A few weeks ago, if I heard someone say they don’t walk their dogs I would have been in outrage – how judgemental and small minded I can be (no I’m not perfect and sometimes a bit of a bitch). But the last few weeks has been a period of learning and growing in our household (as I am sure it has been in many) and a big focus for that learning and growing for us has been around the furry members of our family.
There have been a few niggling behavioural and training issues that we have either let slide or never got on top of and I decided with all this extra time at home together, it was the perfect time to finally tackle them. Now I love my husband, but if we ever butt heads about things, more times than not it is about the dogs and their training. I am a natural rule-follower, like to understand the process, but also understand that some journeys take time. My husband on the other hand is a natural rule-breaker, or he would say a rule-bender. He likes to find the most efficient way to achieve the desired goal. But alas, dog training and behaviour just isn’t one of those things that can be done quickly. During my time as a vet I have found it to be a common story – there is generally (when working with a couple or a family) one person who will follow instructions precisely when it comes to training, and another who will be more lenient. But consistency is key when it comes to training.
And so, a few weeks ago (I know I mentioned it before) I stumbled across a 25 day ‘Sexier than a Squirrel’ challenge and I signed us up. Our little Pickle dog does so many things perfectly, but when it comes to recall it’s less hit than miss. And let me be the first to say that this is entirely our fault. Training failures are always the trainer’s fault, not the animal, which is why I get so frustrated when things aren’t working – I only have myself to blame. Now Pickle’s recall is about 70% success on a great day, but at her worst I have lost her for almost 2 hours in the pitch black because she has taken off after some deer as the sun was setting. Enter the GPS tracker that is permanently attached to her now.
Just in case you thought I was kidding about the GPS tracker
Now we have made so many mistakes with her recall, or lack thereof, and not the smallest being allowing her to rehearse her poor recall over and over and over again. The best way to really lock in a bad behaviour is letting them rehearse it. So, I signed up to this challenge specifically because I wanted to learn how to be sexier than a squirrel, deer, fox, bird, mouse, fluttering leaf etc.
I knew we had a long battle ahead of us to retrain Pickle’s brain into thinking that I was more interesting than all those exciting things in the environment but what I wasn’t expecting is the emotional rollercoaster that would come along with this training – it’s high highs when you have a win and low lows when you have one of those days when nothing is going the way you would like. It was on one of those low days that I put out a message on the games Facebook group to ask advice about the best way to improve her engagement with me when we were out on walks. There was a resounding response from all the trainers – ditch the walk!
Naturally I was surprised and asked a million questions because ditching the walk just seemed like craziness, like I would be a bad owner, Pickle wouldn’t get the physical exercise she needed each day, the list goes on. But I dug deep and for the last 14 days we haven’t walked Pickle. In actual fact we haven’t walked any of the girls. What we have been doing is playing these 3-minute games in the house and in the back garden several times a day. In trainer terms - we’ve changed our practice from training in the situation (on a highly stimulating walk) to training for the situation (in the house and garden). Which in hindsight, makes perfect sense. Trying to work on new, difficult skills with your dog when they are in a highly stimulating environment is just setting them up to fail. It makes the training much more difficult and you end up disheartened and feeling like a failure and inevitably give up.
Nose touch is by far one of Pickle's most favourite games in the world!
Have we noticed any changes – absolutely. Prior to these games Pickle wasn’t much of a player, she could take it or leave it. Now you pick up a toy and she is ready to play, fully engaged. Or we get her kibble ready to play games and she lights up, ready to play whatever game we throw at her. By the end of a 3-minute game she is bright-eyed and panting. Her recall in the garden is nearing 95% which is amazing seeing as we live on a farm with lots of interesting things just on the other side of our fence. At the end of the day she is exhausted. There’s been no signs of boredom or frustration not having her walk. Our relationship is even stronger. We are winning…for now.
Pickle and I working on 'middle' - a game that can be used for recall, proximity training, for new and potentially stressful situations, the list goes on
So, what we are aiming for is about 80% success in the garden before we take our next step. Yes, I know I just said we are reaching 95% but I want to keep working in the garden a bit longer until we are solid. I’m honestly really scared about taking her out because I don’t want to fail – I put too high expectations on her and then I get upset. It’s a ridiculous cycle but when I am emotionally ready, we will take that next step. That next step will be us taking just Pickle (other dogs at home), on a long lead, to a quiet field with no other people or dogs. We want to slowly increase the difficulty level – not go straight from our garden to a busy field with lots of other dogs and people. Why? Because it will simply be asking too much of her and I know I am sensitive and will get upset that we haven’t achieved anything when in reality, we have just asked for too much too soon. This training thing is a journey that we just can’t rush.
I must be honest and say that doing this challenge with my husband has also been really good, albeit maybe not quite the right time to do something this challenging together when we are quarantined together with no escape. That being said, we are so much better at talking through issues with the dog training without getting into a disagreement. We are definitely closer to being on the same page (although not completely just yet) – but again this takes time. It’s a journey. But just like the journey we are on with our dogs, this journey with him is absolutely worth it.
If any of you are interested in this challenge or want to know more about the guys who run it, you can find them on Facebook (absolute dogs) and Instagram (@absolutedogsofficial) or check out their website www.absolutedogs.me for all their courses. Alternatively, you can ask me any questions as well as I am happy to share the good and the bad of our experience so far, and I will keep you guys posted on our progress.
We have thoroughly enjoyed this course and Facebook community is so friendly, helpful and supportive. No we aren't sponsored - we are just happy customers!
As always, stay safe, and enjoy the journey of becoming a mindful pet owner.