One thing that is always very challenging with high needs or special needs dogs, is that their progress is often very slow. Many, many of the stable and healthy dogs that I train figure things out quickly and grow and change in leaps and bounds. Owners watch them transform weekly, and they can go from very naughty to very well behaved in a matter of a few short weeks. For those of us with difficult dogs, however, our progress is going to be likely measured in inches, and we’ll have to fight for every. single. inch.
So adjust your expectation to inches, and that way, when your dog does make progress, you’ll be ready to celebrate rather than feel a sense of disappointment that there’s not bigger change. It’s all about what we expect. Having realistic expectations of your dog is how you can stay hopeful in the midst of difficult circumstances.
For years, I’ve always heard the training adage that “Some dogs are fives, and others are fifties.” What that means, is that some dogs get something figured out by the fifth time you’ve shown them what you want, while other dogs need to see that same thing fifty times before they have it figured out. Neither dog is bad, it’s just that they learn at different rates of speed. Once you adjust your thinking to understand and compensate for that, you’ll find everyday life much easier to get through.
Higher needs dogs generally have more anxiety involved, and an anxious dog just doesn’t learn things well. A dog needs to be calm and relaxed to learn quickly and make progress. I honestly think that this is why Rugby has always learned tricks lickity split….he’s calm and relaxed. Nothing else is going on at home when we’re training tricks. He’s happy and focused….and calm!! Big key. Huge key!
Trying to teach Rugby to stay calm when his Daddy is leaving for the day? Nope. Rugby is so so so spun up and anxious, that all I can accomplish with him is just to minimize the damage control from all of the crazy barking and racing around. He is on his Placemat, so he’s much calmer, and I’ve broken the pattern of barking and running. On his Placemat, I can praise him for working and producing calmer behavior, rather than scold him for wigging out. On his Placemat, I can toss kibbles to him, and he’s so focused on the game, he’s calmer…..but not really in a completely calm state to learn how to moderate the behavior that I want. I’m not sure he will ever be able to manage this one. He’s been abandoned so many times, that I think there’s a genuine fear when he sees a pack member leave the house and he’s not invited to come along with them. Rugby’s a worrier. A real worrier. Anxious and worried and spun up.
Last Winter, I trained a little Maltese dog who was about a year old. He had been in a home where the owner either died or was having health issues and he needed to be re-homed, so my client adopted him. He was a very sweet little guy, but very anxious and barky, and took a long time to adjust to his new home. He didn’t eat well for several months. Do you know, I worked for three solid weeks on that little dog to teach him to sit? Three weeks!! Over and over, showing him exactly what I wanted him to do, but he just didn’t get it. And his owner worked daily in between our lessons to reinforce what I had been teaching!
By the second week, his owners looked at me like I was an idiot, because surely any trainer worth her salt could get a dog to sit on command! I knew he would sort it out when he was ready, but owners often don’t want to hear that. They want what they want, when they want it, the way that they want it! And if I know anything from my work with dogs, it’s that I can’t “make” them connect the dots and move forward. All I can do is create the best possible environment and opportunity for them to learn, and the rest is up to the dog.
Sure enough, I got an excited text message from my client in the third week of his training, telling me that her little guy had finally connected the dots and figured out what “Sit” meant. He was consistently doing it, and quickly, and on a hand signal alone as well. He was just as excited as she was, and they both knew he was doing something really amazing, so he continued to do well with his training. Things had finally clicked for him, and he was figuring out the rules of the game.
What would have happened if this owner had given up in week two? What if she had lost faith in me and more importantly, in her little dog? She would have missed an amazing breakthrough that made her heart soar and her emotions explode with joy and excitement!
This is exactly why I never give up when I’m working with Rugby. I never know if and when he will have that breakthrough moment, and I sure don’t want to miss it when it happens! Sometimes when I’m training a dog, he will accidentally do the very behavior I want. There’s not always intention from the dog…sometimes it’s an accident. A wonderful, happy little accident. However, when it happens, and a cookie pops in his mouth, he makes a mental note to try that one again. And that’s honestly how some things get taught.
I’m of the opinion that if a dog can do something one time, he can do it a second time, and a third, and so forth, until he can connect the dots and figure things out. Now….to be sure, one time can just be a fluke, and a dog may honestly only produce the behavior once or twice….purely by accident, and never figure out what I want them to do. That’s honestly the truth. Rugby can understand staying calm on his Placemat if he’s got a distraction going when someone leaves, but if he’s off his Placemat
But I’m an optimist, and I have hope, and I don’t give up. And if progress is to be made, I want to see every inch, every foot and every yard take place in Rugby’s life. He’s simply amazing, and I want to see him get all of the good in life that’s available to him.
Don’t give up! You’ll never know what amazing breakthrough your dog might have had, and it’s worth it to get a front row view of things when he really does sort it all out!