Play and the Importance of Time

Phoebe doing Urban Agility

I’ve blogged many times about my dog Phoebe since  she was given to me last year by a client. When they got her from a shelter in 2009 she was a growly shaky mess at people and dogs. Phoebe’s previous owners had a baby in 2010 and despite her overall improvement, her aggressive displays when people came over worried them. She never bit anyone but she definitely nipped at heels and could be pretty nasty and scary looking when she was scared. I think they made the right decision for their family and I was grateful to keep her since she and I had developed quite a bond in the time we’d worked together.

When I got Phoebe in January 2010, I immediately enrolled us in an agility class. She had some basic obedience commands but as a scaredy dog she really needed to build her confidence by learning new skills. At the beginning of our 6 week class she was afraid of the jumps and tunnels. By the end she was showing off and so proud of herself to be able to navigate these new challenges. After that we turned Brooklyn into our own urban agility course. I’d have Phoebe jump on stoops etc. as we walked through the neighborhood. Anything that she could stand or walk on I’d cue her to jump on and give her treats. This made walks a lot more fun for both of us.

Phoebe still was a bit growly and barky when meeting new dogs on the street on leash. We realized we we not helping the situation by pulling her away with the leash and saying her name in a stern voice. In fact, we realized by doing that we were cueing her to freak out. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but we started dropping her leash when we met other dogs. We greeted them first using a happy voice while Phoebe snuck around and investigated them from behind. This seemed to help her anxiety meeting other dogs and she’s improved with that as well.

As for people who wanted to say hello to her, we would hand them a treat and have her give them high fives etc so she was more focused on doing tricks and getting treats than worrying about a new person. It also kept new people from scaring her by reaching over her head (which most dogs don’t like) and petting her inappropriately. Shy dogs appreciate a sideways approach and an underhand chin scratch greeting more than a stranger’s hand coming over their head and patting it.

We take her several times a week up to Prospect Park for off leash hours. Mostly she would stick close to us and occasionally growl or bark at other people or dogs. Sometimes she would play with us and run around if we were away from the other dogs. Again over time this improved but aside from occasionally sniffing other dogs, she’d stick with us.

So imagine my surprise the other morning when she met another little terrier named Toby and actually started to engage in play, jumping around, running, bowing in play pose with a big grin on her face. She had never played with another dog before! Then she met a little Pomeranian down the street from our house named Richie and started doing the same thing. I almost cried with joy.

It can be hard having a rescue dog with issues and sometimes you wonder if they’ll ever feel stable enough to come out of them. Phoebe is proof to me that with time and consistent positive training a dog can get better and have a happy life, despite how difficult its beginnings may be. A lot of it is being willing to examine my actions with my dog and improving those as well as being consistent with her. I feel like a lot of owners give up on their dogs too quickly or aren’t willing to look at what they might be doing that contributes to the problem.  Dog training isn’t so much about training the dog, it’s about training yourself to behave in ways that help your dog to understand what it is you want them to do instead of the behaviors you don’t want them to do. This doesn’t just mean yelling “NO!” at them every time they do something wrong. It means showing them other behaviors you want them to do instead so they learn it’s fun to work/live with you instead of just getting yelled at all the time.

Dogs are nonverbal, dog training should be quiet. I don’t say much to dogs when I’m training them. I give them physical and verbal cues but I don’t repeat myself. If I’m saying “Sit, Sit, Sit” then I’m doing something wrong and need to look at that. I want them to do the behavior on the 1st not the 3rd or 10th request. When I go to off leash hours I hear so many people yelling at their dogs over and over again. It annoys me, so I can only imagine how the dogs must feel considering their hearing is so much better than ours. What if everyone worked with cheese or hotdogs on recall at home then at the park making it super fun and awesome for a dog every time they came? What a peaceful morning it would be for all of us. I think the owners and dogs would be so much happier. We really have to ask what is important to our dog–its usually fun and treats. If we’re the most fun thing in our dog’s life with the best treats there’s no end to what we can teach them and what they can ultimately teach us.

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