With warm weather on the horizon and a holiday weekend ahead, chances are you’ll see a lot more people out and about enjoying the outdoors with their dogs. Some dogs, like people, are super-social and love spending time with others. If you have a dog like this, a dog park might be a fun destination. The website K9 of Mine has an excellent overview of the advantages and disadvantages of dog parks, do’s and don’ts, and dog-friendly alternatives if a dog park isn’t a good choice for you. It’s definitely worth reading the entire article. Find that here.
It’s been a mild winter here in the Ozarks, with temps fluctuating between single-digit bone chilling cold to spring-like days when we traded parkas for tee shirts. Green sprouts appeared in the garden a month ahead of schedule and daffodils splashed color across the late winter landscape.
We settled in the Ozarks 22 years ago after decades of living and working in far-flung spots on the globe. We’ve seen a lot of changes in our time here, but one thing has remained constant. When the daffodils bloom we know we’re in for at least one more round of winter’s breath. And so it was again this year when the mild days of early March were swept aside by an arctic blast of cold rain that turned to snow that turned to sleet, leaving us shivering under a thin sheet of slick white stuff.
Sasha had a fine time prancing around the yard as the sleet-crusted snow crunched beneath her paws. I snapped this photo of her in one of her rare still moments, just before she returned to zooming around the yard. I was glad to see her in self-exercise mode, as I was less than enthusiastic about navigating icy patches on the sidewalks and streets. Fortunately the sun came out and cleared a path so we could continue outdoor training time without fear of landing flat on my … whatever.
If winter weather has you cutting short your dog’s training time, consider these suggestions offered by Mary Burch, AKC Canine Good Citizen director: teach a skill; tease their brains; and find ways to have fun inside and out, no matter the weather. For details, read Mary’s article here.
Just when I think we’re making progress in our preparations for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification, something happens that has me reevaluating my process.
From our first days together I knew I couldn’t apply the same training methods I’d used years ago with my spaniel Alix. For one thing, Alix was just six weeks old when she came to me, and she was socialized to people, cats, and other dogs right from the start. She was rarely left alone and regularly engaged in fun activities. Training Alix was a straightforward process, thanks to the expert support of my sister Maureen Kidd, who is a superb dog trainer.
In contrast, there’s nothing straightforward about training Sasha. She was at least a year old when she came to us, and whatever happened to her before that point caused her to be anxious and generally fearful of pretty much everything. Consequently, my focus in our first year together was to reduce her anxiety and build her confidence. That’s worked to some extent, but we have a long way to go. We’ve made good progress in some areas, such as reconditioning her response to the coffee grinder or reducing her tendency to bark at neighbors and dogs on the other side of the fence, but we’ve lost some ground along the way as well. Take the CGC test #8, for example–reaction to another dog. I actually thought this would be an easy one for her because Sasha generally ignores the dogs we see in PetSmart or Lowes. She paid scant attention to the dogs we met in obedience class. We participated in the Dogwood Walk last May with hundreds of people and their dogs, and she was relaxed, confident, and clearly enjoyed herself.
So what changed? Haven’t a clue. She’s still calm around other dogs when we’re in stores but neighborhood walks are a whole different experience. Any distraction (think squirrels, birds, passing vehicles, animals, even lawn decorations blowing in the breeze) can set her off. Sometimes the “look at me, good girl, quiet” followed by treats is effective, but dogs, whether close by or a block away, push her past the point I can reliably capture her attention.
Still, we’ve been making some progress with this. When I see anyone approaching with their dog, I’ll cross the street to put a bit of distance between us. I’ve discovered she’ll willingly go from a sit to a down-stay and remain reasonably quiet while the other dog walks by, even if the dog passes within a few yards of us. That’s been true for leashed dogs, and even a few unleashed dogs as long as they keep their distance. If we’re going to earn the CGC, though, we have to get to the point where she’ll walk calmly past another dog.
Toward that goal, we ventured to Lake Fayetteville yesterday. With bright sunshine and record-high temperatures, I anticipated the crowds and went prepared with extra-special training treats. And crowds we found; cyclists, skateboarders, walkers, joggers, and DOGS. Big dogs, little dogs, dogs who were well behaved and a few who weren’t, and one who reminded me of Stephen King’s Cujo. Fortunately, all but one dog was secured with a 6′ leash held firmly by attentive owners. The sole exception was a happy-go-lucky long-haired, short-legged Dachshund mix on a fully extended flexible leash who wanted to check out everything and everyone. (Sasha paid him no attention.)
We spent an hour out there. During that time I learned that Sasha’s reaction to dogs is neither size- nor breed-specific. She was at times friendly, interested, dismissive, or reactive. She walked calmly but stopped often, usually when a dog approached from the opposite direction. She ignored one Boxer and barked wildly at another and then at a much smaller dog (a Westie, I think) who wasn’t anywhere close to us. Sasha had plenty to say when one BIG dog lunged in our direction but didn’t so much as glance at the pair of German Shepherds sitting beside the trail. She turned around to watch a Corgi as it passed by but never made a sound. Ditto with a Labrador, and with the terrier missing part of his back leg, despite the terrier’s obvious interest in Sasha. She managed to bark at dogs of all sizes and breeds while completely ignoring others, including several who barked at her.
As the down-stay isn’t a viable strategy for parks and trails (and obviously not a long-term solution, period), I worked on focusing her attention on me and praising her when she was quiet. When we called a halt and claimed a bench at the side of the trail, she sat quietly and watched the crowds go by. By that point, she’d probably had all the stimulation she could handle. Next time we’ll hit the section of the trail adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, where there’s a big field to run through and plenty of space between trail users. And we’ll keep working on the CGC test items. It may take a while, but we’ll get there!
An extended down-stay at the park 2-11-17
While working with Sasha, it pays to remember the words of dog trainer and writer Nancy Tanner in her excellent post The Misunderstanding of Time:“You cannot rush the teaching or learning process, on either end of the leash.”
For seventeen years after losing my beloved spaniel Alix, I didn’t believe I had enough heart left to offer another dog. Then a year ago, a volunteer sent me this photo of a dog surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office:
I took one look at that sweet—and oh, so frightened—dog, and put everything on hold to cross the prairie plains to bring her home. It was a long journey and a heart-wrenching one at that. What was I getting myself into? I knew next to nothing about her situation other than the sad details shared by the volunteer, and I knew even less about adopting a rescue dog. Was I making the right decision for her, for us? How would Buddy the Wonder Cat react to sharing his family? And what would happen to her, to us if I couldn’t make this adoption work?
If you’ve been following Sasha’s story, you know her most challenging issues included generalized anxiety, fear of strangers (and men in particular), and extreme hyper-sensitivity to noise. We still have work to do, but overall she’s made tremendous progress along the way. That progress might be best summed up using our experience with the coffee grinder.
In her early months with us, loud or unusual sounds sent Sasha scurrying for cover. That included raised voices, applause, and the sound of clickers, which proved problematic during obedience class. She was wary of anything and everything in the kitchen that made noise, to include the coffee-bean grinder which left her trembling with fear and barking wildly. It was quickly apparent that this dog took hyper-sensitivity to sound to a whole new level. We tried showing her what it was so she wouldn’t be scared. Tried distracting her, supplied extra love and attention. Nothing worked.
Then I got smart and turned it into Extra-Special Treat Time. Using Fromm’s big oven-baked biscuit treats I put her in a sit-stay where she could see the grinder, praised her, and gave her a treat. Repeated the process when we measured the beans into the grinder, again when the grinder started and yet again when the grinder finished. Yup, lots of treats, with plenty of time to chew before we moved on to the next step. Since we don’t use the grinder daily it took several weeks to condition her to the sound and cutting back on treats at the same time. And then one day she came running into the office, whined softly to get my attention, and then trotted back to the kitchen just as I heard the coffee grinder in action. The message was clear: it’s treat time!
We successfully reduced her fear in favor of excitement. That success, however, came with an unintended consequence. She reached the point where she’d hear the kitchen drawer holding the coffee supplies slide open (and yes, she’s smart enough to differentiate between the sounds of different drawers!) and would begin barking. We’re talking the piercing, full-volume bark only a Sheltie can manage; it’s enough to hurt your ears and earn a disapproving glare from Buddy the Wonder Cat. Oh, and she added the word coffee to her vocabulary, which had reduced us to spelling the word to avoid the inevitable manic barking.
So….enter conditioning, phase two. These days, she has to work to earn that treat. At a minimum we go through the no-bark, down-stay, sit, and off-leash heel while the grinder’s being set up. Then, and only then, does she earn that treat. And since this is the only time she gets the Fromm’s treats, she’s been quick to pay attention.
I’ve used the coffee-treat time to build her interest in our indoor obedience sessions. Even though the treats are different, she knows if she works well she’s sure to enjoy some tasty tidbits. The indoor sessions are becoming a favorite activity on cold mornings. I use the same martingale collar and leash we use for our neighborhood walks, but Sasha clearly differentiates between my outside and indoor clothes and runs into the hall where we routinely start our workout.
And we have an audience for our indoor sessions, too. Buddy the Wonder Cat watches all the action from his perch and will follow us as we go through the house. We finish with a 3-minute out-of-sight down-stay. (The Supervised Separation is test item #10 for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test.) Buddy is the supervisor most of the time. Inevitably, we’ll hit the 2:30 minute mark and Buddy comes trotting to find me. I’m not sure if he’s reporting that Sasha is still holding the down-stay or if he’s asking if I forgot about her, but he follows me back as soon as the timer goes off and signals the end of our session. As that’s always followed by play time for Sasha and Greenies for Buddy, everyone’s happy!
Happy might be the best word to sum up our year together. The scared little waif who came to me a year ago is now officially known as Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha. We’ll be back soon with more news of Sasha’s ongoing adventures. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot tour highlighting our year together. Enjoy!
This morning dawned clear and sunny, enticing Sasha and I to head outside despite the freezing temperature. We had the neighborhood park all to ourselves, so I traded leash for the 30′ long line and let her zigzag across the park in joyous abandon. (I’ve discovered that training time tends to be most productive when play time comes first.)
I can happily report she’s come a long way in our nine months together, with some skills sharper than others. (Isn’t that true of us all?) She’s happy, eager for adventures every day, and sweet-natured to boot. She’s a terrific guard dog who keeps us company no matter what we’re doing, and even keeps track of Buddy the Cat, whose bramble patch adventures will appear in Dangerous Deeds (book 2 of the Waterside Kennels series).
As you can see from the photo above, we’re making good progress with the stand-stay command. We’re also doing well with sit-stay and down-stay, which I’m using to discourage her from lunging toward vehicles as they pass by.
The basic skills are regular part of our everyday training time, and now I’m shifting focus a bit to concentrate on the specific skills needed to earn the to earn the AKC Canine Good Citizencertification. I need to spend more time on every test item, even the ones she’s doing well. Here’s a rundown of our progress with each test item:
Accepting a friendly stranger
Sasha is perfectly agreeable to having strangers approach in pet-friendly stores, out on the trail, or in the park. She’s even polite to strangers walking through the neighborhood, although she’ll almost always have something to say to them as they approach. The test requires the dog show no sign of resentment or shyness, but there’s no (apparent) requirement to be silent. That’s good news for my talkative girl!
Sitting Politely for Petting
I’ve been coaching her on this one for a while. She’s okay with adults provided they don’t run up and thrust a hand in her face or grab her. (And really, who likes that?) She’s calm with strollers and toddlers, a bit cautious around older boys, and tends to stare at kids on bikes and scooters as though trying to figure out what they’re doing.
Appearance and Grooming
Thanks to the fabulous work of master groomer Alicia Broyles of Towne and Kountry Grooming and Dr. Hynes and Dr. Stropes of Crossover Veterinary Clinic, Sasha is calm and polite when standing for examination (and that’s why we practice the stand-stay). She doesn’t mind her ears being checked and quickly mastered the foot command–my own invention motivated by the need to wipe the mud off her feet after outdoor play time.
Out for a Walk (walking on a loose lead)
Sasha is smart and knows the difference between walking on the leash and having the long line clipped on, which is her signal to forget heeling and just have fun. Once on the leash, though, and she’s (mostly) a well-mannered dog who enjoys adding her own running commentary of mutters and low-voiced yips, yodels, and the ocassional bark.
Walking Through a Crowd
With the farmer’s market off the square for the winter, we’re relying on pet-friendly stores and the area parks for crowd work. Our local Lowes home improvement store has a pet-loving manager and a friendly crew, so we make a point of browsing there frequently. This has also proved good practice for the “sitting politely for petting” test. When other dogs react by barking or lunging, Sasha just sits or stands quietly at my side.
I follow the same protocol at PetSmart, but that’s due to inattentive owners with dogs on extended leashes. Neither Sasha nor I are fans of those leashes, but she enjoys our time there because she’s allowed to browse the items on the shelves!
Sit and Down on Command and Staying in Place
This is working well, likely because I take every opportunity to practice the sit-stay and down-stay when we’re out and about. Sure, it takes longer to finish the walk, but Sasha is rewarded with frequent sniff breaks in between heeling and the sit, down, and stay on command, not to mention the praise lavished on her by passersby who inevitably ask, “How do you get her to do that?” (The answer is “Practice every day.”)
Coming When Called
The test involves a distance of 10 feet, but we practice using the 30′ long line as well as the 6′ standard leash. Our challenge here is to have a consistent and reliable recall despite distractions. For Sasha, those distractions can be squirrels, birds, airplanes, passing vehicles, etc.
Reaction to Another Dog
This one is definitely a work in progress. As the test is described, “The dogs should show no more than casual interest in each other. Neither dog should go to the other dog or its handler.” We haven’t reached the “casual interest” stage. In the neighborhood, Sasha is on alert but interested: head up, tail up, body language and vocalization signaling excited interest.
The other challenge is that the neighborhood dogs always want to get up-close-and-too-personal with Sasha. We need to spend more time out of the neighborhood and along the lake trail, which is popular with dog walkers. I’ll gradually decrease the distances between us and the others. I’ll note, though, that Sasha participated in the annual Dog Walk back in May and handled being in a crowd of people and dogs with no problem at all.
Sasha is comfortable with the down-stay as long as I’m in sight. This test, however, has me going out of sight for three minutes. So far, we haven’t made it past one minute.
The test description also says that the dog “does not have to stay in position but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or show anything stronger than mild agitation or nervousness.” She won’t bark or pace unnecessarily, but she does have that tendency toward a running commentary, even if it’s quiet. I’m open to suggestions here, as well!
All in all, we’re both making reasonably good progress, and I’m looking forward to mastering the CGC and moving on to new canine challenges!