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Watching Alex

first place ribbonBy Tamara Dormer, CPDT-KA, AKC-CGC, APDT


As I watch the dog investigate the training area for the first time, I only observe, rather than ask.  I have placed food treats on the agility equipment that he can find and eat without having to get on the equipment itself; he can eat the treats while his feet remain on the ground so he doesn’t have to touch the equipment if he doesn’t want to.  If he approaches me for interaction, I do interact with him.  This is it—for 10 – 15 minutes, and then it’s the end of the first training session with him.  Why do I do this and is this considered training? 
For me, it is indeed the first and most important step of training in that I am setting up an environment to start a relationship with this dog.  And since training is partly observation of the dog, this is what I am also doing, simply watching.  I am looking for how he interacts with the environment—does he find the treats soon, or is his nose mostly on the ground?  Does he ignore the agility equipment or see it and shy away or come and sniff?  Does he ignore me?  What I can see is how this dog deals with a new environment without me directing him to “do something”.  I want to see what HE does, on his own and see if I can get a glimpse into how he perceives and deals with his world.  Then I begin to train with a plan and try some ideas about how I can motivate this dog to do what I think he needs help with—if I was training in the private sector, it would be influenced by what the pet’s owner wants.  However, I mostly train in an animal sanctuary, which is similar to a shelter environment in many ways.  I work with the dogs that aren’t in a home yet, or have been surrendered from a former home for some reason.  

This training plan of exposing the dog to a large room with agility equipment isn’t what I do with every dog, but with the most fearful or aggressive or least socialized.  I want to see how soon this dog notices or interacts with the environment, which includes the agility equipment and me.  If food is what motivates him, I then become the treat-raining goddess, sprinkling treats around me, around the dog, around a lot of the environment to show him that I’ve got interesting stuff for him.  We then move forward.
But what is forward?  It doesn’t matter what I think forward means, but what the dog thinks it means.  I think the dog is moving forward when he is showing interest in either me or the food or the behaviors I may ask him for.  To move forward, means he has (for the moment anyway) left his fear behind.  I may start with what is often referred to as basic manners, if this is what the dog needs to help him find his forever home.  Things such as sit, down, wait, leave it, loose leash walking, attention (often called focus) exercises.  Depending on the dog’s needs, I add things to this or even do these things instead—calming exercises, targeting or agility.  All of these exercises are chosen though based on what the dog tells me or shows me he needs, or what his caregivers at the sanctuary pass along to me about his behavior.  If I have a history of the dog’s behavior, that can help but only if he displays this behavior to us; we must not invent what we think the dog needs but observe the dog and let him show us.  As trainers, we must bridge the dog’s needs with what society and families need as well to create a long-term happy and healthy relationship.

In a shelter-like environment, staying calm can be next to impossible for lots of dogs:  with limited access time-wise to their caregivers, random drop-ins of strangers visiting, combined with wildlife approaching rather closely at times to the dog runs, this can be very stimulating.  This is where dogs often entertain themselves with fence-gaming (running the fence line and barking at your neighbors), barking excessively, or even shutting down entirely because they don’t know what to do at all or how to distribute their energy.  Behaviors that sanctuary and shelter workers see often like barrier frustration is common as well, though we often see these behaviors in the home from dogs that have never walked through a shelter’s doors.

If the dog ignores me or the agility equipment after two or three sessions, we move on to a car ride or a walk to a new environment such as a grassy area with a creek running through it and lots of trees (unusual here in the desert), or the pet cemetery that has statuary, wind chimes, water fountains, and gazebos we can do some work in.  This is one of the fastest ways to build a relationship, because this is F-U-N.  I am striving for his attention, trying to be more interesting if the treat-raining goddess did not move him; I am now the adventure goddess.  (And I don’t forget to add in those drives to pick-up windows where we get the hamburger or cheeseburger for him.)  Many trainers say that in shelter environments, or even in private sector training that we don’t have the time to build these relationships, that the relationship is what happens in the home or with the dog’s owner.  However, I don’t feel this is true.  A relationship is many things, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but if you watch the dog after you’ve taken him for a 5 minute walk or clicked and rewarded him for 5 minutes, you do have a relationship with this dog.  It is a new and perhaps fragile relationship, but it is there and it is forming.  Therefore, I do not want to damage this relationship in any way by training using pain or fear or force, but I only want to be the treat-raining goddess or the adventure goddess or the fun and interesting goddess.  I want to open this dog’s mind, his heart, his world to a way of learning based on trust because the worst thing that will happen if he gets it “wrong” is that he will not get a piece of liver or he may be confused for a moment.  He will not be punished, so he will feel free to try again and again so he can get that click, that treat, open that mind.

The dog is named Alex.  He was found locked inside an abandoned home after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in very bad physical shape.  Emaciated, covered with scabs, shaking in fear.  And later, his very bad emotional shape showed because he started biting.  Alex’s deep fear is being touched, most likely of being touched inappropriately, though we don’t really know.  He will lean into the fence for you to touch him (you think) and then stiffen and harden his eyes when you do.  When I first met Alex and began working with him, I fed him treats every time I passed his dog run even though he was ferociously telling me to go away, before I ever went in to be with him.  I then went in to meet him and start working with him, introduced to him by someone who already had a relationship with him.  We went to the training areas, on walks, to those fun places, and for many cheeseburgers.  Alex already had been trained here to understand sit and down, so I focused on our relationship and followed that with targeting because this invites  the dog to touch you.  Alex leans into me, he hugs me, he will sit on my lap and snuggle—it seems he trusts me.  I can touch him in most places, but I do also watch him because I am under no illusions that Alex will not bite again; he has always warned and so I am always watching.  And he is watching me always as well.  He loves targeting, though he becomes terrified again and backs away when we get to the point of targeting objects in my hand.  So, I hang toys on his fence so he may touch them, smell them, target them when I’m not around and then I try again.  Our relationship is a growing and changing thing, as I train this dog to learn new skills.

When a dog bites, he has relied upon this behavior for some reason to deal with and communicate his fear—I refer to it as being in his “tool box” of behaviors that he reaches for.  We all have tool boxes, humans and dogs.  What I want to teach Alex is that his biting behavior in the tool box isn’t necessary any longer as a common way to deal with his world, that we will listen to him, acknowledge and respect his fear of his body being touched.  We will show him how touch can be a soft, inviting, relaxing sensation.  And maybe his tool box will be placed farther and farther into the dark, so he never has to reach there again.  I don’t know, but I will continue to watch Alex and work hard for him to watch me.  And to me, this indeed is training.

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