This leash thing is getting old!
I was convinced that leash training would be much like every task we’ve learned so far: slow and methodical, step by step, moving from point A to point B. I thought I could break the job down into a chain of behaviors and all would go as planned. Helping Aaron Foster negotiate the world for the past five weeks has been mostly science based. Methodical desensitization of the stuff that causes him to bolt. Using good food, plenty of rest, lots of thinking exercises, conditioning and predictable outcomes, Aaron is figuring things out. He knows a lot now! He’s becoming quite skilled and increasingly self-assured, golden eyes bright and inquisitive, despite an often timid response to new situations. So I surmised that bringing this dog around to accepting a leash would be just one more behavior. We’d follow the appropriate steps one by one, using science as our guide, and we’d have Aaron Foster walking confidently on a leash. But, gosh. The fact is, after a month we’re still in the very beginning stages of leash training. He still bolts when he’s startled, forcing me to drop the leash so he can retreat to one of his safety zones. He’s the “decider,” Deborah Flick says, about what causes him fear. But, quite honestly, this leash thing is getting a little old.
I’m not sure what Aaron’s prior leash experience has been. There’s just no way to know. As Jana Rade, @DawgBlogger, mentioned, perhaps he lived only in a fenced back yard in South Carolina and never walked on a leash. That seems likely. So, possibly he could lack any experience at all. I suspect the difficulty we’re having is supported by a lack of experience combined with a timid nature. Though I could be wrong, I don’t think he had horrible, ongoing experiences while on leash. After all, it’s not the leash that Aaron’s afraid of. He’s still a timid dog and he just wants the option to bail out when something… anything…causes him fear.
I’ve built a great deal of trust with this dog. I’ve noticed that he is beginning to think of me as part of his “safety” zone. So far, he’s been the “decider” and I’ve honored most every choice he’s made. That’s what keeps the light shining in his eyes. Besides, I don’t want to give him opportunities to practice fearful behaviors. If he shows me fear, I re-direct as best I can, or stop all together.
But this leash thing is getting old. Let’s face it: Aaron’s inexperience and slow progress on leash is holding us back. He is more active now and I know he would benefit from daily walks. By the end of the day he’s not a tired dog, in part because he has not had enough exercise. Still, I was concerned about what might happen if I took a different approach, namely, holding the leash tightly, not allowing him to seek safety when he’s afraid. Certainly once he realized he couldn’t bolt he would become even more frantic.
And then my mind began to race a little. I could be doing this all wrong! He might not be able to cope with the restraint. I could do irreparable damage. Aaron might drown in his anxiety. He might writhe around on the floor in his struggle to free himself…. deep betrayal in his eyes….yelling, “HOW COULD YOU??!!”…..and he’d be so scared and pull so hard that I wouldn’t be able to stand still and instead there would be a crazed woman chasing after a frantic dog and then…. and then and then…..and then in would walk hub and scare him even more…. uggghhh….and everyone would just…start…screaming! Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! And the light in his eyes would be gone. Forever. And ever. And I would fail.
Gosh, why does it often come down to that? Hmmmm….
It seems to me that helping a foster dog make sense of the world is much like learning the second movement of a Beethoven Sonata. You must learn the notes. You have to work out the fingering. And by golly, you better internalize the rhythm. That’s the theory piece, the science part of music. The methodology. But that doesn’t guarantee you can play the Music. And, learning theory doesn’t guarantee you can help the foster dog. The Music is inside the notes and the fingering and the rhythm. It rests there. That’s the art piece…and you have to discover it. As well, you have to find the Foster Dog. He’s in there. And you discover him through the beautiful light in his eyes. Surely, you need science, but that’s not the whole of it. You need the art piece. Finally, in my case, there’s pedagogy mixed in, too. I’m learning to be Aaron’s teacher, in part, through the guidance of many professionals around me.
I decided to try it. I attached the leash to Aaron’s harness and said “Let’s go.” He followed for a few steps. I said, “Yes!” and gave him a reward. We moved a few more steps. Same thing. And again. Inevitably, a sound broke his concentration and he turned to scoot away. But I didn’t let him go. Instead, I held tight to the leash. He was at the end of it in no time and began to pull. A little struggle ensued, just as I had imagined. Still, I didn’t let go and instead planted my feet firmly. He squirmed and carried on as he felt the harness tighten. He licked his lips. And he looked at me with those absolutely stunningly gorgeous Aaron eyes. Rather than a glaring look of betrayal, however, those eyes merely asked a simple question: “Why?” And I looked right back at him and answered him….“Because I’m the Foster Mom and I said so, that’s why.” I dropped calmly to my knees and asked him to sit. He stopped struggling and he sat. That beautiful light in his eyes returned. Then I held a treat in front of me and he approached me to receive it. And that was that.
I said, “You’re a good boy, Aar.” He gave me a now typical “nose nudge” as if to say, “Yup, I know.”
Here’s a video of what it all looked like. You’ll notice that Aaron is not crazy about passing by the scary guy with the camera and that’s John. He knows John. If John were holding a handful of hot dogs rather than a camera we might have a different video. Aaron and I are far from walking down Thurston Pond Road on leash. But we’re a step closer. In fact, I wouldn’t try this harness and leash exercise outdoors just yet. We chose the comfort of the living room and kitchen because that’s where Aaron spends most of his time. The outdoors is still a scary place. So the leash saga will continue on the back porch later in the weekend. As usual, comment away and keep them playful!