Dog Training - Behavior of Trust

You got a fast car

I want a ticket to anywhere

Maybe we make a deal

Maybe together we can get somewhere

- Tracey Chapman

Dog sitting on a leash
Arwen

I finally went for a long hike (15 miles!) with Arwen just this past weekend. I’ve had Arwen for several months now, so it feels like forever that we’ve been waiting for this moment. I’m an avid outdoorsy/kinda crunchy person. I thrive on hiking, camping, and am pretty certain that my spirit animal is actually Radagast the Brown.


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So why did it take so long for me to take Arwen on a longer hike with me? Simple: we weren’t ready.


Arwen spent the first 5 months of her life existing in a kitchen. No walks. No outside stimuli, just…nothing. When I got her, she had a serious case of Rapunzel Syndrome; having lived in a tower her entire life, she quickly became overstimulated by anything unknown. She was terrified of any stimuli and constantly toggled back and forth between her fight or flight response. From new people, to going for walks. Every new thing wasn’t something to explore, it was something she had to endure.


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But by far the worse was cars.


Arwen hates cars with the red hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.


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She had never been acclimated to cars being a normal thing as a young puppy, so now, as an adolescent, they were terrifying to her. From lunging at them through the window while riding in my truck, to going absolutely bonkers if a car went past us on a walk, she was absolutely petrified of them. On top of that, we still had to deal with the fact that she had only been on a leash a handful of times prior to me getting her, so leashes caused her some mild concern, albeit not nearly to the same extent as the cars.


So taking her for a long hike was out of the question. She needed to trust me more. I was proud of the amount of trust she showed me immediately, but as I refer to the Piloting Piggy Bank, I simply didn’t have enough money to pay for leash walking outside yet, let alone walking her anywhere near cars.


Piloting is a lot like parenting. Anyone can be a parent; doesn’t mean you’re a good one. Parenting, like Piloting, is built on trust. I needed Arwen to trust that I would never put her in a situation that we couldn’t handle together, but still trust me enough to try new things. For example, I didn’t attempt to take her for a leashed walk outside until I’d had her for a little bit. We started in a spot with little stimuli (my basement) until she felt more comfortable with being tethered to me on a leash.


When you have a dog on a leash, you are essentially removing their option to flee from anything that is overwhelming or scary, leaving only their flight response. That requires an immense amount of trust that I don’t think is appreciated by most dog owners. Some dogs just are more acclimated to their surroundings, or seem to trust a lot easier.


Definitely not Arwen, though. I definitely needed to earn her trust, not poke, prong or electrocute her into trusting me.


Gradually, over the course of a weekend, we worked out way out of the basement and up to the main floor of our house. End of the first week, we were able to work our way outside to the backyard, and pretty quickly from there, a first walk around our cul-de-sac.


The important thing to always keep in mind was that just because Arwen was doing beautifully for me on a leash in the basement and in the backyard didn’t mean I could expect the same level of trust from her when we moved to newer places. Trust is the currency in the Piloting Piggy Bank; you can’t pay for a $50 walk with $15 worth of trust. The cost is the cost, and you have absolutely no right to determine what the price is of each item, be it a walk, thunderstorms, or any other situation your dog may be placed in. You earn that money/trust with each question you answer for your dog in that situation, until you have a pretty healthy balance. The cost of that walk is still $50, but now instead of only having $15 of trust in your Piloting Piggy Bank, you’ve been answering questions to the tune of $500 dollars of trust in your bank.


Your dog didn‘t get better on the leash; it’s the same dog, same leash. You’ve just become more trustworthy, and earned and paid for the privilege of their trust.

So back to Arwen. She was skeptical around my kids at first (I mean, I can’t exactly blame her...they scare me, too). It took her a full day before she felt safe on her own with them, as long as they were seated and not moving much. She’d come to them for pets and to play ball. But the situation changed completely if they were wearing hoodies, or if they surprised her by walking up the steps, or any change in their behavior. Whose fault was it? Nobody’s. It was just our responsibility to help her past her fears by earning her trust.


Every time she’d start barking fearfully at my kids, I’d calmly negate her question of, “Are they a threat?”. No, Arwen.


After a while, she started to anticipate my answers, until I no longer had to give them. All of that earned me money/trust in my Piloting Piggy Bank.


Now I could take that money (along with incidental “pocket change” I’d been earning all incrementally through daily life), and start to work with the car issue.


We didn’t just head down the sidewalk alongside a four lane highway! That would be a major breach of trust. So we started small: a walk around my cul-de-sac, across the street of a 2 lane road, and then right back. I’m not going to say it was easy. It was challenging for both of us. But we did it, and we did it safely, and without drama. Yes, questions needed to be answered, and if I’m going to be honest, we were stuck in that phase for about 3 weeks before I could earn enough trust to pay for walking on the sidewalk alongside the road. And then it was only for a 1/4 mile at best. But we did it. Nobody was traumatized, and I didn’t force any kind of “normalcy” on her.

Normal dogs are a fairy tale. Your dog’s reaction is normal…for them. Accept their reaction as a question, rather than a challenge.

I don't rightly know when Arwen finally got over her fear of cars. It just seemed as if we were able to get farther and farther down the road each time before I had to start Piloting her. A greater number of cars would pass before she would react. We never realized we had completed that portion of our journey together until we were almost on top of our goal.


We aren't 100% there yet. But the light at the end of the tunnel is brilliantly blinding us, it's so close. I trust her to try her hardest to hear my answers to hear questions, and she trusts me enough to answer her questions with love and calmness instead of domination. And she was worth every step of that journey.

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