Monday, December 30, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #5: My Dog is Not Perfect and I'm Fine With That

I've struggled to write this post for several weeks. There have been multiple attempts at typing out my thoughts for this entry, just to be deleted one letter at a time, then typed again a few days later...then, again, followed, by holding down the delete button. I don't know why it's been so tough to write this entry (maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the time of year...maybe it was because I needed a break from writing). Ironically, I think I was trying to make it perfect. Which, is much harder than I thought (and contradictory my own post), therefore I will welcome this "better than it was before" entry and let 'er rip...

Summing up this year's series of "Confessions of a Dog Trainer" posts, I must confess...I am a dog trainer and my dog is NOT perfect.

Oscar has some challenging behaviors. My sweet, Oscar Handsome Pants, bless his soul, will always need to be be managed - and I will always need to help guide him when it comes to certain things.
Little stinker around 12 weeks

Talking about my own dog's "naughty" behaviors is always humbling and an opportunity for me to reflect on how far we have come together. It also helps keep me grounded with my students and offer a piece of mind that they often times need.  I'll never get sick of seeing their faces when I tell them that, "I, too, have a sensitive dog."

I wasn't always this comfortable talking about my naughty dog. The first two (plus) years of raising Oscar were very trying on me - both personally and professionally. I spent countless hours feeling frustrated, confused, disappointed, upset (to the point of crying bawling) and unable to move past the fact that I had a "bad dog." I was failing as a pet owner and I was failing as a trainer. It was embarrassing and I felt defeated on several occasions. I didn't understand how the same suggestions and advice I was suggesting to my clients were not working in my own life. Or they would work one day, but not the next with my own dog.

I didn't know what was going on, I was trying everything that I knew how to do (without resorting to aversives like prong collars, shock collars, alpha rolls and the like). I tried classical counter conditioning, desensitization, BAT, CAT, clicking to calm and so on.  You name it and I swear I tried it. My dog book/DVD library was growing by the week as I looked for solutions to Oscar's "problems." I felt emotionally and physically drained...why wasn't this "stuff" working with my own dog?!

I was convinced that part of the "problem" was Oscar's age (anyone who has owned a dog between 6 months and 2-1/2 years knows what I am talking about). Adolescence is typically a VERY difficult time for the majority of pet owners - especially if they have a more sensitive dog like Oscar. Adolescence is also very hard on many dogs - something I have a much greater appreciation for now that I've lived through it and see many clients experiencing the same struggles.
Who's happy? Oscar is!

I also thought that part of the "problem" was Oscar's breed. Shepherds are highly intelligent and most are quite sensitive. That's not an excuse, but it is a reality and I knew that when I brought him into my family, so that didn't bother me so much.

I knew part of the "problem" was me (in fact, it still is - I'm working on it, I promise!). I'll spare you the pity party on that one, but I know I am definitely not perfect (see Aaron - I do admit it!).

I also believe that part of the "problem" stemmed from the months upon months of GI issues Oscar had experienced. His growing body and mind were being deprived of valuable nutrients he needed.

What I truly feel to be the root of this "imperfection," though, points directly at me and the unrealistic expectations I had for Oscar. That combined with my own selfish needs and wants....well, no wonder things were so crappy.  What was even more humbling is that when I sat down and audited my commitment and involvement, I didn't give Oscar a fair chance with some of the previously mentioned training techniques.

So, there you have it. I wanted Oscar to be perfect, but I since have found that perfect doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that I've given up on improving his undesirable behaviors...that's not the case (I've actually gone back to focusing on classical counter conditioning and desensitization with him). What I am saying though, is that being in tune with your dog and being honest with yourself enough to put your ego aside and acknowledge their unique ability to change needs to be respected. Having this sense of honesty builds an amazing relationship with your that is based on trust and free of ego. And, for me us, what could be more perfect than that?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Confessions of a Dog Trainer #4: My Dog Gets Fed First

Here's another one piece of advice that come from folks who are advising others that they need to be "the top dog in your home," the "leader of the pack," or the "alpha dog."

YOU NEED TO EAT BEFORE YOUR DOG...or even more awkward, SPIT in your dog's food before you feed show 'em who's boss. If you don't, OH NO, they are going to become dominant and think they rule the house.  That's a lot of pressure on the person (OMG - that means that every time I want to give my dog a food treat, I need to eat before them?! Ack!)!

WHAT?! Really?

Don't believe the hype. You DO NOT need to eat before your dog because of the potential fallout it might cause.
Oscar waiting patiently for his release word.
He looks worried, but he's not (the camera was
being held by my belt), my eyes were up higher,
which is where he's looking :)

As some of you know, my amazing husband, Aaron, is a very good cook. OK, that's an understatement. He's an artist in the kitchen and routinely turns out delicious meals with lots of thought and love and, oh lucky me, I'm there to eat it.  And for those of you who know Aaron, you know that he is very thorough in whatever he does. He enjoys the process of making things...and while some of us take shortcuts, he doesn't even consider it. What this also means is that, more often than not, Aaron and I are not eating supper before 8:30pm on any given day. And what that means is that Oscar gets fed before us almost every night. That said, in the morning, Oscar typically does get fed before the humans. Just because our schedule makes it so (and the fact that he gets digestive enzymes so his food percolates while I eat).

Has this made him a conniving, dominance-seeking dog? Heck no. I would argue the exact opposite happens because our feeding is on a schedule. And, boy-oh-boy, Oscar thrives when our schedule is predictable.

Our feeding routine is consistent and they work for everyone; the humans and Oscar. And in all honesty, Oscar could care less if he eats before, during or after us, he just wants to get fed!  The only caveat to feeding time is that we do use it as an opportunity to reinforce him for good manners (hello life reward - cha-ching). Oscar has developed a beautiful behavior chain; dinner bowl comes out, run to crate, offer an auto sit, food bowl gets placed down, offer auto eye contact, wait for release word, and viola! FOOD TIME!

The main thing I want readers to consider is that you should do whatever works for your family. To me, it's more important to focus on teaching your dog dinnertime manners (a sit until released is a great place to start) than to waste your energy thinking about trying to find a cracker to eat before you feed your dog. Feed your dog when it's convenient for you, ask your pup for a sit and then let them eat in peace while you go on worrying about more important things, like what's going to happen in the next season of The Walking Dead.

Stay tuned for my last post in this series...
Confessions of a Dog Trainer #5: My Dog is Not Perfect and I'm Fine With That