Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

For a long time, this blog was a way for me to sort of “sell” my foster dogs – meaning I would share all the awesome stuff about them and then creatively touch on the areas they needed to improve upon in, hoping that it didn’t scare off potential adopters.

While of course I focus on Johnnie’s positives (I mean, she’s got so many of them!), I’ve gained enough confidence on this blog to share with you both the good and the slightly-less-than-good about fostering her (and any future dogs).  I’ve come to terms with the fact that any adopters who want to bring Johnnie into their lives will have to deal with these things anyway, so I might as well just put them out there – and I do this with the hope that it will help anyone in my audience having the same “issues” with their dogs.  I don’t want to ever give the impression that Johnnie is perfect or that I’m the perfect foster or that we live this perfect life – because who can relate to that? We’re a real family and Johnnie is a real (teenage!) dog who is learning every minute of the day.

So, with that being said, we had sort of a tough week last week. Around Wednesday, some annoying habits started popping up again from Johnnie’s days in the shelter – specifically leash biting and worse jumping up.  It started on a walk after a particularly rough day – Johnnie was worked up for some reason (if I paid better attention to what she was trying to tell me, I’m sure I’d know what was bugging her), and I had a stressful day at work. I wrote it off as “bad day syndrome.” But it showed up the next day as well, and the day after that.  I used the methods I thought I should to help stop it before it got worse, but nothing was working. Every time we went for a walk she went into “stressing up” mode where she would try to grab at anything in reach, including my clothing and the leash.

A bit of a side note: I used to be an extremely emotional person. Growing up riding horses, I had a tough time not taking it personally when my horse and I couldn’t communicate well. Looking back, it’s clear I just was not conveying to Marley what I really wanted from her – but at the time I would dismount from a ride almost in tears because I was so angry with her and our performance.  I very much matured through college and once I started working with dogs I realized I was able to keep emotions out of it. In fact, I think my ability to keep emotions out of training my dogs helps me be that much better at communicating with them. That is, at least until last Thursday night.

Johnnie was particularly obnoxious, frustrating and embarrassing on our Thursday evening walk, and, after an upsetting conversation with someone about how I wasn’t doing enough to stop the behavior, I totally lost it. I knew Johnnie’s behavior wasn’t acceptable, but I didn’t know what else to do to stop it in the deadline that seemed to be conveyed by some people around me. What was worse was that she had been doing so well for so many weeks. What did I do to make this behavior pop up? After all I’d learned about working with dogs in a positive, force-free way, what was I doing that enabled this behavior to continue? Was I being a bad foster for not “disciplining” her like many people would want me to be if they watched the situation unfold, even though it went against everything I’ve learned about science-based training? I felt like a failure.

My frustration continued over to our walk Friday morning.  She displayed the leash-biting again, but only a little bit. As she settled down and we walked through the woods behind my house early that morning, I got lost in my thoughts. How was I going to solve this? Am I being stupid for trying to think I can do this on my own? If even I’m worried about it, what will I tell potential adopters? I began making a mental list of who I would reach out to for help. I become so absorbed in my thoughts, I didn’t even notice that we came across an off-leash dog until they were right in front of us. Luckily Johnnie was amazing and just wanted to play, but it caught me so off guard that after we passed them I broke down again. For the second time in only twelve hours, I’d failed Johnnie – it turned out okay even though I wasn’t paying attention, but what the heck was I doing?!

That morning was sort of the turning point. It was like I got out all of my frustrations and fears and emotions about working with Johnnie, and was finally able to look at it with a clear mind again. She was great for my parents while I was at work all day, which always makes me happy, and I arrived home that Friday afternoon promising her a clean slate.
I set us up for success for our walk that evening. I packed high value treats, a clicker and strapped two leashes on J. As we started walking, she began to get excited. As soon as she looked like she was about to jump up on me in excitement, I asked her to sit. I’d done this before, but not until after she was jumping – it was preventing the behavior that was helping this time. Also, when she sat and I clicked her behavior, I rolled the treat on the ground in front of us so she got herself going again. Previously, she would use my moving forward as a trigger to jump again and we’d spend time sitting and dancing around trying to avoid jumping. This way, she got herself started and was distracted from jumping by looking for the treat. The combination of preventing the behavior and setting her up for success helped her get past the excitable jumping phase much quicker. Also, when she wanted to playfully bite the leash, I just dropped it – which is why I had her wearing two. This way it never turned into a game for her and she decided it wasn’t worth it very quickly. The entire process only took us about three minutes and we were able to continue our walk normally again, versus the frustrating 10 – 15 it had taken on the handful of previous walks. Once she gets out of that mental state she is fine, it had just been difficult getting her to a better place – until that breakthrough.

As we trotted along together for the rest of that walk, I finally felt accomplished in what I wanted from my relationship with Johnnie.  I had thought harder about what I needed to do to help her understand what I wanted, and I was able to stay patient while we both worked it out.  I felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t a total failure and that I didn’t need to believe anyone who told me my methods wouldn’t work.  She still hasn’t completely gotten over the habit, but I trust that I’ll be able to stay consistent in my message to her that there are better decisions to make instead of getting too excited. I also trust that we will be able to work through other little speed bumps like this again in the future, using ways that will strengthen our relationship, not break it, as we both continue learning.


To adopt Johnnie Cash and build your own positive training bond, email

23 thoughts on “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

  1. Rachel @ Skull and Crosstales

    No one expects you to be perfect. You can only do your best and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. So good on you.

  2. Bravo to you for your honesty– like you wrote, the person/people who adopt Johnnie will learn about her “issues” eventually, so why not be up front about them so that she gets adopted by someone who’s willing to work with her on them, rather than someone who will end up returning her because she isn’t “perfect”? I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect dog, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect human– we all have our quirks!

    Johnnie is so lucky to have you :)

  3. What an amazing and inspiring story of what patience and perseverance can do. Our Mummy’s Aunt has two doggies and one is an extremely nervous rescue, ex-puppy farm cavalier king charles spaniel. Would you have any advice for coaxing a petrified doggy outside? She is just about managing the garden after three months but just getting the lead out for walkies leaves her shaking. She is really frightened of men too and doesn’t like toys. She doesn’t have many teeth and doesn’t like taking treats from anyone who isn’t completely still and on her level. Whee think this is very sad but our Mummy and Auntie are trying to help her so they’d love some help if you can!

    Nibbles, Nutty, Buddy & Basil

  4. Katie

    I am so glad you’ve shared this! Training a dog can of course be very rewarding, but also very frustrating! Everyone has days where things aren’t working and you just need to talk a break and re-group. Sounds like you’re both headed in the right direction now!

  5. Laurie

    I think everyone has these days! Thanks for sharing. Dont waver from your way of training just because others think you should discipline her (im assuming leash popping, etc) in a different way.

    Meghan L. from JH helps me with my dogs. Some of the best advice she gave me (and i know this isnt applicable on a walk, but only for those reaaaally bad evenings after a crap day at work) is if youre having a really hard time, and you want to scream and yell, go make the dog a peanut butter kong and give it to them and walk away. Sit with a glass of wine and decompress. It doesnt do anything to help the problem, BUT it can prevent you from flipping out on your dog in that moment of crazy frustration. Keep up the good work!

  6. Great post J! I think this is both good for you and your readers. Sharing pivotal milestones and “light-bulb” moments such as this are good for everyone. So proud that you stuck with what you knew was better for Johnie and in the end if paid off! If you ever have any questions or need some other clicker training ideas for problem solving, shoot me a message. I love talking through and brain storming stuff like this! :)

  7. Excellent post – I think most of us who work with dogs have been through something similar and can relate. You are so right in thinking it through and preparing to prevent/handle that behavior the next time. I think you did an excellent job with the clicker, treats, 2 leashes and being calm and consistent. My dog is 3 1/2 yrs old and knows he should sit for greeting and never pull me when he’s on the leash, but he is not a machine and he makes mistakes just like I do. Even though he heels beautifully when asked, I still walk him on an Easy Walk harness because (1) he has a few pounds on me, (2) he loves to greet other dogs and their humans, and (3) we are not perfect.

  8. Liz

    My pup has started to do the leash-biting thing, too. I’ve noticed he only does it when he’s frustrated – that we might be ending our walk before he wants to, that I left him outside while popping into a store quickly (no more shared errands!), or that he’s reaaally tired and has reached his stimulation/exercise tipping point. Getting him to sit and down-stay for a few minutes helps calm him down. Thanks for sharing – I’m so glad I’m not the only one!

  9. Kirsten

    You’re doing great! Vinnie went through a big leash-biting-frenzy phase, too, about a month after I adopted him…all I could do was literally sit on the ground next to him until he had thrashed himself out of it and we could continue walking. It was embarassing, and frustrating, but once I stopped ‘fueling the fire’ by reacting excitedly myself, it didn’t take long for him to snap out of it. Now he’ll just do the occasional leash nibble to let me know I’ve been standing around talking to a neighbor for too long and it’s time to get back to walking :P

  10. I am constantly inspired by you, and I’m so thrilled you share the successes with the frustrations. It’s very brave and very real, and it reminds me that we’re not the only ones who have frustrating days with our pups. Johnnie’s lucky to have you and your patience.

  11. Great job sticking to your guns about positive training! There’s nothing better for you or the dog you’re working with- no matter what everyone else says! Such an inspiring story!! Thanks!

  12. Thanks for this post. We wrote a similar one about Ed and how we almost gave up on him – he was always so out of control. It’s so great to remember that we’re often not listening to what our dogs are telling us our not conveying what wewant in a way that they understand.

    You really are so amazing and a model foster home. it makes it not seem so out of reach knowing you are human, too.

  13. Wendy H

    This post really resonates with me and the trials and tribulations I am dealing with, with my foster girl. I have no training background or much training experience, but am doing my best with her issues. She has come a long way in the month she’s been with me and I have gotten her jumping and out of control times down to a minimum. I was feeling really good about this, when after 3 weeks with me, she started going nuts every time we pass another dog being walked. I just wanted to cry. It is so nice to know that I am not alone. Thank you for being honest and real. :)

  14. They aren’t fosters but man do we have rough days with our pooches sometimes. It’s worse when Maggie seems to be improving for quite a while and then all of a sudden, BAM, something switches and she is cujo dog on leash again! I’ve used the idea of wiping our slate clean too…mostly for myself to just realize that whatever I was doing is NOT working and to find a new method. And always hope that our ever-forgiving dogs will forgive me one more time. :-)

  15. You’re doing great with her! She’s also still a pup so the leash biting is totally a common thing and you’re handling it really well! It can be really hard working on behaviors in a positive manner only to have a stranger judge us on something they know nothing about! Our current guy is leash reactive and we get many stinks eyes from folks while we’re working on it at the park. It’s frustrating for sure but I can’t let them get to me or else my guy would suffer from that.

    Also, love that you are honest! Raising dogs isn’t always sunshine and rainbows (though most of the time it is! ;) ) and everyone needs to know that. :)

  16. Pingback: Our BFF Managament | Peace, Love, & Fostering

  17. WendyMrtn

    My current foster has done this the last couple days and I can’t figure out why it suddenly happens. He calms down when I wrap him up in a big hug and softly say “calm” until he lets go of the leash. I’m going to try your two leash idea. Thanks for the confirmation that it’s ok to write about stuff that needs more attention than the basic manners.

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