Looking Back at 2016: A Progress Report for Rugby: Part One

It’s that time of year again!  As one year ends and another looms on the horizon, I often reflect on the current year which is ending, and set some goals for the upcoming year.  Recently, I reminded myself that it was time to look back at Rugby’s progress in general.  When you live with a high needs, special needs, difficult dog, life is so often just a roller coaster.  Many of the individual days with Rugby are accented with mountain peaks of success and valleys of dismal failures over and over.  And often, there can be more valleys than mountain peaks in individual days.

It can be both frustrating and discouraging.  When I had my very stable and well bred Corgi puppies, we went through similar things.  The difference, however, was that I knew that they would grow up and the naughty behavior would eventually become extinct.  Without fail, in every instance, it did.  Rugby has been the perpetual challenging dog who can’t always seem to connect the dots on his negative behavior. Even after nine years of work with him, there are many things that keep him as a perpetual naughty dog, although he always trends toward general overall improvement…but in his baby step sort of way.

Adjusting Expectations

With Rugby, the progress has typically always been very slow, and often comes in baby steps.  In my early days of living with him, this was very hard to accept.  As a professional dog trainer, I’m blessed to work with wonderful dogs of all kinds, from strays to shelter dogs, to well bred, pampered dogs, and everything in between!  In most cases, I see those dogs make progress in leaps and bounds as they figure things out and the new behavior takes root.

With Rugby, so many of our early days were spent in trial and error, trying to understand and trust each other, and then figuring out what training methods seemed to work the best for him.  To be perfectly honest, in many cases, it was more error than success, and Rugby has been a wonderful and patient teacher while I have figured things out with him.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations with Rugby.  He is his own measuring stick.  I’ve had to learn to let go of my expectations of who he should be and let him just be who he is.  He’s definitely his own man.  Without a doubt, he’s a free thinking dog who has a brain and emotions and isn’t afraid to use either of them!  He lacks a lot of impulse control, and really isn’t very interested in learning about it.  It’s been our biggest obstacle in his progress.  He frustrates so easily, and just erupts into negative emotional responses…which are sometimes aggressive….and very often, those reactive responses continue far beyond the removal of the stimulus.  Once he’s all wigged out….he stays all wigged out for a long, long time, even after the stimulus that triggered the outburst is long gone.

So much of our work together is training on impulse control, teaching Rugby calm responses to trigger stimuli, and then teaching him how to calm himself quickly, once he’s in full bloom!   This is often where it’s most difficult to see consistent progress.  He’s a big worrier, and that definitely affects his responses to various stimuli! So much of his responses simply just depend upon the specific stimulus and the individual day.  Some days he amazes me with his ability to use self control, and other days, it’s like he’s completely clueless.  He will often look right at me, completely out of control, barking like crazy, with a look on his face that says, “Help me.  I can’t stop myself.”  It’s almost like his “on” switch, is permanently switched to “bark loudly and frequently,” most often over virtually nothing!


New Progress With the Garbage Disposer!!

As a result, it can be a bit tough to gauge his progress, because it’s such a slippery business.  Of note, however, is the fact that he’s doing better with the garbage disposer!  This reactive behavior started on a random day when he just decided that he no longer liked the garbage disposer.  Initially, he reacted only when he heard the garbage disposer running.  However, this has been a very difficult issue to train through, because once he decided that the garbage disposer was public enemy number one, he often started his crazy barking when I would simply turn on the water at the kitchen sink, in anticipation that I would maybe use the disposer.

This is where I’m both proud and frustrated with my little dog!  Rugby often reacts ahead of the triggers….because he understands patterns pretty clearly.  That tells me just how smart this little guy really is!  And, he has a memory like a steel trap if it’s something that he doesn’t like very much!  As a result, he can latch onto a behavior after just seeing or hearing it one time, if the trigger is strong enough.  I never, ever know what will trigger him, because he can go along just great with things and one day decide that he’s just not going to tolerate something anymore!

As a result, I have to constantly mix up my own patterns of behavior to help prevent new triggers from getting rooted!  It means consciously, carefully thinking about my movements and any noises I make throughout my day.  My little dog is always watching, and he fires up with out much notice or trigger!  It can be a challenge to stay two steps ahead of Rugby James!

Where the garbage disposer is concerned, Rugby has improved to the point where I’ve discovered that if I catch his attention before I turn on the sink, I can tell him to “Leave it” and flip the switch and he’s stayed calm!!  If I don’t catch him ahead of time, he still wigs out, so we definitely have more work on this one, but we are headed in the right direction, anyway!

I have to make sure that he is in the kitchen when I turn the disposer on, and get his full attention and focus before I flip the switch.  Training through this issue has helped me to realize that Rugby can stay calmer with virtually any noises if I can give him advanced warning that a trigger is coming.  Where he really struggles is when he hears random noises….inside the house or out in the neighborhood….and can’t readily identify them before they happen.  He just explodes in crazy barking in those situations, and it’s been so hard to train him through them, because I never know when they will happen, so I can’t set him up with a new neighborhood dog barking, for example.  But he has made some good progress with the garbage disposer this year, and that’s been a relief!

What I’ve learned with virtually anything I’m training, is that working through those tough issues is very often one step forward and two steps back.  It’s tempting to give up, but the reality is, that I never know when and if Rugby will suddenly figure something out, so I never, ever want to give up on opportunities to give all of us a better quality of life together.  We definitely take a team approach to life at my house, and it can sure make bad days easier to tolerate when you choose to view your dog as being a beloved member of your team rather than the enemy!


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