Behavior, training, & mistakes

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from experience with successes in relationship with dogs – and from the behavior problems that emerged when I’ve made mistakes.

I’ve also studied a lot, to support continued learning by experience: training books and videos, information from behaviorists, background on dog genetics and breed-specific traits, the limitations of breed-specific traits and what generalizes to all dogs, basic veterinary issues and how health relates to behavior, shelter realities and the behaviors they create, how to work with dogs who have been abused, how to work with dogs who are hyper or aggressive or fearful, and much more.

As is true of everything else, the main thing I’ve learned is that I need to always keep learning.

I realized just recently that in spite of all the experience and study, and in spite of all the things I’ve done right in raising Gilly, I’ve been making two very consistent and kind of stupid mistakes with him for his whole eight years.

There have been two situations in which he ‘misbehaves’ (which in his case, means getting hysterical and panicky – and being totally unable to follow direction or trust that the situation is okay): getting his nails trimmed, and stopping a hike to talk to people on the trail.

All this time, what I was doing to try to make these situations better was actually not only making them worse, but almost certainly caused the problems in the first place. My intentions were good, of course, but I was setting him up to fail.

When the light bulb finally went on, I definitely felt both dumb and guilty for a second, but followed the instruction I’ve gotten over the years to quickly let it go:  the point is for Gilly to feel happy and comfortable and I’d at least finally figured out how to get there. Also – and most importantly: me being upset is the thing most likely to make him upset. Calm is key.

I’m with Barbara Woodhouse: there are no bad dogs, there’s just bad direction from people – and what is ‘instinctual’ for people is often wrong for dogs.

Dogs aren’t people. What they need from us is usually much simpler than what we project onto them, and our good, humane impulse toward sympathy actually leads to some very mixed signals when it comes to behavior problems and training.

When we come in waving preemptive sympathy around, we’re often responding to something the dog isn’t feeling at all; we project our expectations of difficulty onto the dog in whatever situation (she’s going to HATE having her nails trimmed! he’s going to panic if he hears thunder!) when what dogs actually do is look to us to see how they are supposed to react.

“Don’t be scared, honey, it’s okay, I know this is so hard but you’re being so brave, it’s almost over – ” we say about whatever experience, conveying tension and fear and worry.

They see their person telling them they are about to have a bad experience, so they do.

As far as they’re concerned, they’re being obedient. They’re reacting appropriately not to what’s actually happening, but to us telling them that something scary and dangerous is going on.

Then we wonder why they’re having a bad experience.

It’s kind of bonkers, really.

What I was doing with Gilly when we did his nails was a bit more subtle than this, but it amounted to the same thing. I was communicating – through emotion and behavior both – that this was a big deal and a difficult thing. I stopped doing that, and just went calm and nonchalant, as though cutting his nails is equivalent to picking a piece of lint off his fur: he relaxed immediately and an issue of eight years disappeared.

The barking and hysteria when we stopped on the trail was a little more complicated in both cause and effect, but when it finally occurred to me to stop worrying about cause and effect and just be in the moment with clear expectations of what I want from him, I was able to solve the problem.

When we meet up with someone on the trail and I want to stop and chat, admire their dog, give directions, whatever, I’ve started calmly and nonchalantly re-leashing him the moment he starts escalating. I ask him to sit at heel and clearly hold the boundary, communicating a calm expectation that he will sit quietly until I’m ready to move along.

Obvious miracle of miracles: he’s losing the issue and relaxing.

Instead of getting upset and worried and embarrassed that he’s barking and running around in some kind of hysterical panic, and freaking out about how and why he developed this issue and is it some combination of fear and possessiveness or does he think the stranger is a threat and what did I do wrong that he got this way and on and on with the thinking and the worry and the guilt and the panic – I am (finally) just being calmly clear about what I want. I stopped panicking, he stopped panicking.

The WHY!? of whatever is happening matters much less than my action in the moment. For me, that’s often counter-intuitive: I solve my own problems in part by thinking them through, understanding their origins, contextualizing things, and many other complicated emotional and intellectual processes.

Dogs don’t.

I certainly benefit from analyzing what I did wrong and how I could do better next time, but what Gilly needs from me is calm and clear expectations in the moment.That’s everything to him.

When I’m neurotic, he’s neurotic. When I’m confident, he’s confident.

Everything else is icing.

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