Monday, October 22, 2012

The Accidental Agility Dog - Chapter Two

In working with people and their dogs “reactivity” is a common problem and one that many people seek help with. My rough working definition of the cause of reactivity is a broad one and encompasses anything that causes an excessive reaction on the part of the dog. I don’t dwell overly much on whether the reaction is “reasonable” or not because it doesn’t change anything; the reactivity is still there and diverts attention from focusing on performance. Likely due to her lack of socialization Amber was reactive to a lot of things. However unlike most of the reactive dogs I work with, her fear response was to panic and run away. If that was not possible she would  turn in tight circles , looking for a “rabbit hole” to drop down in. It would be a challenge to list all of the things that made her fearful, uncomfortable or alarmed when I started working with her. However she also possessed a high degree of natural curiosity for many things.
I would like to say I had a carefully planned out training approach to her rehabilitation. One based on learning theory and dog behavior etc etc. However I pretty much did what seemed right at the moment. One training concept that has always stuck into my mind over many years was a training concept regarding dogs who were uncomfortable on agility obstacles. Often the way to reduce their discomfort was to first teach them how to get off of the obstacle.
This piece of logic has stuck in my head for a long time and I always keep that in mind when working with dogs. It helped me years ago with one of my dogs who was uncomfortable swimming as a young dog. Water was no problem but no way were his paws leaving solid land. Letting him run and play with the big dogs didn't help. Neither did coaxing or throwing coveted toys into the water. Since he was supposed to grow up and be a SAR dog he really needed to know how to swim! I finally determined that with THIS dog I was going to have to teach him to swim. I stood in the water just at the point where his paws would leave the ground and coaxed him to me with food. As soon as he got to me I fed him and while he was eating I gently turned him in a tight circle around my legs (causing his paws to briefly leave the ground) and I pushed him back towards land. I repeated this, gradually moving out into deeper water. In just one session he was comfortable swimming out to me; confident that he had the means to return to land. Once he knew how to save himself he could learn to swim without worrying. As an adult he loved to swim more than any of my other dogs and it always made me so happy to watch him, knowing that he would have missed out on something he loved.
Boy on a mission. Now that he can swim!
Without really thinking about it I applied this basic approach to Amber. The thing that we often fail to realize with behaviors is that there is rarely a lot of thought involved and a lot of emotion. This is true with aggression, fearfulness reactivity; whatever. This is not just true for dogs but that starts to get outside my area of knowledge. These emotions have a physiological, visceral element to them that often does not respond well to reason. Knowing that your fear is not rational does not usually help you get over it! Forcing a dog to "get over it" without giving them coping tools is also relatively ineffective; especially long term. What also helped Amber was that she is my “accessory dog”. She was not a dog I raised from a puppy or paid a lot of money for – I had little invested in her and no big plans for her so that effected how I handled her fearfulness. I even gave her a name that I was relatively ambivalent about; as I was not expecting to keep her. To be honest, this approach probably improved my likelihood of being successful. She could be brave. Or not.
To Be Continued (again)....

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