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Of fortitude and squeaky toys

Last Sunday will not go down in history as a day of fabulous dog training success at the Doane home for wayward dogs. In fact, by 7 pm, Aaron Foster was in his crate wolfing down his second bully stick and I was on my third adult beverage. And, I was, for the first time, questioning what the hell I was thinking taking on a dog beyond my level of training ability and who requires more time than all of my companion animals put together. And that would be 2 dogs, 2 cats and 10 turtles. There’s no need to provide graphic details about exactly what made our day so unsuccessful and outright heartbreaking. But last Sunday I understood at a visceral level that, given how under-socialized Aaron is, most everything should nurture Aaron’s ability to trust what is happening. That’s just basic dog training stuff, I guess, but it’s easy to lose sight of at times. I don’t think it is completely about MY gaining his trust, though that’s a part of it. He can trust me all he wants. That’s great. But he really needs to learn to trust that nothing bad is going to happen when this happens… or when that happens… or if…or if…you get the point here. When that finally “sunk in” I understood how important games and activities that build trust and confidence really are. And, as a result, we turned a corner.

Aaron and Toys

The Dog’s Mind

The “Find It” game has been a deal changer. I noticed early on that Aaron is markedly motivated by smell. “Discovering the goods” in large size yogurt tubs hidden all over the downstairs a few days after he arrived gave Aaron a reason to get out of his crate. And that started the whole relationship on a good footing, so to speak. We’ve progressed from there. We’ve switched over to boxes and I’m no longer hiding tidbits of food in every box. We have 10 or so boxes and one tasty morsel of food. And, the boxes are spread all over the yard, so Aaron has to leave the house and he has a lot of ground to cover. What a great way to build confidence and trust in a dog who’s just trying to figure it all out. There’s little need at this point to reward him for finding the right box. Later, perhaps I will. Right now the food is his reward as well as the trust and confidence he gains from roaming around a large area behind our house where sometimes scary sounds happen. I still leave the back door open. If he’s scared, he needs a place to go. Eventually, he won’t and I’ll begin to close the door. Hopefully that’ll be prior to the first snowstorm. As soon as he’s found and devoured the morsel of food I call him back to me and this provides for more learning and confidence building. It’s a different game, really. It’s a game of recall and it’s an extraordinarily important skill for him to acquire. So, we practice that, too. Really, a good solid recall might even be a non-negotiable. In my mind, this is a “two-fer” deal. Two games in one. He’s developing self-reliance (can dogs do that?) and gaining courage. He’s beginning to trust that things are going to be good. And they are.

How’s leash training going? Quite well. We are now walking more confidently on a leash in the house. No lures, for the most part, only rewards for walking forward. I lead him and he is always behind me. When Aaron stops, I stop…..and wait. If he sits and throws a little tantrum, I sit, facing the opposite direction and wait for him to recover. Or, if I sense he might stop, I just go the other way and continue walking and make a mental note to go back to that area and do extra work through hand targeting a step by step forward movement.

Yet, since his comfort outdoors is increasing by the hour, yesterday I leisurely picked up his leash and led him for a stretch of 10-15 feet, rewarded him for following, then dropped the leash and walked away. I repeated it 4 or 5 times. I want him to have a gazillion positive experiences on leash outdoors, before he has any negative ones. Other trainers and owners may do it differently, but we’re making progress. It’s how I can best nurture Aaron’s ability to trust what is happening. And, that’s what I’ve learned since Sunday.

There’s one more game we’re playing and that’s in the woods behind the house. Aaron loves the woods so it’s a great place for a game of recall. And who knows? Someone from this rural NH area might just be fortunate enough to have this dog someday. And chances they’ll want a “good woods dog.” Aaron has that covered. I love what this dog is achieving. I love how this dog is mastering and conquering his fears. I love how the leaves on the trees here in New Hampshire are beginning their slow death process, but I get to care for a dog who is starting to……well, …..blossom.

It has been unseasonably warm in New Hampshire. It’s downright uncomfortable and difficult to play outside after the morning hours. But Aaron’s keeping busy, discovering the joys of squeaky toys.