In The House of Dog – A Season of Change

This will always be one of my favorite pictures of Phillip.

My favorite seasons are Fall and Spring. I prefer Summer to Winter, simply because I like warm and long days to cold and short. But I love Fall and Spring. Fall has my two favorite holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and I love the colors. I love Spring because it brings an end to Winter. I love the explosion of life, the brilliancy of colors, the warm and pleasant days. But Spring and Fall are seasons of change.

In ancient cultures, there were many holidays and celebrations associated with Spring. Ideas and concepts of rebirth and change are intertwined with Springtime. This reflects nature itself, as plants bloom, animals that gave birth over winter begin to bring their young out into the world, snow melts and rivers run strong. It is a time of change.

I’ve been thinking about change. Change isn’t easy for people, and definitely not for dogs. There has been so much change this year. It’s hard to accept some of the changes we’ve seen this year.

As a trainer, I’ve taken some time to reflect on how I’ve changed, not just this year but in general. Changes in how I teach, how I present information but also changes in my views and techniques. I want to reflect on that and why it’s important.

First of all, I’ve been working with an apprentice, and a lot of you have met her. I’ve mentioned this before, but teaching her has been beneficial to me. She asks questions that owners don’t think to ask, and given the time we spend together, asks follow-up questions and provides me with her views and opinions. This has been beneficial to me because it has taught me how to better explain novel concepts to people. On top of that, she has helped me find gaps in my knowledge and motivated me to fill in those gaps. I can’t fully explain how beneficial teaching her has been for me.

I’m also thinking about the techniques I’m using. I’m working on a new one that I started last night, and it got me to thinking about how I try to keep up-to-date with methods and trying new methods. I am trying to get out of my comfort zone and look for new and more effective techniques, updating ones I currently employ, keeping myself sharp. That is always difficult. Looking for faults in how you do your job is never easy, and I’m no different than anyone else.

Finally, I’m changing how I view things. My point of view on things is shifting. I remember reading an article by a trainer that, like me, specializes in aggression counter-conditioning. I remember that she asked the question: Are we normalizing behaviors that we shouldn’t? That question has stuck with me for a while, and while I don’t have an answer yet, I do have some observations on it. When I first started out as a trainer, I believed that there wasn’t a behavior that couldn’t be modified. That is, of course, incorrect. There are many behaviors that cannot be modified. As I learned more, I held the view that there are some behaviors that can be modified, and some that can’t and we should learn to live with that.

Take prey drive for example, this is an intrinsic behavior that is stronger in some dogs than in others. Flynn, my terrier mix, has a strong prey drive. Through training, I have been able to modify his prey drive to a degree. But while he no longer chases cats or squirrels, he still has a problem with raccoons. So, as a trainer, what do I do about this? Modifying the behavior, specifically with raccoons, is unlikely. I can’t control when the raccoons are in the yard, and for their part, they are getting better about avoiding the yard when we go out. Is the behavior harmful? Not really. The raccoons usually has a pretty good head start, and since Flynn can’t climb trees, I don’t usually have to worry about him catching one. Flynn also displays a good situational awareness when chasing them, avoiding trees and obstacles, and he stops once he loses sight of them. The few times we have encountered them on leash, he has been content to bark at them. So, the answer is no, I will not modify the behavior, even if I felt like I could.

Let’s talk about his dog reactivity. Flynn has never been seriously hurt by another dog. I tried socialization, play groups and the like, as a puppy but he never showed much interest in interacting with other dogs outside of our home. When my in-laws visit, and bring their dogs, he coexists with them relatively peacefully. But outside of the home, he doesn’t care for them. If a dog approaches him, especially if they are larger and more active, he will bark at them. If I let him get close, he usually calms down, checks out the other dog, and leaves them alone. When it comes to working with clients, this is actually a useful behavior, because he provides a good distraction for other dogs. As an owner, it can be annoying and I once considered it embarrassing. Although now, four years later, I’ve come to accept that Flynn is just an asocial dog. He prefers the company of people to other dogs, and my company to anyone else. As a trainer, I’ve elected to not worry about training this out of him. I accept my dog for who he is, because the behavior is harmless.

It took me a while to come to this realization, and I still struggle with it at times. Things change. I hope as owners, I communicate that to you in our classes. Whether we are trying to keep your puppy from pooping in the house or keep your dog from attacking others while walking, change will happen. Sometimes that change is simply being aware of your dogs behavior or we are changing you and your dogs behavior through conditioning, things will change. How much they change isn’t up to me, that’s between you and the dog. And if things don’t change, or don’t change right away, don’t worry. We’ll keep working. Persisting is a kind of change all on its own.

I hope you all enjoy the rest of Spring and Summer! Hopefully, this year will get better!

Happy Tails!

-Ben

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