Friday, September 11, 2020

Change the energy, change the behaviour.

We often talk about stress buckets (arousal thresholds) and emptying them while doing our consults and training, trying to remove sources of stress by management or by desensitisation and counter conditioning, but sometimes a place can be just as much of a bucket filler as any physical trigger. Just the thought of going to certain places can mean your dog's bucket is overflowing before you even leave the house, and dogs often can't behave in ways we deem appropriate when they are way over their threshold or their bucket is full.

Behaviour can be very strongly influenced by mere habit  and what you practice, you get good at. If you are always finding your dog is too highly aroused to think straight in a certain place, you should think about changing the associations your dog has with that place. 

This is more simple than you would think.

A building generally has walls, a roof, and a floor, as a bare minimum. The building might be a disco, or it might be a phone shop, or a library, 
or anything else. But before it is all of those things, it is just a building. 

The things that change it from a building into a disco, or a library, are the energy, equipment and routines  you put into the building. The dancing you do to the pounding speakers blasting away the latest "choons", or the reading quietly in the comfy armchairs by the windows. The things that you practice doing determine the overall "feel" of the place, and so when you next come to that disco you are more likely to dance, because that is what you do at discos. When you go to a library, you are much less likely to dance, but more likely to be calm and in the mood to be sensible and read. Why? Because that is what you do in libraries.

The building doesn't change. It is still a building. The place you go with your dog doesn't change. It is still a place you like to take your dog. However, the idea and routine of what you get up to in the building can change. 

The behaviour your dog exhibits in that highly arousing place can change. They just need to learn a new way of being in that place. A new way of feeling that "this is what we do here".

Think of all those discos that shut down (probably sometime back in the 80's when people still said "disco") and are now phone shops. Do people dance in phone shops? Not very often. They need to concentrate on what the latest gadget does before they spend lots of money on it. This is possible because they now have a new associative behaviour in that building.

So if you want your dog to be better able to think in some situations, you need to be turning exciting places - discos - into calm places like libraries or phone shops. 

How? By changing the energy. By replacing high arousal activities with calmer ones and then practicing the new way of being in that place. HINT - You might need to swap high arousal for mid-arousal activities at first, before swapping down to low arousal activities, so your dog is better able to process the changes going on in his environment.

So for example, take a dog that goes crazy for the ball slinger, and is hopping about like a bunny rabbit, mad with excitement, rushing out the door, barking and being an absolute oik every time you get to the park... But you have just learned that the repetitive running back and forth is not very good for the dog, and you would much rather be able to go for a "nice" walk, but now the dog can no longer seem to go within 20 miles of the park without turning into the Tasmanian bloody Devil... 

You might want/need to wind their energy levels down gradually over a few visits at the park, from using the ball slinger less and to throwing the ball manually instead. Then after a few sessions start to only throw the ball a few times and begin to play a few concept training games once they are in a headspace where they can concentrate. Then after a few more sessions, wind down further to a few concept training games plus perhaps calmly scatterfeeding their tea and allowing them a long sniffy meander through the undergrowth finding it all.  

The dog will not feel like they are missing out, after all they get to play games and have a sniffy picnic at their favourite place, however they are no longer hyped up to the point they are unable to think straight or performing an action that could see them get an injury. You and they can have the walk of your dreams, or at least begin to work on the pulling, barking and your recall, with a dog who is more able to be receptive to your teaching. 

You have turned the disco into a library. Albeit a slightly more lively than average library. With kibble in the pot plants. But a library where learning can take place nonetheless. 
 Remember - always choose Fun Not Fear®

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A new normal.


In the while since I last wrote a blog, a heckin lot has happened. I am knackered! I am writing this from my phone as I can't reach my laptop, and I have no desire to get up and get it. So apologies if there are any autocorrect spelling disasters. I am sure I will edit it later.

Mostly, the lot that has happened over the last few months has been lockdown and COVID-19 related. You would think that the almost the whole country shutting shop for a few months would mean we all had nothing to do, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Firstly I found myself being a teacher to a sixth form student, who found himself being taught his A-Levels remotely. This was pretty new as we didn't even have Internet when I was at school. I say "new", I had previously homeschooled my eldest for a while but we were able to pick and choose what she would be learning and it certainly wasn't A-Level Criminology or Politics. Plus there was the fact she wanted to learn, he would much prefer to play Xbox. So that was nice.

I found myself decorating a teenage boy's bedroom, which was an experience in itself and one that will haunt me forever.

I found myself having to completely remake the website for my non-profit over the course of just a few weeks, after the providers gave up providing, and that was a lovely surprise that saw me working until 3am for many a night. if you fancy a look.

I also worked out how to use acuity schedule software. And put it on my website. And linked it to Facebook. And to Zoom. And to Google Calendar. I actually could be Bill Gates as I am so bloody good at computers now. The things you never knew you needed to know, when you learn to train dogs is endless.

Then there is the seemingly foregone conclusion that I am now the only person who needs to leave the house "cos social distancing"... so I am now officially the house representative in all things that involve getting dressed and going out of the door. Which includes shopping, bill paying, gardening, dog walking, and anything else that involves daylight touching skin. Though the oiks have visited the relatives a few times once lockdown was eased up, I will give them that. Nan turned 99 and my Dad had a Barbeque. My poor mum had a big birthday but was unable to celebrate it properly because we were all still in lockdown at the time. I am so grateful to have everyone I love still around me, as many I know do not have that luxury.

And then dog - work went mad. Every person in the whole world except for me bought a puppy. Puppies need training. Dogs whose humans are home 24/7 seem to develop a reliance on their human continuing to be around 24/7 and were in for an unpleasant surprise when their humans went back to work. Dogs who had previously snoozed their days away were now no longer getting any sleep. Dogs whose humans suddenly developed a passion for jogging and twatting about with fitbits were suddenly being dragged into doing "Dog Bed to 5k" whether their hips could stand it or not. The park was off limits too. 

Everyone was spending longer on the Internet and so my social media pages went crazy too.

I rewrote my training course, made videos for it, and trademarked it too.

The reactive dogs thought social distancing was brilliant as people all gave them 2 meters space, and all the other dogs were on leads. Some didn't have to go for walks at all. Now it's almost back to normal. The dogs are all back to barking at each other and the humans are noticing the behaviour change after they had made so much progress. If only they could all just carry on keeping a bit back from people and dogs, like we behaviourists have often been trying to get them to do for years, while they keep up their desensitisation programs,  so much more would be right with the world. 

The dogs also didn't need to actually meet the behaviourist before starting their behaviour modification programmes, as we all learned how to Zoom with our clients bloody sharpish. Not having the initial hour or six of building up trust with the dog first means the clients can launch straight into their training and the dog is in a better headspace to start learning. Of course there are so many ways in which an in person consultation is beneficial, not least the way it is so much easier to become immersed in the client's world and to show them first hand the things you want them to see. But, being able to teach remotely is a skill well worth having in the arsenal when it comes to anxious dogs, as they can begin to build their confidence, before ever being subjected to a stranger with a bumbag of treats and a clipboard sitting on their sofa.

I have stopped walking Moo daily now, as the break from walking we had at the start of lockdown did him the world of good, and he chilled right out. We now go four or five times a week and I let him walk to wherever he wants to go, sniffing and snooting about. We both really enjoy it much more than before. I also have been using him as a demo dog for zoom consults and so his basic training (and treat pot) has been getting topped up nicely too.

My youngest is back at college next week and I am actually dreading it. Normality is no longer normal. The past few months have been a blur, but at least me and my little family have all been together through it. I will be really worried about it every time he sniffles or forgets his mask for ages, but I guess that is the world we will be living in for a while now. I was very afraid of leaving the house at all a few months back, but now I am used to masking and handwashing every 20 minutes and it feels less threatening. I have even stopped subconsciously holding my breath when I walk past people in the supermarket and then wondering why I feel giddy halfway round. We will get used to it.

The decision to live a pyjama based lifestyle for a few months, ultimately has become a lifestyle that I don't want to give up too quickly. The comfort of working from home is a lesson I have found very valuable indeed. I am just getting into the swing of not trying to work 24/7 at my laptop (hence it is switched off as I write this) and find balance between my caring responsibilities, my work life, and drinking coffee and eating snacks. 

I am loving being able to work with my clients again, to see the dogs and to see with my own eyes, the plans I make with their humans coming to fruition. This is something I will never take for granted again. However now I feel better equipped to work in a virtual, and online environment as well as in person. So, in many ways the whole lockdown and COVID-19 disaster has been a time of growth and of learning for me. I have been able to take my kids, my dog, my business and embrace a whole new way of doing things with all of them.

Hoping you have stayed safe and well xx