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 firstname.lastname@example.org.