Monday, March 28, 2016

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I've come to realize the value of waiting when working with a dog. This doesn't come naturally to me, what I want to do is to give commands and make sure they are followed so I feel in control of the situation. Gradually though, I've learned how effective it is to give the dog some space to think, and wait for them to make their own decision.
Dog on scenic bluffs overlooking the ocean
Sometimes this means waiting for a long time. I recently worked with Missy, a poodle-mix pup who was a delight at the dog park and at home, but terrified of everything on walks with her owner. Unlike my reactive dogs, sweet Missy would just freeze and stare with wide eyes. New people were her biggest fear, and large groups of people were horrifying. She knew plenty of obedience commands, but was so terrified of strangers that she could not follow commands or even eat treats in the presence of scary people. (This made me appreciate my food-motivated dogs, who will eat in the presence of nearly any stressor.)

We took Missy out to a big open park that was hosting an after school basketball program. The plan was to use the BAT method of teaching her more successful ways of coping with her anxiety. A big part of this training involves watching the dog carefully, and rewarding appropriate behaviors by immediately moving away from the scary thing.

Missy, her owner, and I started at the far end of the park from the busy basketball courts. Missy walked along politely on a loose leash as we strolled across the grass. When we were halfway across the park, Missy froze abruptly and stared wide-eyed at the kids on the court.

This was where we did something Missy's mom had never tried before. Rather than compelling the spooked dog to continue moving, or telling her to turn her attention away from the scary thing and toward her owner, we just stopped and waited. Missy's owner and I chatted, keeping an eye on Missy while just hanging out in the middle of the park with a frozen dog.

Ten minutes into our conversation, Missy dropped her nose to the ground to sniff. She didn't normally sniff on walks, for whatever reason she seemed to be missing this important coping mechanism. She only rediscovered it when we allowed the time and the space she needed to think. In this case, she needed ten minutes to process the situation.

Most of the time, I don't feel like waiting ten minutes for my dog to think about what they are going to do. However, waiting has become an invaluable tool, particularly in situations where the dog is not moving. There was simply no way Missy was going to stand there in the middle of the park staring forever, eventually she was going to have to do something and we were prepared to reward any movement at all. Waiting can also work well for dogs that don't reliably bring the ball back, or drop it partway.

demand barking

Brisbane used to think barking was a big part of playing ball on the beach with the Chuckit. He would drop the ball and shriek his best heeler shriek until I threw it again. After years of this pattern, I finally decided enough was enough. I gathered my greatest store of patience and took Briz to the beach on a quiet day. That day, I decided, I would not pick up the ball until he laid down. I wasn't going to tell him this, he was going to have to figure it out.

When we arrived at the beach and headed down the sand to play ball, Brisbane started barking. I froze and waited. He barked more and more insistently for about five minutes and then finally stopped and started at me. After a couple more minutes of confusion I gave him a hint and motioned for him to lay down.

The best thing about waiting for all eternity is that you usually only have to do it once. The next time I picked up the ball, Brisbane barked a couple of times and then laid down to see if that would get me to throw it. Missy the poodle mix was able to walk much closer to the kids in the park a few minutes after her big freeze, and when she did stop again she started sniffing the grass almost immediately. Both of these were big breakthroughs that never would have happened if I'd gotten impatient and tried to force the issue.

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