Patrick has been here nearly a week.
His primary issue is an overriding anxiety that inhibits him from learning or relaxing. Until I reduce the anxiety we won’t make much progress. I have a confession to make, this has taken me by surprise, the extent of the problem. I underestimated what we were in for, as did Patrick's owner, because at home Patrick is a happy dog. What neither of us realized was how anxious Patrick really is away from his routine and structure.
Some clues when Patrick-or any dog-is stressed:
Short, fast nervous panting
Standing stiffly, with an overly alert posture
Looking and listening in a hyper sort of way
Not making eye contact, avoiding eye contact
Not taking food treats, even particularly yummy ones
Stress makes learning difficult if not impossible. If a dog won’t take a food treat, it makes using food as a reward impossible and makes progress very, very slow. I talk to my friend Michelle and she reminds me of that very point.
“He has to learn how to be food motivated, Marianne," she reminds me.
She suggests cutting back on his regular meal and using something delicious to get him food motivated. A good idea that I will try.
One thing I do know, Patrick hates even the suspicion he’s going to be made to do something. If he anticipates pressure, he tightens his whole body, gets stiff, pants, and looks away in another direction. As a friend once said, once the missile has left the silo, forget it. In other words, once the stress kicks in I have to find a different way, especially taking the pressure off.
There are behaviors I do not want to reinforce, like running away or avoiding me when I want to bring him in, so for now Patrick is on a leash or long line. I simply pick it up, ask him to sit, and bring him in.
Sitting is a big deal. Sitting is asking for compliance. It is asking the dog to defer to me, and see me in the picture. I suspect he is accustomed to dashing through the door to go in and out, and his owner confirms this, but now Patrick must sit before going in or out. Privileges come by deferring to me. It’s a whole new life for him.
We spent a few days with me “showing him how to sit.” Which is silly, Patrick knows how to sit, he just didn’t know to do it with the word. I experiment; I can't lure him into a sit, so I gently tuck his bottom underneath him, or tap behind his knee to buckle his leg so he had to sit, or even a small tug on the leash until he responds. These methods are all called “compulsion” and it's a bit of a confession to say that I tried them, because I want to get away from them as quickly as possible. Patrick is not going to learn how to learn as long as I am doing the sitting for him.
Why is compliance so important, anyway? What compliance is not is bending Patrick to my will. It is simply asking him to defer to me. Although I see moments of a happy Patrick-and a sweet dog-I do not see him deferring to me. I’m simply not in the picture for him. Perhaps his anxiety level is too high, or perhaps he has never learned to defer to humans. Structure is good for dogs, but it’s like giving a kid responsibility, and by succeeding he builds confidence, same thing.
For example, coming out of a crate. One way is to reach in and pull him out. Another way is to open the crate and let him dash out. A third way is to open the crate, ask him to come out, he responds, ask him to sit, he sits, put a leash on, and then tell him, “OK” as a signal he can get up and go. The first way he learns absolutely nothing, although it might save time. The second way he learns he is in control, no deference to humans. The third way he learns to defer to me.
It’s the same with going out the door-- first way open door, dog dashes out. Second way, call dog to door, ask dog to sit, dog sits until door is open and you tell him “OK” signaling it’s ok to go out the door. Now dog is deferring to human, can’t go out unless he complies, he is learning that he gets what he wants by complying, and most importantly the human is in the picture.
Once Patrick learns to comply, he will stop worrying. Once he starts to take food, he will learn more quickly. Any kind of compulsion, (forcing, making, or pushing too hard) is not teaching him how to learn on his own at the least, or it will shut him down at the worst.
So now dinner comes directly from me. In the course of the day, as Patrick complies, he gets part of his dinner—yummy chicken, which he likes. He earns his meals.
We had a breakthrough this morning. Patrick’s crate is in the kitchen, the door is open, and he is on a leash. I call him out, in front of the crate, and sit on a chair nearby. I ask him to sit. I’ve decided he must figure out all on his own what I am asking for-no pushing, making, or arranging him into a sit. We wait. One minute, two minutes and then, he sits all on his own. I praise him enthusiastically and give him a piece of chicken. We do this a few times more, and each time he sits it takes a few seconds less than the last. But it is a breakthrough because now Patrick understands that I will wait until he complies, that he must comply, he will be rewarded, and that he can figure it out all on his own. Today Patrick is taking food from me and figuring out that he can sit. Hooray!