One thing I typically teach any dog that I’m training, is how to focus on his handler. This is absolutely the deal breaker for success in training so that you can take your dog into new situations with any sort of predictability with their behavior. They have to learn to tune out distractions. The best time to begin this training is when you first bring a puppy into your home. At that age, they are so in love with their humans, and so eager to please, that they’ll focus on you and melt your heart doing it!
Unfortunately, when I got Rugby, he was already an older puppy at 8-9 mos of age and he had had very little socialization. He was already super reactive to virtually every sight or sound stimulus, so the ship had sort of sailed, and I had missed the boat! I was hoping to catch any window of time to help him learn how to manage himself in the big world without freaking out. Ever the eternal optimist, I had high hopes that over time, I could make good progress with Rugby, because I’d see it happen with other dogs.
What I noticed right away with Rugby, was that he was completely uninterested in paying any attention to me when I had him on a leash outside. He constantly scanned the horizon from left to right, trying to catch sight of anything and everything that would trigger a round of crazy barking. Once something startled him, his amazing steel trap of a memory never seemed to forget the details….the when, the where, the what….and he just couldn’t let it go. No matter how many times I tried to work him through that stimulus….he just couldn’t let it go. He left me scratching me head.
I tried using high value treats: chicken or hot dogs….beef liver….roast beef….ground beef…cheese….you name it! I tried all the good stuff, and he just wouldn’t even eat a small nibble from my hand, once we left the house! So, I tried keeping him inside the house, and offering him tidbits for focus and staying calm when we were both inside the front door and something moved outside. He could do this with pretty good success, depending upon the stimulus. But it was a place to start, so start I did!
As he made progress just inside our front door, I tried stepping right outside the door with him, and he went right back to being anxious and not taking any food from me. Where he had been completely comfortable 6 feet away inside the house, once we went to the porch, he started with his anxious “chirping” bark. This is a sound that he makes when he is really feeling very anxious and fearful. When he gets to this state, he’s focused on saving his skin, so there’s no productive training that can occur. I have to remove him from the situation and start over. *sigh*
I tried waiting until it was mealtime, to train through this step while he was really hungry. That created another problem in and of itself! Rugby was and still is a “Resource Guarder,” which means that he becomes aggressive around food. Typically, in those early days, he was pretty good around his food. However, I learned that if I let him get hungry enough for training, as long as I had food in my hand…especially high value food…he would sometimes start to growl at me if I didn’t immediately offer it to him. It was as if he thought I was holding out on him, and he became frustrated with me. I was making his resource guarding worse, and I could definitely see that he didn’t feel as if he could trust me.
Well talk about being between a rock and a hard place! Wow! If I continued to work on his focus while he was hungry, I’d worsen the resource guarding and trust. If I ignored the focus, I’d never get past helping to socialize him! All of these issues were tightly related, and I couldn’t upset one end of the equation without creating serious problems at the other end! On occasion, while training a dog, it’s not unusual to sometimes create a problem in order to fix a different one, so I was taking a good long look at that possibility with Rugby.
No training can happen if the dog can’t trust his human, so I knew that no matter what, I had to make sure I didn’t upset any of his trust in me. Since he was still new in our home, I was working to build trust with him, and in that fragile state, I was completely unwilling to push him in a direction of mistrust with me!
What that meant was that we really couldn’t do much training outside, because withholding food in order to make him hungry enough to work was pushing him away from me, and I couldn’t take that risk. So we continued to do socialization from inside the house and the car. Rugby made tiny baby steps forward, and that was encouraging, so I continued to have hope. As long as he was making progress, I wasn’t about to give up!