Home for the Holidays – A Success Story

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

This is a success story. It’s the happy ending kind of holiday story about well-earned success through smart and dedicated training.

Perla (I have permission to use real names) barked at strangers, primarily strangers she saw on walks. This is a dog behavior problem I know a lot of you can relate to. But there was an added twist. Perla and Jennifer, her human, were flying home for the holidays in just 4 weeks – Perla’s first time flying under the seat and her first time meeting a ton of family.

Let’s cut to the ending. Perla did fine.

Here’s how we pulled it off.

Training is a process. We follow three overarching steps.

  • Set the dog up to succeed. In Perla’s case this meant creating learning experiences in the beginning that were lower-stress so that she could wrack up a bunch of wins, build her confidence, and take on new challenges at her own pace.
  • Teach functional skills. In order to navigate a flight Perla needed to learn to see people and remain calm, relax in public (on her mat), and successfully ride in a soft-sided carry-on crate.
  • Teach the learner that she is safe throughout the process. Emotions matter. Perla learned that she was safe performing her simple skills because Jennifer always set her up to succeed. She lowered the intensity of exposure to people when Perla needed it, taking breaks and increasing distance.

I know a lot of you are familiar with these principles, too. It’s the science of behavior change in a nutshell.

Jennifer taught Perla:

  • To look at people calmly without barking. She practiced at home and on a nearby walking path.
  • To lie on her mat and really relax. She taught this at home as well.
  • To go in her soft-sided carry-on crate and remain relaxed.  Jennifer carried Perla in the bag and fed treats.

After a couple of weeks of daily work, Jennifer and Perla went to the airport for some real-life practice. Below are some quotes from their training journal.

I gotta tell you,” she wrote. “it went MUCH better than I could’ve imagined. I have happy tears.” Perla grumbled a couple of times from the carrier as they were walking into the airport. Once inside, Jennifer sat down and helped Perla get more comfortable (taking a break and increasing distance from people). A few people walked past us,” Jennifer wrote, “no bark, so I kept the treats coming. Then I picked up her carrier, this time heading to the check in area (there were more people, but still- not very crowded at all). I walked past a few people checking in, no bark, marked yes, treats, good girl. I stood in what would be a check in line- walked up to the counter and asked the lady if that’s where I would check in with a dog- almost on cue, Perla barked the lady, I “sshhh” Perla and hid her a little behind the counter so that Perla couldn’t see the lady directly but could hear her talking with me- Perla didn’t bark so I put treats in her carrier. I kept the treats coming while speaking with the lady at the counter as she explained the check in process with a dog and I explained to her what I was doing with the training. I slowly kept moving Perla’s carrier to be more in sight of the lady as we kept talking, keeping my eyes on the lady but placing treats into the carrier since Perla wasn’t barking. I was able to finish the whole conversation with the lady and there wasn’t additional barking. I kept the treats coming.”

Jennifer did a great job reading Perla’s emotional response to a challenging training session. It may not have been perfect, but they were on their way. A week later they went back to the airport.

Jennifer wrote again in her journal. “It went like this. I drove with Perla, arrived at the parking lot, put her in her carrier and walked from the parking lot to the airport. I had my rolling carryon bag with me as well as her carrier. I went directly were the check in area is, Perla was a little restless in the carrier so I went to some chairs across from the check in area, set her on the seat next to me, talked to Perla for a little bit and gave her treats for being there and not barking at the people walking across from us.

Once she was a little more settled, I stood in line as I would for checking in, as I waited (I had about 3 people in front on me) I continued to give treats to Perla inside her carrier. She did not bark at all. When I went to the counter, I talked to the person behind the counter, asked them a few questions, told them about the training, all the while putting treats into Perla’s carrier. She did not bark at all when I went up to the counter nor when I started speaking to the person.

From there I walked to the security check area. There were some chairs next to the security area so I did a little bit of mat training next to the security area so that Perla could see people and hear the sounds of the area. She did not bark, she stayed on her mat for the most part, though she did get up a couple of times to look around a little, but would settle back when I asked. I have her treats through the whole process.

After a few minutes, I walked back to the outside area and took her out of her carrier and walked her around a little. She went potty and we stayed for a few minutes. Before going back in, I put Perla back in her carrier. We went back into the airport, took the elevator (no one was around) and I walked back to the car. Someone crossed our path as we were making our way back, but again, Perla stayed settled, no barking. All in all, it was a little less than 30 minutes between the parking, training and leaving.”

When the day on their flight arrived Perla and Jennifer were ready. They’d worked hard and learned so much. Traveling can be hard on the best of days. But, Jennifer and Perla had figured out how to navigate it together.  It was their big holiday adventure. But, more importantly, it was a journey of the heart. I think we can all relate to that, too.. Because no matter where we are and no matter where we end up – if we are with our beloved dog – that is home.

 

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX.

 

Off The Leash (A Confession)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I let my dogs off-leash sometimes in our neighborhood in Houston, along the walking path by the drainage ditch. I bring treats and practice recall. I get ahead of them when we pass access points where other dogs might emerge. I keep my phone in my pocket. I watch them. But here’s the deal. Every time we take off our dog’s leash in the name of giving them a chance to run wild we put them in danger. Real danger. I know this.  And I’m sharing my confession so that you’ll know it too. Letting our dogs off leash in public places is dangerous to our dogs. 

A few years back a woman called me to ask about training. She’d been walking her large (80 lbs) mixed breed dog on a leash. A small chihuahua mix had run up off-leash barking and nipping at her dog’s legs. Her dog picked up the little one, shook it twice, and dropped it. The chihuahua mix was dead. It was that fast. No fight. No fuss. Just dead. That could be our dog. Not the big one on leash. The little one. The dead one.

But Michael, you might be thinking, that’s a rare thing. I’d like to think that, too. Unfortunately, though, I know better. Dogs killing other dogs is a real thing. Even if they are similar in size it can happen. I recently worked with a person whose dog bit another dog. It was relatively minor, just a couple of punctures. But the wounds got infected. The dog got sick. And, then the dog was dead.

I’m not here to tell you that letting our dogs saunter or trot along side us (or ahead or behind) off-leash is wrong. Of course, we already know that. We know it’s illegal too. That’s not the point. I’m here to remind us what we so often choose to forget. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to our dogs.

Humans who are walking their dogs lawfully on-leash can get mean in a hurry, let me tell ya. They yell and they curse if your dog runs up to theirs uninvited. They will defend their dogs and their righteous position vociferously.

  • But my dog is friendly. “I don’t give a f”.” They will yell.
  • He just wants to say hi. “Get the f’ out of here.” They scream.
  • He’s well trained. “Really? Call him the f’ back to you.” They retort.
  • We do this all the time. “That doesn’t make it okay,” they claim “it just means you’re a f’ing repeat offender.”

Always the F-bombs. That’s pretty standard. They are angry, they and their leashed dogs barking like crazy.

But here’s the thing that’s really dangerous. Humans walking their dogs on-leash will actually hurt our dogs, especially if a fight breaks out. They will kick our dogs. They will spray them with citronella or pepper spray. They will throw rocks. And seriously, a lot of folks are armed. They will shoot our dogs. It’s happened. Don’t think it hasn’t.

But Michael… That’s illegal, you might be thinking. You can’t discharge a firearm in city limits. Fair enough. Take them to court. But dead is dead. There isn’t a judge in the county who’s going to bring our dog back. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will.

A few days ago we were walking our dogs here in Arizona on a trail in the shadow of the red rocks. They were on-leash. A couple of women on horseback rounded the bend. Their two large and beautiful dogs wove ahead and beside them. It was like a scene out of an old western. We stepped far off the trail to let them pass, hoping their dogs would saunter along with them. But, that’s not what happened.

Their young, unfettered dogs ran right toward ours. “It’s okay. They’re friendly,” one of the women hollered from atop her horse. Tim, my husband, picked up Stewie, our chihuahua mix, and stepped farther away. I stood with Stella, our old arthritic retriever, yelling for them to call their dogs back, afraid of what was going to happen, angry, wishing I had a stick or a rock or some pepper spray. Or a gun. I wish I could say I was cool in the moment, eloquent, acerbic and wry. I so wanted to set the scene right with some perfectly placed F-bombs and a mic drop at the end. But that’s not the way it went. I was just the sputtering guy gripping his dog’s leash while a collective 130 pounds of I-don’t-know-what’s-about-to-happen ran towards us.

Life happens fast. We are all caught off guard. Even when we think we are being safe, there are always cracks in the plan. I’m a good trainer. But, no matter how well our dogs’ recall is trained, there’s always a breaking point. Always.

Dogs are fast. Very fast. They approach too fast; the leashed ones are ratcheted back too fast; the fight starts too fast for us to see it coming. The dogs get hurt. People get hurt. I’ve had clients who showed me photos of gaping wounds on their own arms. They were trying to pry a dog off their dog – or their dog off another.  In that moment, I’m told, no one thinks about the justifications for what they did or what they failed to do. It’s just a scramble. It’s an uncoordinated rush to get the dogs apart. It’s a f’ing mess.

On the trail the other day, the approaching dogs slowed to a trot, circled around me and Stella once and approached politely to sniff her. They really were good looking dogs, big, strong, elegant.I know better than to yank up on Stella’s leash. So, I let out a bit of slack and let her sniff them as well. Then I called her away to follow me. The other dogs wandered after the horsewomen, if not into the sunset then into the shade we were still throwing at each other as they plodded off.

But Michael, what are you trying to say here, you might be asking. I don’t know, really. Confessions are tricky that way, especially the personal ones like this. I’ve had many clients and friends, too many to count, who’ve stood terrified and vulnerable just as I was on that trail. They endured incidents like this one but not like this one because they did not end as well. Dogs were hurt (some killed). People were hurt (some seriously). There was physical and emotional trauma. Behavior care for the dogs. Therapy for the humans. Lawsuits. Lives turned sideways and upside down. Suffering all around.

Our dogs have never run up to another dog when they were off leash. That’s the truth. But here’s the other truth: a lot of our success has been good luck and luck aways runs out. So, maybe this is a cautionary tale with a stretch toward empathy. I’ve been that guy – the one with the friendly dogs romping off leash – and the one white-knuckling the leash bracing for the dogs romping toward him. And honestly, I don’t want to be either of those guys again.

Confessions and cautionary tales and empathy all have this in common. In our best moments each is impetus for change, real change, a change in our behavior. I love my dogs. In fact, I’m fond of most of the dogs I meet. And when cooler heads prevail I actually like most dog people, too. So, when all is said and done the only real questions left are: How to we keep our dogs safe? How do we help keep other dogs safe? How do we get to know and enjoy the other dog lovers who come into our lives?

But Michael, you might be thinking, why don’t you just leash your f’ing dogs?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training and specializes in aggressive dog behavior. He lives in Houston TX and part-time in Sedona AZ.

Long Term Behavior Care

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Congratulations! You’ve completed a multi-visit training regimen with your dog trainer or dog behavior consultant. You’ve made excellent progress with your dog. The behavior you wanted to modify is under much better control. Maybe it’s even “fixed.” Kick back and relax. You’re done now. Right?

Um, no.

But, don’t worry. The hardest part is over. Behavior change is difficult. Maintaining your dog’s improved behavior is a bit easier. It still takes attention and work, though. Here’s how it looks. All this should be very familiar to you.

Manage your dog’s behavior. Always set your dog up to succeed. Be aware of his surroundings. Watch to make sure we aren’t loading up too many stressors for him to handle all at once. Give him quiet time in his crate or in a safe place behind a baby gate. Use his muzzle and leash as needed. Maintain distance from triggering events when necessary. Protect your dog from making a mistake.

Stick to the plan. Over the past weeks or months you’ve learned an excellent plan for helping your dog. You’ve taught him new ways to behave. You’ve taught him that he is safe in various situations that used to upset him. Stick to your plan. Your dog is relying on the predictable patterns you’ve set up. Varying from the routines you’ve taught him can be confusing. At worst, they can trip him up altogether and cause a regression. Stay consistent.

Reinforce good behavior.  This is always a good idea. Keep noticing all the times your dog does something right. Support his good choices. Praise him. Give him treats. Play with him. Do this for the rest of your lives together. Really, keep doing this forever.

Help your dog navigate change. Behavior is always changing. Our world is always changing, too. Over the course of your dog’s life there may be a lot of changes. You may move to a new home. You may meet a new soulmate. Your work schedule may change. You may meet new friends and have them over to the house. With each change, help your dog by reviewing and adjusting his training routines. Teach him the skills to navigate these new experiences. In many cases you’ll be reinforcing old skills. This is a good way to remind your dog that he’s safe and that you’re there to help.

Flag trouble early. If you see a recurrence of your dog’s old unwanted behavior patterns, call in help. Don’t wait for it to occur several times. Call your trainer or behavior consultant right away. It doesn’t mean your efforts failed. It doesn’t mean your dog is doomed. He’s simply communicating the best way he can, with is actions. Most of the time, with some help, you can get things back on track.

Here’s a quick review:

  • Manage behavior (you’ve been doing that all along)
  • Stick to your training plan.
  • Practice – Reinforce good behavior.
  • Help your dog navigate changes in his environment.
  • Flag trouble early. Call in help as soon as you notice any unwanted behavior.

You’ve come a long way already. You’ve learned so much and so has your dog. I suspect you two are closer to each other than ever now. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Better communication. More trust. Happier times. And a lifelong commitment to keep learning together.

 

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs who are fearful and behave aggressively.