Happy New Year!! As the new year begins to unfold, I’m thinking about what goals I want to set for this upcoming year. Goals for myself, and some for Rugby as well, which is always challenging! Each year starts off with shiny ideas and determination. And then reality sets in…
When you live with a dog who is special needs or high needs, it can be very easy to mis-handle the whole idea of setting goals for a new year. Part of this is because special needs dogs don’t play by the rules. Where other dogs can figure something out quickly and go forward, our dogs don’t follow that pattern. If we don’t adjust, we can fall prey to absolute discouragement when they don’t make the progress we want for them.
So the key is to have realistic expectations of what our dogs can do, and set very small measurable goals. This is really, very important so that you don’t lose hope. Without hope, it’s very hard to keep trying, and our dogs need to know that we won’t give up on them.
One of the things that I’m very excited about is that I’ve had a few small episodes of successful training with Rugby in our front yard, just past the front door, and the driveway near the house. I’ve wanted to see him relax in the front yard for 8 years!!! Granted, he was far from being relaxed, and his body language told me just how uncomfortable he felt. Still, he was willing to work with me, and that’s been something he has just never done before.
So, to end up building on that success, I have set a goal of keeping my training sessions to 10 minutes or less, and I’m using very high value treats that are really stinky and will be so irresistible that I know Rugby will want them. I’ll make sure Rugby is hungry when I’m training him, to increase his desire for those stinky treats! I will choose a time of day when most of my neighbors are gone so that the street will be quiet and there will be very few things that will be likely to trigger Rugby’s anxiety. I’ll park my car strategically…to block some of the sights in the neighborhood, and help Rugby feel safe, so he can stay calm.
That sounds like a whole lot of planning for 10 minutes or less, doesn’t it? That’s the secret to success with a high needs dog. You simply have to plan and set up your training sessions for success. Otherwise you just keep wasting training opportunities to go forward. In your dog’s mind….you keep throwing him under the bus over and over. And if he’s firing up….guess what? You’re simply reinforcing behavior that you don’t want.
With high needs or special needs dogs, you have to always start with where your dog is, and go from there. I’d love to take Rugby on a walk in the neighborhood, but there is no way he can cope with that right now. So, I’m starting with what he can manage….10 minutes outside in the driveway and front yard when it’s very quiet. As he gets more comfortable and learns to relax, he can cope with more.
The idea with dogs like Rugby is to stretch them just a bit past their comfort zone, but not so much that they completely fall apart. By setting small measurable goals, you’re setting your dog up for success. He’s going to know that he’s done something really amazing that made you very happy, and you’re going to ride that high for the rest of the day!
I won’t be able train in the front yard on a daily basis with Rugby because he needs a lot of recovery time after he gets stretched. I can do this with him probably two times a week and still maintain success. Any more than that, and I know he’s going to start reacting just because it’s been too much for him. I’ll start with two times each week, and add a day once he learns to relax and feel comfortable with that.
I’d like to try to get him to a cemetery for a short walk of 15 minutes one time each week, but I’ll have to see if he will be able to cope with that much change on top of working in the front yard. I can’t throw too much at him and still have him trust me.
I also want to try monthly short visits to my vet’s office that are friendly and fun. Visits where he will get treats and get positive attention and nothing else happens. He’s not keen about having strangers touch him, so we’ll start the visits with him meeting 1-2 of the same people each time. They’ll offer him high value treats and talk to him but unless and until Rugby asks to be petted, I’ll ask them to not touch him. That way, he’ll start to realize that some of the people at the vet’s office are simply treat dispensers and they make no demands on him at all. If all he has to do is let me carry him in, sit on my lap and let the staff feed him some cookies, he will start to relax at the vet’s and enjoy his time there. Because this will be a high stress visit, this is probably the only stretching he will get for the week.
These are the small, measurable goals that I have for us to accomplish this year. They are Rugby sized nuggets of work that I think he can manage. If it’s too much for him, I’ll back off the highest stress goal and continue with the ones that he can manage. Slow and steady, and he might make some progress forward. I never expect much, because Rugby’s behavior is completely volatile and I never know what I’ll see from him until we’re in the moment.
So as this new year starts, remember to keep your dear dog in mind as you set your goals. Don’t get so caught up with wanting it all that your dog can’t cope and you lose him along the way. Think baby steps….over and over, and at the end of this year, you’ll be surprised at the progress you’ll have made!