Tesla turned 2 years old this month. Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that I brought home this lovely yet out-of-control 10-month-old puppy from the Marin Humane Society, with their insistence that she was “not very drivey.” Well, I wanted drivey, and I certainly got it, with drive to spare!
In the past year, I have spent countless hours in training classes as well as at home and on-the-road training with her in order to shape her into the perfect dog that I’d been seeking. And while I don’t expect (nor want) her to be another Claire, heart dog extraordinaire and quite possibly the best working dog I’ve ever had, she is coming along nicely after all this time. As my colleagues and flyball teammates often say, her brain is solidifying nicely now, though we still have a way to go.
Reactivity and Distractibility (aka being an adolescent herding dog) – One of Tesla’s principal personality points when I first got her was a propensity to chase virtually anything that moved quickly, including but not limited to bicycles, dogs, people, critters, etc. And if she couldn’t chase it, she would bark and howl at a fever pitch.
I learned of this at our first flyball event, a demo just a few short weeks after I adopted her. I had already seen how she was at flyball practice, barking at the dogs when they ran, but this was nothing compared with the highly over-stimulating environment that included adjacent agility and flyball demonstrations. Although she did great on recalls over the jumps, when she wasn’t in the ring, I had to be farther than two football fields’ distance for her to even start to calm down enough to stop barking and reacting! And forget about any kind of focus.
So, I enrolled her in a multitude of classes – all concurrently – and mostly worked on her reactivity. I learned that she was reactive because she wanted to be in the action, so I formulated a protocol incorporating negative punishment , wherein I would leave the “action” as soon as she started to react. In other words, bark = turn and leave the room (as I said “too bad”).
Initially, she was so reactive that I would turn and leave class with her whenever she’d bark loudly. Gradually, I was able to increase the criteria until she was barely allowed a yip otherwise I’d walk her away from the action. After a year, we are still working on this in higher action settings, such as in agility class when other dogs are running fast. Overall, however, she has improved dramatically, as anyone would attest who has previously seen her in action.
Running Partner – My favorite activity in the world has always been running, and running with my trusty canine partner has been my dream since I was a child. (Truth: I was a runner long before it was ever a “thing”!) I’ve had a number of awesome running partners throughout my life. So, naturally, Tesla was destined to fulfill this legacy of past canine running mates. Boy was I in for an exasperating surprise; on our first ever run together, about 3 months after her adoption (and 1 month after her 1st birthday), I learned that bicycles were more distracting to her than any other known trigger. At a local park trail on that first day, I heard a screaming that I think few besides Cattle Dog owners can accurately describe. Yes, it was a scream, not a bark. A sound that probably still lingers in outer space somewhere.
The toughest part was that treats are not remotely interesting to her in that context. So, I had to find something else.Taking a tug toy on a run was inconvenient, and potentially dangerous to my fingers in such a frenzy, so I decided to use the run itself as reward. I started – after that first run fiasco – with bicycles at a more “workable” distance, and practiced “leave it”, which she had already learned in other contexts. If she effectively turned her head away (= leave it), I would reward her by marking “yes!” and breaking into a short sprint. If she barked or even tracked the bike with her snout instead of effectively leaving it, I would say “too bad” and stop running, taking hold of her harness and holding her close to my leg. In this manner, I restricted her movement in an improvised Time Out.
It took many months, but we have found success! Now a bicycle can pass us, even at high speed, and I often don’t even have to tell her to “leave it”. We still break into a sprint as reward, but I don’t have to go as long nor as fast as before.
Tesla effectively “leaving” a bicycle along a running path
The biggest challenge on this training path was a mistake I made on New Year’s Day: I decided to have my annual New Year’s Day run with her on a busy cycling/running/walking trail. I ended up cutting the run short when it turned into essentially two miles of wind sprints. We passed families and extended families along the trail – sometimes as many as 8-10 cyclists in a row! WHEW! Lesson learned. Now when I counsel my clients to avoid the overly challenging situations, I look back on that run and realize that sometimes, things just happen because we can’t predict everything all the time.
Family dog – I chose Tesla as my next dog because she fulfilled my top 3 criteria:
- She’s well-socialized with people and dogs (as long as nobody is running.)
- She loves children – yes, loves them. She pulls to greet them. The first time she and my daughter made eye contact, the look of pure joy on her sweet face and completely wiggly happy body were a thing of beauty.
- She’s built like an athlete, with the heart to match – and true to form, she is maturing into a great competitive sports dog.
Of course, the chew toy training, potty training, etc. were as I expected for an un-trained adolescent dog, so no challenges out of the ordinary there. But she was not quite the perfect house dog.
Tesla was originally rated by a shelter evaluator as a dog not well-suited for families with children under 10 years. As many of you know, my daughter, Shelby, was just over 3 years old when we got Tesla. We had a lot of work to do for them to be safe together, including teaching Tesla not to nip at Shelby when she moved. I closely supervised (and still do) all interactions, calling and implementing Time Out’s whenever she even thought about nipping at the kid’s clothes. After several weeks of this, I watched her turn her head to start to nip at Shelby’s skirt, and I called “Time Out!” Before I could get to her, Tesla put herself in time out up against the fence. I started to count out the 30 seconds, but only got to 26 before I took pity on her – she looked so upset – and I verbally released her. At the release, she immediately recovered her composure, and went back to running in the yard, but keeping her distance from the kid. She hasn’t nipped at Shelby again when they are both in the yard moving. And now, we can even go on runs together without a problem. This is excellent progress for an adolescent dog.
Still work to do. I have had many a client adopt a dog similar to Tesla, and become frustrated when they cannot resolve these behavior challenges within the first few weeks. It is a hard thing to say, but it can take many months to resolve reactivity in a dog, and sometimes longer depending on the dog’s genetic predispositions and background. (That’s right, nature and nurture.) What I can say is that it has been absolutely worthwhile to work through Tesla’s challenges to achieve what I have achieved with her thus far.
Next week, Part 2 – Tesla’s career training