I'VE BEEN STRUCK WITH THE MEASLES!
At my age! Ok, so not quite literally....
Every so often, a dog comes along who I end up smitten with and Measles is one of them. She has something very special about her that makes me smile. She can occasionally be a bit of a fizzy whirl at home and has moments of feeling very uncertain with other dogs she meets on walks. Her mum and dad got in touch with us because they had been finding her unpredictable after having had a spat with some of the dogs that she walks with regularly.
She can occasionally be a bit shy with people she doesn't know, but once she gets to know them, she's all a-fizz of licking, jumping-up and flinging herself around the place. When she first met me she was quite reserved and we could see from the way she manoeuvred around the Sniff Trail we had laid out at the start of the session that she was quite nervous. She was a lot slower and more cautious than she tends to be at home.
She was soon happy to work with her mum and dad, who have a lovely connection with her. They had already done some good core training with her, especially her mum. She had spent many days training Measles basic foundation skills as a puppy and Measles loved working with her. She also has a very special relationship with her dad, spending much of her day with him and going for lovely country walks near their home.
As with many fizzy pups, she was very good at doing things she was asked to when there were low level distractions around. But her excitement levels were beyond her control whenever she met dogs she liked, when she played with dogs on walks and when visitors came to the house. She can also be a bit pushy with the family cats, which one of the cats doesn't take too kindly to....
We get this so often with dogs who have been taught strong cues and whose behaviour is frequently directed, rather than the dog learning how to control herself in exciting situations. Understandably, if we've been taught to teach a dog to 'sit', we're going to ask her to sit when visitors are around and our dog is going fizzy-dizzy. And, often, that 'sit' may work. The dog may sit for a while, and may even be able to settle if we ask her to go on her bed. But, as Measles' mum and dad found, she would often settle, then get up again, and would do a fair old bit of attention-seeking when there were other people around.
CONTROL VERSUS SELF-CONTROL
In short, she could be controlled if her brain was in the right place to respond to what she was being asked to do. But she struggled to control herself when her emotions started to fizz over. As soon as she became over-aroused (and she can go from 0 to 60 in seconds) she found it very difficult to calm herself down.
This meant that she could become unsettled when she saw a dog at a significant distance away. As she got closer, she was likely to become more and more uncomfortable and would often lunge and bark to keep it at a safe distance. She couldn't seem to hear cues that she would usually respond to, and her mum and dad found her difficult to manage when she was triggered by something.
CHANGING EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
When we work with a dog like Measles we look at two aspects of how she's behaving: how she feels towards triggers and how we can teach her strong self-control. The self-control can only come once she's learned that other dogs and some unfamiliar people aren't as much of a threat as she has been finding them.
Learning to control herself means that triggers need to be kept at a distance. The brain can't process information effectively when it feels under threat, so to get her brain functioning effectively, we need to keep triggers at bay while we're teaching her strong self-control.
We do this with a range of simple training exercises. You can see in the video how we teach our dogs to love connecting with us so that, whenever they see something worrying, they gravitate towards us and are ready to move with us to a comfortable distance. I love this video because it shows how patient and inventive we need to be when we have a dog who is learning to think things through for herself. This was taken towards the end of the session and she was getting a bit tired and you can see that she becomes a bit puppyish when she's trying out old behaviours to see if that will deliver the treats! Her dad is very patient with her and his timing with treats is good.
We also teach our Countdown Game, which helps dogs to settle themselves when they feel uneasy about something. Both these games need practising over and over again on walks, in the garden and in places where there are no distractions at first so that the brain can start to turn them into habitual responses.
If these training exercises are done regularly and consistently, in a relatively short time our dog's brain goes from 'see dog, bark at it' to 'see dog, move towards mum or dad and move away.'. As long as we continue to give our dogs this safe distance when they need it, we start to see that they're gradually able to get closer to other dogs and to feel unworried by them.
CHANGING HOW A DOG FEELS TAKES TIME
It takes time. Measles is still at the start of her training with us and she's learning to have strong self-control in all contexts before we gradually start exposing her to other dogs again. This includes not stealing tissues out of the tissue box to shred!!
She needs to learn very good loose lead walking skills so that walking with her mum and dad becomes companionable and responsive - so that both Measles and her family are light on the lead and listen to each other. This means that she will learn to listen to shifts in their bodies so that she'll turn with them when they turn, without needing to be told. As you can see from the video, when her mum turns away from her and walks steadily in the opposite direction this becomes a cue to move with her mum. It means she does't rely on being told what to do (and her mum and dad don't run the risk of her ignoring their cues). Instead, she starts to become much more responsive on a longline.
The work they have done in our sessions has been lovely. Her mum and dad are both skilled and quickly became fluent at reading her signals and listening to her. In our first session she was quite startled by sounds in and around the hall. In the second session, she was much more confident and was happy to do connected long line work in the garden at our training centre without being distracted by things going on around her.
She's a little treasure and they have all been a joy to work with.