Is My Beautiful Boy Broken?
My biggest fear, I think, is that Rugby was broken beyond repair. Naturally, I was so very sad for him, but I was also sad for me, because I was afraid my dreams for giving him a great life were going to go up into smoke, and I’d be stuck living with a wacky dog for the next decade or more!
I’d dreaded that the day would come when I was going to have to accept that Rugby was who he was and nothing more could be done. I wasn’t willing to completely give up, but I was so frustrated with very little progress in seeing Rugby break his behavioral coping patterns. I needed a break from constant work on it, and really Rugby did too.
But without behavioral work to occupy him and give him daily focus, I had one bored puppy who was now turning to mischief to keep himself busy. I found myself scolding Rugby for stealing things, and scolding my family for leaving things where he could snitch them! I was so ready to have a peaceful home again, but I had a feeling that as long as Rugby lived under my roof, peace would be fleeting at best!
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was venturing into uncharted waters for both Rugby and I. We had such limited options available! I could physically exercise him during the day while my neighbors were at work and their unleashed dogs were safely inside their homes. But taking Rugby for simple neighborhood walks was off the table because he fearfully and anxiously barked from the moment he walked out the door until we got home. The walks were simply increasing his anxiety, and making him more reactive and not less.
This video clip was from a walk last year in front of our house during the day when the neighbors were all at work and things were very quiet. You can see how focused he is on everything else in the neighborhood, but he was able to listen and take direction from me. Eight years ago, this sort of walk wasn’t possible, because Rugby melted into an anxious, barking mess! He was unable to focus and unable to listen! We’ve come a very long way together!!
Eight years ago, my dilemma was how to stimulate him from 5:00 until bedtime every night! He was chock full of energy and that’s when he was doing most of his naughty behavior! We could and did play fetch in the house….often for hours, but it just didn’t seem to be enough for him. I could tell that he wanted more, but I wasn’t sure what “more” looked like!
Giving Tricks a Try
I’d never taught tricks before, and honestly wasn’t sure I even liked tricks. My Corgis had been show dogs, and I had trained them to respond to cues producing behavior that was helpful and made sense to me. We were being judged upon the teamwork that a judge saw in us, whether it was AKC Obedience or AKC Conformation. The bottom line was that I had trained my dogs to respond to my cues and produce a specific desired behavior.
Tricks made me think of little poodles all dressed up in pink skirts walking on two legs, or jumping through hula hoops in a circus act. I just couldn’t think of Rugby as a circus dog, so I was very resistant to train any tricks. Adding to that, I had absolutely no idea how to train tricks, so it meant that I was going to have to learn something new as well. That might have been the biggest roadblock of all! I just didn’t know how or where to start.
However, it finally came down to this for me: I wasn’t training other people’s dogs to behave all day long to come home and scold my own for naughty behavior all night! Whether I liked tricks or not, I was willing to give them a try, because I knew Rugby was bored and frustrated, and I wanted him to have a great life with me, however that life was going to look!
So, I just started playing around with Rugby. He’s ridiculously food motivated, and I could train during his mealtimes offering his kibble as rewards. He was hungry and motivated to learn new things because it meant a few bites of food when he figured out the trick. I didn’t know where to start, but I knew that Rugby could focus for food, so I just had to figure out how to make the connection for him.
This Old Dog Was Learning a Whole New Trick in the Way to Train Dogs!
This style of training was a bit different than what I had been doing for twenty years. I had always used a leash and helped a dog learn what behavior I wanted by using the leash to direct him. Now I wasn’t using a leash, and I was using food to lure Rugby into the behavior I was looking for.
I started with simple active things that involved jumping, because Rugby was a crazy jumping fool!! The only thing he liked more than jumping was running, so jumping tricks just made sense to me. Once Rugby figured out that we were going to play together through jumping, and he also got food or a fetch reward, he was all in with every last paw! He was delighted to learn new things, and his focus was so very good!
Some of the early jumping tricks he learned were to jump over things like my legs when I was sitting on the floor, or a jump stick. He could also crawl under my legs when I bent my knees, and then he learned to jump over and go under one knee when I was kneeled down on just one knee. He tried to jump up on top of that bent knee and balance there, but without success.
From there, I taught him to jump into my arms, so that I never had to bend over to pick him up. I simply slapped my leg, and held out my arms, and Rugby would jump right up and let me catch him. From there, I taught him to launch from my knee onto my shoulders, and that was a favorite trick for a few years, until Rugby’s adult size wasn’t comfortable for him on my shoulders any longer. Rugby learned the difference between jumping into my arms or jumping up on my shoulders based upon where I positioned him at the beginning of the trick.
And I discovered that Rugby loved riding and hanging out on my shoulders! He absolutely did! He could often be found across my shoulders like a fur collar, and that became one of his very favorite places to be. He learned to lock his elbow over my collarbone, which stabilized his front end and locked him in place so he didn’t move. He typically let his back end dangle over the other side, and as he grew, he would “stand” his back legs on my belt and waistband of my jeans.
We watched TV like that. I answered email like that. I played computer games with Rugby on my shoulders, and it just became a wonderful option that we both loved! It seemed that Rugby felt safer when he was up on my shoulders, and he really loved the closeness. That almost seemed to transform him into a wonderful little snuggler, and we both really loved that.
Rugby loved training tricks! He learned things so quickly once food or play was involved! I tied in his love for food and play with thinking and problem solving, and Rugby was all in with every one of his paws! I didn’t correct him when he made mistakes, but he learned that by failing and correcting his behavior, he could get me to throw the ball again or give him a nugget of food. It was a gradual process to be sure, but it seemed like this was the recipe that worked for Rugby like a charm!
Making Mistakes and Adjusting Along the Way
I really didn’t know at all what I was doing with him! I didn’t have any books on tricks, so most of what I did in those early days, was just through trial and error as we figured out fun things to do together! Both of us made mistakes along the way, and we adjusted through those mistakes and sorted out the ways to improve, and before long, we were starting to become a team!
Over the years, we’ve worked on all kinds of tricks from simple things like “Sit” to more complex tricks like “Say Your Prayers.” Even today, we often review the tricks that Rugby knows well, but I make sure that he also has some tricks that are works in progress. When it’s time to work, Rugby will come to me and bark to let me know it’s time. To date, Rugby knows about forty tricks well, and we keep working on new things all the time!
The thing that really worked for us with tricks is that it just didn’t matter if Rugby made mistakes. I stopped correcting any mistakes and learned to relax and let him figure things out for himself. He was delighted with this method of learning, and I was absolutely amazed and overwhelmed by how quickly he learned to adjust what he was doing and problem solve by doing something a bit different. He was so focused on earning his reward, that he stayed in the game, and worked until he figured out what I wanted! For my part, I learned how to lure with food better, so that it was easier for Rugby to guess what I wanted from him.
And while training tricks was one of the very important things that I think really built our relationship, I still don’t think Rugby trusted me yet. When he got hurt, he still growled me away, and when he got scared, he continued to run and bark. There was still work left to do in the trust department! And much of that work included praying for answers!!
To be continued….