Another No Good, Very Bad (Rotten) Day

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
-Winnie the Pooh

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

A few days ago, Danika posted a wonderful article about her day when nothing seemed to be going right with Porter.  Glad she posted that, because oh, boy, did I have a doozy with my day today.  Only mine involved a severely dog-reactive dog, and this:

*cue dramatic music*

*cue dramatic music*

But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

I know I’m not perfect.  Actually, I’m glad I’m not perfect, because that’s such a high expectation to live up to.  A pretty big job that I certainly don’t want.  However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the best with what I have.  Sometimes I don’t have a lot, either.  So let’s start with my frame of mind when I first started to go for a walk with Sparta, my dog reactive dog, this evening:

My daughter (River, aged 8) decided she wanted to be vegetarian. We agreed, but we informed her that meant she needs to eat everything we cook for her, because she’s growing, and nutrition is important.  Fine.  Well, today she didn’t like what I cooked.  I told her that she didn’t have to eat it, but that I would not be making anything else, and reminded her that she needed to stay healthy.  ”I choose death instead”, was the response I got from her.

What I felt like

What I felt like

Apparently part of “being the adult” includes not getting to smash things when you’re angry.  So I used the PAW Method (as I so often do) on my darling little child.  In other words, I followed the three most important steps to Piloting your demon child:

1) Control yourself.

I didn’t immediately respond to River’s demand for death (which she was this close to getting).  Instead, I took a deep breath and controlled myself.

Because, like, "adulting" and stuff...

Because, like, “adulting” and stuff…

2) Control the situation.

There was no way I was going to be able to make her eat her food without a long, drawn out battle. I knew she was going to try to push my buttons, so rather than fight with her, I moved the fight to my desired location.  Meaning, I told River that if she chose death, there was nothing I could do about it, as I already tried to feed her, and could she could go ahead and starve to death upstairs in her room.  She quietly went upstairs as she was told.  In other words, I diffused the situation.  I didn’t fuel it.  Gasoline and Fire went to their respective corners.

3) Answer the question/correct the behavior.

I wasn’t there yet; remember, I had to send River to her room to keep from squishing her like a grape.  It’s okay to get angry, but you are responsible for how you act upon your anger.  In other words, I had control of the present situation…but if I had added even an ounce of stimulation (say…an eye roll), I knew I could lose it.  And once words are said, they can never be taken back.  So I left River to stew in her room.

Now.  Back to that first picture.

Sparta, as you may already know, is very dog reactive.  That’s why I choose to (mostly) walk her at night, especially if I’d had a rough day already.  Today was no different.

mostlySo we went for our walk.  Me, not thinking about how keyed up I still was about River trying to commit hari kari by not eating dinner.  Sparta obviously felt it.  We usually go for about 2 miles, and she did mostly well during those two miles, without a lot of Piloting that was needed.  However, the wind was blowing pretty badly, and of course it’s garbage day tomorrow, and debris was blowing everywhere, including right at us.  So now Sparta was on her toes, getting a little jumpy (to be honest, so was I – it was pretty bad).

When I was young, I used to think this was my 3rd grade teacher. Now I know better.  It was.

When I was young, I used to think this was my 3rd grade teacher. Now I know better. It was.

Now for the dramatic twist.  Another dog.  I spotted the dog before Sparta sensed it.  It was about 1/4 block away from us, headed in our direction.  The owner seemed to be doing well with the dog, who appeared to have already caught a whiff of Sparta.  In other words, the owner was Piloting their dog (which kinda surprised me, which in a way is sad).  The owner was taking their time, and just looked calm and relaxed, helping their dog relax.  I answered Sparta’s question (“Is that dog a threat?”) about the dog when she spotted it, and once she accepted my answer (“No”), I took her across the street so as to control the situation better.  Considering the high energy we both had going into the situation, she did pretty well.  When she’d ask the question again, I’d answer, and because I was too keyed up myself to go right back to walking, I’d turn her around the other way to calmly take a few steps, almost like getting a running start before hitting the gauntlet, before starting again.  She was doing fine, until…..I tugged on the leash, which suddenly wasn’t attached to my dog anymore.  The clasp had completely come undone, broken from the main part of the leash.  Sparta immediately went running across the street after the dog.

Now, I had a few choices:  I could either panic and start yelling and shouting frantically at my dog, but that would only add energy to a situation I didn’t have control of.  So I chose a different path.

Thanks for the reminder, Liz.

Thanks for the reminder, Liz.

I took a deep breath, and speed walked my way across the street. I called Sparta’s name repeatedly, but not in a panicked fashion.  At this point, she had already gotten to the other dog, where she had started to bark at it, and essentially try to chase it away.  I grabbed Sparta, looped what’s left of the leash around her neck, and controlled the situation as best I could given the circumstances. In other words, she calmed down, and the other owner (#OhMyGodImSoSorryAboutThat), was able to safely take their dog away. As they were walking away, I heard the owner say something to the effect of, “Calm down Sheila”, at which point I said, “It totally wasn’t Sheila’s fault.”

Now, a word about the other owner.  He never lost his cool.  He was calm, and bored, and essentially an amazing Pilot, especially given the circumstances.  Quite frankly, he was the reason the situation was resolved so quickly: he added no energy, and just diffused his dog, and ignored mine.  Beautiful.

So, he continued on his way, and I took Sparta back home. I sat down in a chair, whereupon Sparta curled up at my feet, just like she always does.  The incident already out of her mind.  Yeah, it was scary, but either we could dwell upon it, or move on. And honestly, part of Step 2 (control the situation) is knowing when the situation is over.  Just let it go. Nobody was hurt. Nobody got hit by a car. I was able to Pilot Sparta pretty quickly, and we got home safely with 1/2 a leash.  I couldn’t be angry for Sparta for being who she was (fearful of other dogs), but I could be proud of her for trying so hard to move past her fears.  She’s an incredible dog who has come a very long way.  She’s not perfect, but I don’t want her to be.  That’s such a difficult thing to be: perfect.  She did the best she could with what she had.

As I was sitting there, my daughter came back downstairs.  She said she decided she wanted to live, and that she loved me.  I told her I was very proud of her, and that no matter what, she’s always My Favorite Little Girl in the Whole Wide World.  We hugged it out, and I knew that I needed to control the previous situation: by letting it go.

So there I was.  Another No Good, Very Bad (Rotten) Day that ended with my two girls, Sparta and River, both doing the best they could with what they had, just as I had tried to do.  Not perfect, but who wants to be perfect anyway.    After all, it’s about progress, not perfection.

Keep calm and pilot on

Stranger Danger – Helping Anxious Dogs Around Strangers

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.

Shirley MacLaine

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

“My dog is aggressive towards strangers.

“My dog is fearful.”

“My dog is skittish.”

I hear these phrases constantly.  Some dogs are goofy, fun-loving balls of affection who have never met a stranger.  Then we have dogs who have what I call a healthy sense of self-preservation.  My Orion used to be like that.

No, Orion wasn’t abused, which is a common misconception with dogs such as these.  As humans we try to rationalize and explain behavior.  It must have a cause!  Something precise that has caused our dogs to be wary of the world.

But the world doesn’t work like that.  For example, my daughter, River, is the most fun-loving, outgoing creature I have ever met.  She explained to the pizza delivery guy a few days ago that if he ever encountered a monster, she’d protect him.  She then gave him a hug.  River is the equivalent of a pittie:  the life of the party who thrives on any type of human interaction.

My son Eric is completely different.  He’s more circumspect.  He has wonderful social manners, but it takes him a long time to warm up to someone and feel comfortable.  He needs to feel out a situation before he participates in it.

Neither of my kids have been abused.  Both have been raised exactly the same way.  We accept that kids can have different personalities, but we don’t allow much wiggle room for our canine companions.  They have to be exuberant balls of fun, just desperate for human interaction, regardless of with whom, in order for the to be healthy, happy dogs.  But just as not all humans are of that caliber (I certainly am not), not all dogs need to fit into the one-size-fits-all mould of “dog behavior”.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

 

Orion, for instance, is a lot more wary and aloof than a lot of dogs. As a matter of fact, when I first met Orion, he bit me.  Completely not his fault:  he didn’t know me, and I had thrust my hand inside his carrier to retrieve him, as he had gotten caught in the back of it somehow.  Any creature with a lick of sense (especially one weighing 5 lbs.) would do the same thing!  It doesn’t mean he’s damaged, it means he has an healthy sense of self-preservation.

Gradually I built up Orion’s trust in me.  I started by not yelling, kicking, hitting or otherwise abusing the dog.  Common sense, right?  The longer I went without kicking Orion, he figured the more likely it was that I wasn’t going to start.  But then we moved beyond that.  There’s a difference between a friend and a protector.  I was to become both.  I needed to Pilot Orion.  In other words, I needed to not only answer all of his tough questions (such as, “Is that person a threat?” and, “Should I be afraid?”), but I had to get him to trust me enough to forgo his own determination of a situation and accept my answer.

Teaching a new trick can help build trust.  You're working together as a team with a common goal: communication. Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Teaching a new trick can help build trust. You’re working together as a team with a common goal: communication.
Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Look at it like this:  What if I told you to sell everything you own and invest a certain stock?  Your reaction would probably be, Why on earth should I listen to you and do something so potentially catastrophic?! You’d be crazy to just listen to me regarding such a decision.  However, what if I started off with small suggestions, such as putting $5 towards something.  You take a look at my situation, which seems financially comfortable, and decide to take the $5 plunge.  That $5 turns into $10.  Your faith in my decisions is boosted.  I give you another suggestion, you take it, and make more money, or, at the very least, don’t lose any.  Pretty soon you’re actively looking to me for suggestions.

That’s how it works with dogs.  You have to give them a reason why your answers to their questions are better than what they can come up with.  That’s what Piloting is all about.  Now obviously you can answer their questions with force, and with pain and anger, but that’s losing the most important part of the Piloting equation:  trust.  So how do you get a dog to trust you? Easy! Put them in very simple situations that require only a very small leap of faith, and then gradually up the ante.

I recently boarded the world’s most adorable Labradoodle, Cody, in my home due to his owner’s injury and anticipated long convalescence.  How did I get him accustomed to me, and used to my answering his questions?  I started with agility. Teaching him to jump over a yardstick placed directly on the floor.  Then adding stimulation: placing one end on a soup can, raising it just a bit.  Then the next side is raised.  Pretty soon Cody is trusting me enough to go bounding back and forth across the “jump”.  If I had started out with the jump raised all the way…well, that’s a bit of a stretch.  He didn’t know me very well, and that’s an awful lot to ask of a dog.  But by adding gradual amounts of stimulation to the situation, raising it slowly, I was able to expand his level of comfort with my decisions until eventually he trusts my answers more than he trusts his own.  That is what Piloting is all about.

So how do we put this in play with regard to stranger danger?  Well, we need to start with the fact that it is okay that your dog is wary of strangers.  We aren’t trying to change who your dog fundamentally is.  But we can indeed broaden their horizons a bit.  Get your dog to trust your answers with the small things, like walking by the man on the other side of the street.  Answer their questions as you are walking, and make sure you are Pilot during the walk.  Don’t just drag your dog along past the stranger – that’s forcing them past a point, not answering their questions.  It may take a bit of mental fortitude on your part to make it past the first person, but if you are Pilot, take your time, and keep your patience, you will do it.  Remember, this is difficult for your dog: this is the first time you are Piloting them past a perceived danger.  It is a huge leap of faith on their part and should be treated as such.  Just because you realize that the other person isn’t a threat doesn’t mean they do.  But if you get them past the first person, answering their questions all the while, the second person is easier to get by, then the third, and so on.  Pretty soon your dog is looking for your answers rather than coming up with their own.

Orion is still wary of strangers.  I allow him to be.  Unless I don’t.  That’s the beauty of Piloting.  If you don’t abuse the position, you can ask your dog to do marvelous things.  Orion and I worked on his stranger danger, gradually upping the ante each time.  First he had to walk calmly by strangers, which is difficult when you barley reach someone’s ankles – no wonder everything looked like a threat!  (You try walking among a herd of elephants without being apprehensive, and then you’ll understand what a small dog can feel like on the sidewalk.)

Next we worked on strangers approaching. They would ask to pet my dog, and I would let them…in a very controlled way.  I would pick him up and present him rear first.  If Orion would ask a question, such as “Can I make them stop petting me?”, I would answer his question by very gently tapping him on the derriere with all five fingers, similar to the way one taps out an email on a computer:  no harder.  It’s not about pain, it’s about getting him to refocus on me and the answer I was giving him.

Trust is integral.  If I’m asking Orion to trust my judgment about someone, it’s up to me to keep him safe and make wise judgments.  So if the individual who wants to pet Orion seems very hyper or is giving off a lot of negative energy, my answer is no.  My first duty is to my dog, not to social graces.  It’s up to me to put Orion in situations where he can thrive, not situations that test his faith in me to beyond capacity.  I also don’t force Orion to take affection without a good reason.  I don’t make him be pet just for the sake of being pet. Affection has to be mutual.  My goal was to make sure he was acclimated to being touched by anyone, just in case circumstances arose where he needed to be (vet, boarding, etc.).  I still make him accept being pet, but only for one of two reasons: he truly wants to be pet by that person, or I need to work on his accepting touch to keep him from backsliding into not accepting touch from a human.

As Orion accepted being pet by strangers, he was always given a reward.  For Orion, food doesn’t do much, but calm gentle praise certainly did.  He wanted to know he was on the right track, and I most definitely assured him of it.  Answer his questions, give positive when he chooses to accept the answer.  Wash rinse repeat.

Orion is still wary of strangers, but rather than immediately cowering in fear or lashing out when someone decides to pet him, he takes a different approach now.  He looks at me.  He expects me to answer his questions.  Sometimes he has to accept that he will be pet, but since I’ve always protected him during the petting, he isn’t afraid anymore.  Now he’s the dog who will warm up to a stranger after a bit, and actually “ask” to be pet – something that I never thought would happen.

Orion and Cody.  It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn't a threat.

Orion and Cody. It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn’t a threat.

Orion has come a long way from that frightened little creature he once was.  Yes, I have put a lot of effort into Piloting him and answering his questions, but it’s always easier to be the one answering questions than the one who has to take a leap of faith.  That’s why I’ll always strive to be worthy of the Pilot position and never shake his faith through ego or vanity or putting him in situations that we haven’t worked towards yet.  I’ve earned his trust, and it’s up to me to make sure I don’t abuse it.

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog training in Cleveland, Ohio