Training Tales - A Progress Report for Larry
by Tim Wheeler, LDDR volunteer
Tonight's special edition comes to you direct from ringside at Healthy Paws. We employed a tag team in our training process. If you have not already met Larry you need to know that he was once a puppy who got by on good looks and boundless charm. Today he is a full grown dog and built like a bulldozer, that is to say, he is powerfully built and needs a handler that is aware of his, well, we'll call it "exuberance". You see, he loves people and other dogs so much and wants to be with them constantly, actually touching and interacting. Poor Larry, it is too easy to misunderstand your intentions sometimes.
Back to the tag team, it starred Larry, Jan, and me in a supporting role. Because Larry is so powerful and determined to be wherever it is he thinks he will get the attention he craves, he will need an experienced handler and fairly constant management to keep him out of trouble. We are teaming up to help Larry learn some impulse control which will be critical to his successful fostering and adoption. So how did we do it? Simple, we broke down the responsibilities for each trainer. My job was to make sure Larry did not get out from behind the partition at the wrong time, like when other dogs and trainers are out there in the training room running through their skills, in other words, I was an anchor. And Jan's job was to work with Larry on his impulse control. Games like hand targeting, otherwise known as a nose to hand "touch", the "elevator game", "find it", and leave "it". Each of us took advantage of our unique skills as trainers, I was a post (some people think I am at least as smart as one) and Jan was the expedition leader.
We proceeded through the training exercises behind the partition with Larry. Meanwhile, the other trainers "popped out" from behind their respective partitions, sometimes viewing other dogs or "Mr. Stuffy" from across the training room. At critical points in the process, the attention of the participating pups was redirected to the trainer to make sure the dogs were not going over threshold. For training purposes, keeping the dogs feeling safe and giving them something to do other than being fearful or worried about their environment is critical to reshaping behaviors. Keeping stress levels low helps dogs to continue learning with the front part of their brains instead of trying to flee the scene, a panic response that comes from the more primal brain. So we have a choice, do we want the panicky dog or the one who keeps their cool because they still feel safe? That is the choice we make every day as trainers. By the way, if you are lucky enough to have a dog, you are a trainer!
Jan is presenting Larry with lots of games and a food puzzle that he is unfamiliar with. Between the three of us, it is hard to tell which of us is enjoying helping Larry to solve the puzzle. It is just a very short time before a now very curious and happy Larry is pulling off lids, setting them aside and gobbling up the tasty treats underneath. How about a walk Larry? "Let's go" and away we go, back and forth. Larry looks up at me and he gets heavily reinforced for the look with a fistful of treats. What is he thinking now? We are moving again, Larry looks at me again and, boom, more treats, a repeat performance. At times he gets distracted by what else is happening in the training room, this is completely expected and something to take advantage of while training. "Let's go" and we are walking again. Larry is looking at me expectantly "YES!" and he gets more food reinforcement for the look because #foodworks. You are getting it, Larry! You are doing awesome!
UPDATE: July 5th - Today promises to be a warm one, into the mid-80s in southeast Michigan. Into Healthy Paws, I go to pick up Larry for some quality time. Larry arrives in the waiting room and I quickly escort him out to the parking lot. Even though Larry loves humans he is not sure of what to expect with other canines so we are avoiding accidental meeting. Larry easily launches into my vehicle, anticipating good times.
We drive to the local Ikea and park. In mere seconds we are out and walking along Haggerty Road, exploring everything along the way. What's that over there? A pond? Oh yeah, we are checking it out. A Canada goose family makes their way into the pond. Larry seems only mildly interested in them. The shade and cool, moist grass hold a lot more interest. And just to make our time worthwhile, Larry is letting everyone know that he has been here; he is watering everything within easy reach whether it needs it or not. No problem Larry, I'll just wait right here for you. What's that? In his thoroughness, he turns around and waters from both directions at times. This is a prime opportunity for making his mark in the world.
We head north for a bit and I look for behaviors I can reinforce. Walking nicely on leash without pulling? Yep, we are reinforcing that with training treats. Today it is tiny bits of chicken and beef heart. I am constantly checking his movements and assessing how he is doing. Are his eyes soft? Ears back? Body loose? I call his name when he is relaxed, "Larry", he turns and comes back to me. "Yes", that's it, good boy! And he receives food reinforcement. On we go. Although it is not hot outside yet we take frequent brakes, pausing in shady spots and work on building up "calm time" as something to be expected and reinforced when he relaxes. After a few minutes, we are off again, exploring.
I seem to be noticing Larry is not a big fan of road traffic because he is looking toward the road at times and pulling his ears back. To compensate we walk further away from the road, walking in the cool grass under the shade of trees. Larry happily moves along, giving me eye contact. Perfect Larry! I like that look! He gets reinforced for looking at me, increasing the chances he will do so again because #foodworks.
We spend about an hour together and it is time to return to the kennel. Time for a long cool drink of water. Oh yeah, that's the stuff. See you next time buddy.
UPDATE: July 19th - In case you have not met Larry, aka, the "Velvet Hippo", he is described as a 50-pound male American Staffordshire terrier. Today was a hot day in southeast Michigan, the kind of day where you are sticky five minutes after you get out of the shower. I picked him up at Healthy Paws (HP) and we headed out on our adventure. After just a few minutes I parked at the Home Depot along the adjoining road where there are no houses in sight and little chance of seeing other dogs. You see, as much as Larry loves people, he does have problems with other dogs so I did my very best to avoid any accidental meetings.
We meandered under the shade of the young trees along the side street, staying cool. There was no sense of urgency, this walk was strictly for Larry and I was just there to keep him out of trouble. For today our focus was reinforcing both eye contact and calm time. After about fifteen minutes of slowly walking, we began training in earnest. We stopped at a low shaded spot and sat. What do you think Larry? He followed my lead and sat down. After a few minutes, he decided to stretch out the way that dogs sometimes will, with his hind legs splayed out behind him, taking advantage of the fullest possible contact between his body and the cool grass. It was his way of staying cool without air conditioning. What a smart boy! That is dog sense for you. When I see that he is very relaxed, I scatter training treats in the grass and he busies himself finding them. He looks at me and, boom, he gets more treats in the grass because, as you already know, #foodworks to reinforce the behaviors we like. We wait a few more minutes and repeat the "exercise". Larry is showing me he knows how to play it cool.
A short while later, we got up and continued our walk along under the shade. Larry's nose starts to quiver; he senses a dead and decayed animal nearby. Much as he would like to roll in it, I deny him the opportunity. It would not go over well to carry that kind of stink in my vehicle and then into HP. Someday Larry, you will get your chance boy. Larry is moving along easily, he is a dream on a leash when he is not stressed. A little further along and it is time to stop again and continue our training. Larry is doing great. He is giving me eye contact and staying calm. We eventually make our way back to my vehicle and it is time for a drink of water. I lift the small container up to Larry and he laps up the water like there is no tomorrow. Want some more? Oh yeah, that's the stuff. After a good and satisfying drink, we are ready to head back to HP. Larry got a little stress out of his system and managed to work his way a little further into my heart. You big lug, you really are a great dog.