He’s Not Stubborn, You’re Just Worthless

In a dog daycare setting, you see other people’s pets at their naughtiest. Mom and dad aren’t there to enforce the rules, and “everyone else is doing it” tends to apply; once one dog starts digging a hole, suddenly everyone is digging. One barking dog gets everyone barking. (Not that there’s much wrong with digging or barking–these are normal dog behaviors that I would redirect instead of outright squash.)

stubborn-beagle-stubborn-dog-featureBut a lot of these urban pets lack manners on top of that.

These dogs’ people have a lot of reasons for this. “She’s bossy,” or “he’s too excited all the time.” Or, the most common one: “He’s just really stubborn!”

Here’s a super amazing secret: this has nothing to do with the dog. Any one of those dogs could have excellent manners very easily, and it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them, at all.

You, their person, just aren’t worth very much.

Dogs are highly sensitive. They are bombarded by a million stimuli  that we do not notice. They can hear things and smell things from, literally in some cases, a mile away. They can hear what is happening underground and smell the frustration on your breath. There is so. Much. Happening. in their world.

So you bring your dog outside and she starts sniffing, because that’s how dogs do, and also down the street someone’s barking inside the house, and also on the next block someone is using a leaf blower, and there’s a soccer game at the school a half mile away. But you need to get your keys out, so you tell her to sit.

Does she ignore you?

Have you practiced sit inside with lots of rewards? With fewer rewards? With no rewards? Did you go back to using lots of rewards while you introduced mild distractions, like the presence of cookies loose on the countertop nearby? Did you fade out using lots of rewards in that circumstance? Did you work up to working with cookies on the floor? Tossing a ball while she’s in a sit? While your cat eats on the floor next to her? Did you then take that whole game outside and start from the beginning? Because that’s how you make that “sit” valuable and easily doable for your dog in lots of different environments.

Have you done that work?

No?

Then whose fault is it that she doesn’t immediately sit? I don’t think it’s because she’s stubborn.

I think it’s because listening to you is a job that’s too hard on a way-too-low pay grade. You haven’t made that sit–and working with you–valuable enough to your dog.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. All of those steps above, in bold? You can go through those in a few weeks to a few months, in five-minute increments, depending on you and your dog.

Beyond the Backyard by Denise Fenzi is a great place to start. I’m going to be teaching a class on this curriculum at Four Paw Sports this summer, so stay tuned.

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What is Dog Parkour Good For?

When I started doing Dog Parkour I thought of it as a second-rate fill-in for the agility it was replacing in my reactive kelpie mix’s life. I was hurt and depressed by her early retirement, and anxious that my dog’s aggression would severely limit her opportunities to explore the world. We needed something physically demanding to train for to keep her fit.

I honestly didn’t think that we would enjoy Parkour very much.

But something happened. Practicing Parkour–a sport that requires you to use your environment interactively–meant me and my dog-aggressive, reactive girl were leaving the house together for long stretches of time and working in public places, where other people and even dogs were moving through the environment. And instead of this overwhelming my dog and turning her into a lunging, barking mess, it focused her. Jumping, balancing, turning and watching my cues gave her something else to do instead of worry about where the other dogs were. She was focused on me and her job in a way she never was when I asked her to sit or down or watch me in the presence of another dog.

I found that I really enjoyed the clarity of criteria, despite how diverse Parkour obstacles necessarily are. Teaching a verbal discrimination for a 2-on versus a 4-on was a shaping session that my dog and I both enjoyed more than I thought we would. My girl loves moving her body, so learning to go under an obstacle–a big physical movement–was a joy to her. And teaching her to wait on obstacles was incredibly valuable in general. Now when we go hiking, she often offers to wait as I climb down a steep part of the trail, and when I’m down the difficult stretch I can release her from the wait or show her the easiest path down. That’s not something I trained intentionally, but it’s a great and useful skill to have if you spend a lot of time in the woods with your dogs!

Reactive dogs are often limited in where they’re taken and what they’re asked to do. Their handlers are afraid their dogs will get upset, freak out, scream and melt down and become unmanageable, or maybe even try to bite someone. So we fall into a routine that’s safe, and we don’t challenge our dogs or push them to grow out of their reactivity. As a result the reactivity only gets worse.

This is a rule: reactivity never gets better on its own. Never, ever.

Even though my dog’s recent turn towards aggression made me never want to take her near another dog again, here we were out in the world doing high 4-ons and wall walks and rebounds. She was happy in the presence of her triggers, and I was learning to trust her again after the trauma of a serious dog fight.

Agility never relaxed my dog. If anything, the presence of agility equipment pushed her over the top and made her more unpredictable.

But after working together in a Parkour outing–and we really do work together far better at this than we ever did in agility, as I’m spotting her, helping her find the obstacles and get down from high places and she’s learned to wait for my feedback–she is physically and mentally tired, her body language is loose and calm, she’s alert and happy, and she and I can sit out in public watching the world go by. She lays by my feet, observing but with none of her normal need to control or interrogate or do something busy with her mouth or feet or nose. She is, unbelievably, relaxed in public.

That is what Parkour has given me. My hyperaware, sensitive, controlling, reactive, dog-aggressive girl, laying at my feet in public, completely relaxed and happy.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dog Parkour, I’m helping bring the founders of the International Dog Parkour Association to Lynnwood, WA June 2-4 for an introductory working Dog Parkour seminar. Pricing is really reasonable!