trust that a dog is trained unless they were at least 2 years of age, neutered or spayed, and had undergone rigorous professional training protocols. Sometimes puppies or sweet natured dogs stay close to their people and the people mistake this for being trained. This is simply the dog staying close or coming because he is choosing to. Once he realizes that he doesn’t have to come, he may not. Then your approach changes from training your dog off leash to correcting your dog’s erroneous thinking that he can chose to come or not as he pleases. Prevention and a plan is much more fun and effective than trying to modify unreliable recall behavior.

Ideally, dogs should not be aware that they have a choice to come or not. They should behave the same way whether on leash or off. They should be under our command and acquiescent to our wishes. This training can take as long as 6 months to one year of daily practice, and begins on leash with no distractions. Step by step the leash is lengthened and the distractions increased. Finally off leash is practiced in contained areas. Even after all of this, it is wise to have the dog drag a leash and then eventually have a short lead that you can access easily.

Dogs do not generalize easily, meaning that they don’t realize right away that a cue is applicable no matter where they are. You may have been surprised by your dog’s inability to sit at a dog park even though he sits reliably at home. This may be due in part to the distractions but it may also be because he hasn’t learned that ‘sit’ means ‘sit’ everywhere. You must teach your dog to sit in enough places so that he will generalize doing it wherever he may be. I see so many people on walks with their dogs becoming frustrated because their dog isn’t sitting when asked. More likely than not, there hasn’t been adequate preparation and practice. We sometimes forget that dogs don’t speak English, n’est-ce pas?

You can imagine how much more critical and challenging it is to train your dog to generalize ‘come’ in every possible situation and scenario. Common sense tells us that to get our dogs to come to us we must make the experience pleasant. I recommend using a fabulously tasty treat that they don’t receive for anything else they do. In order to get _______ they must ‘come’.

Even though intuitively we know that acting excited to see them will entice them to return, we often have to curtail our urge to shout at them and be angry when they haven’t responded in a timely fashion. Unfortunately it is often our fault because we put them in a situation they were not yet ready to handle. I hear many stories and have witnessed myself a dog’s return, albeit reluctant, greeted with punishment, harsh words and terrifying expressions. ‘Oops’, says the dog to himself, ‘when I approach my person he yells at me.’ The desired behavior has not been reinforced.

A friend tells the story of being out with his horse and his dog. An off leash dog approaches curiously. He stops a respectful distance away and takes in the scene. Maybe he never saw a horse before or maybe he loves horses. But anyway his demeanor is calm and his behavior is acceptable. In the distance, the dog’s owner is screaming at him to ‘COME’. The dog takes one more look and then runs back to his owner. WHAT DOES THE OWNER DO? She yells at him when he returns.

Bad owner. Bad bad owner. First, the dog is not reliably trained off leash. Second, the owner doesn’t give the dog any credit for acting respectfully and for ultimately returning. No wonder our dogs are confused and don’t know what we want. We don’t adequately prepare them with proper training, expect them to know things they aren’t capable of knowing without our help, and then we confuse them when we punish them at the exact moment they are complying. Timing is everything if you want to communicate precise meaningful messages to dogs.

What should she have done you might ask? She should have gotten hold of herself and rewarded that dog for returning. ‘Good boy. Good come.’ Then she should have begun a real training program to teach him what ‘come’ means and to instill in him the motivation and willingness to perform in response to rewards.

A word of caution here. Off leash behavior is advanced behavior. Before even attempting it, I recommend basic obedience classes with amazing amounts of practice. Help your dog learn how to learn. Watch for the look in his eyes when he ‘gets it’. Set up routines where training is so much fun and so rewarding that he can’t wait to learn more. Let him know how proud you are of him and that you are eager to understand what he is trying to communicate to you.

The irrelevance of the cue ‘come’ is legend. Somehow people think that if they just begin to use it their dog will suddenly begin to comprehend English and start coming. Even if the dog did understand, he may still ask, ‘hey what’s in it for me’? Learning requires motivation. For a dog this might equal treats, pets, attention or a game. But learning does not happen without a type of motivation that the learner appreciates. Don’t use the cue ‘come’ unless you have introduced it as a training word with a specific meaning, and that you are absolutely certain that your dog can and will comply. Hence, the use of long leashes and yummy treats!

Zeb’s off leash performance. I took my perfect Golden Retriever to training and he did beautifully. I never took any credit for how wonderful he was – he was born that way. He and I loved learning and being together. I worked with him for off leash thinking it would be a breeze. And it was, until he caught the scent of a deer in the mountains near my home. He never even saw the deer. He put his head down to the ground and began to run at full speed zigzag in hot pursuit. I called him, I threatened him, I ordered him - all to no avail. He was gone and out of sight for several minutes in which I died a thousand deaths. I admit it. I’m a coward. I decided that taking the risk of losing my boy was not worth it. We had a very full life together, with no more off leash escapades, until he passed away this year.

Ultimately, as a responsible and loving dog parent, you are expected to evaluate each situation and location to ascertain if it is safe enough to take the risk of off leash. Don’t be one of the people who says sadly, ‘it was just that one time’.

In my opinion, Slinky is not a candidate for off leash training due to her obsession with and pursuit of squirrels. She demonstrates a very high prey drive and motivation to chase. She is unable to reach the squirrels in my separately fenced yard but that does not deter her from dreaming and plotting. After she discovered their presence, I could not get her to come in from the yard, even when all of the other dogs raced in. I patiently went out with her leash each time, brought her in, and gave her a treat. Did I want to give her a treat? No. I was annoyed that I had to go get her. Would my annoyance have taught her what I wanted to teach her? No. So I helped her perform the behavior I sought and then rewarded her for it. She now comes running in with the other dogs almost every time. If she were not within an enclosed space, however, I would be concerned that she would take off in pursuit and never look back.

The Misha May Foundation was founded to help dogs falling through the cracks at shelters. So many dogs are passed over or deemed unfit because of their terror at being abandoned in a shelter. Misha was on her way to a shelter when she was rescued by friends of mine. I doubt that she would have done well in a shelter environment because she was so sensitive, social and a little anxious. And because she was a black lab mix she would have had stiff competition just with the sheer numbers of labs.

Slinky is definitely a dog who was falling through the cracks. She was adopted after being passed over in at least two shelters. Sensitive, social and anxious, and deteriorating in the shelter environment.

Please don’t let your dog fall through the cracks. Don’t get a dog unless you are prepared for a lifetime commitment. Acquire the preventative knowledge you need to help socialize and train your dog. Hire a professional trainer immediately upon seeing a problem. Don’t give up your dog – he is family. If you absolutely have to give him up, don’t take your dog to a shelter, but find a reputable rescue group that will help you re-home him while he continues to live with you.


No comments:

Post a Comment