Several months ago, Skip began leaping up and down in front of me while we walked up the hill, in anticipation of getting the toy that he and Maggie play tug games with. It was cute for a few weeks, and then became irritating. I’m trying to walk forward up a steep hill, and he’s pogo’ing himself in front of me, impeding my progress. I tried ignoring it, but he kept it up, no doubt because eventually he would get reinforced when he got the toy when we arrived at the top of the hill.
So, what to do to stop the behavior? I could teach an incompatible behavior, one of my favorite ways to deal with this kind of an issue. However, I took another approach, which worked so well and so fast I had to spend some energy getting the behavior back over the last few weeks so that I could video it for you. Which, of course, now I can’t . . . best laid plans and all that. I could wait until Maggie is no longer lame, but I don’t know when that will be, so I’ll just describe it in hopes that will be enough. I should mention before going any further that this method works wonderfully for some dogs, in some contexts, some of the time. But when it does, it’s so refreshing!
What I did was nothing. No wait, that’s not true. Not nothing at all, but certainly “less,” at least from the perspective of Skip. What Skip wanted was to keep walking up to the top of the hill, where he and Maggie would get the tug toy and begin to play one of their favorite games. But instead, I did two other things: First, I stopped and stood still, which is both doing something and doing nothing, depending on your perspective. Second, I turned my head and body away from Skip, crossed my arms and gave him nothing to engage with. As soon as he stopped bouncing and took his attention off of me–perhaps sniffing, walking up the hill, or picking up a stick on the ground, I turned and began walking forward again. It took me about 5 repeats to get us all up the hill on day one; granted it took some time and patience. But it was easy to do as long as I was patient. Day two of this was no different; it probably doubled the amount of time it took to get to the top of the hill. Maybe add on 4-5 minutes? But on day three I had to do it only two times, and on day 4 the behavior was completely extinguished.
Why then, you might ask, did I go out this morning to get a video of the behavior, since I just said it was extinguished? Because that was several months ago, and lately I’ve been trying to get it back so that I could get a video of him doing it for this week’s post. But now Maggie is lame and something is weird with my Youtube account anyway, so the goddesses are just not going to let me get you a video. But I’ve been wanting to write about this for months, so I’m just going to forge ahead by writing about it.
So, what happened? In one sense, I very much did a lot when I stopped walking up the hill while Skip bounced like a cocaine-crazed kangaroo. I switched from walking forward to standing still, I crossed my arms and I turned away. In another sense, I did less–I withdrew attention, stopped moving and said nothing. I thought of this when I recently saw a good trainer chirping incessantly to his dog, asking the dog over and over again to do X in order to prevent the dog from doing Y. I wanted to suggest to him that he simply stop, stand still and be silent for a moment, but it wasn’t my place to interfere.
Recently, I talked to a kick ass dog trainer whose dog was hyper reactive on walks. This is not a normal dog–truly brilliant, athletically gifted, and much too easily aroused. I suggested she just try stopping and going silent when the dog began barking and lunging. No cues to do anything else, no backing up, no prompt to look at the distraction on cue. (All of these methods can be extremely useful in many cases. She’d tried them all.) I said, “What might happen if you just went still and silent?” It helped. Magic? No, but it helped, substantially.
I’d love to have a conversation with you about the power of stillness and silence. I’d write more, my mind is buzzing right now, but it hurts to type so I’m going to stop. (Note: Just hypothetically, if you take Doxycycline after a deer tick bite to prevent Lyme disease, and take it on an empty stomach, be prepared for your body to attempt to expel not just the contents of your stomach, but your actual stomach, and to slip, fall and slam your wrist on a sharp crate edge whilst dashing to the bathroom. Just hypothetically, of course.)
What I can do, however, is repeat parts of a post I wrote titled Less is More, in November of 2016, this time about not overwhelming clients in private sessions or classes with too much information. Here is part of it:
From November 2016: When I first started seeing clients, I felt a need to send them home with as much information as I possibly could. How could I deprive them of all the things that they could do to help their dogs? Because I knew that people only remember a relatively small percentage of what they hear in one appointment, I wrote a number of booklets over the years for them to take home and read. The Cautious Canine, Feisty Fido, and I’ll Be Home Soon, for example, were all written as supplements to the information I covered in my early sessions with clients.
But there was always so much more. Dogs who were reactive to other dogs on leash were confused by the owner’s lack of consistent cues. Fearful dogs needed more than classical and operant conditioning when strangers arrived; they needed to live in a family that provided a sense of security, not one of “dominance”. Dogs with separation anxiety had virtually no idea what the owners meant when they said “sit,” and that added to their general anxiety.
So much to teach and so little time! I’d would do my best–explaining that we needed to work together more than one time; sending them home with booklets and handouts, appropriate toys and/or training tools. However, as the years went on, I began to hone down what we covered in the first appointment. Just doing a good intake interview is tiring for everyone. It often took a half hour, or even longer, and after that one could see that the humans in my office were already getting tired. I had asked them, after all, no small number of questions that took a lot of thought to answer. “When did the problem first begin, just even an inkling of it?” “What exactly did you do in the 30 seconds after the first bite two years ago?” “What would “success” look like?”
Thinking through the history of a behavior problem takes a lot of mental energy, and it doesn’t leave a lot left for learning new things. That is why many practitioners ask people to fill out a questionnaire before the appointment. There is a lot of value in that, and I too sent out forms and asked people some general questions on it. But I prefer asking many of the questions in person. First of all, the interchange between us often led to discoveries. (“Oh, that’s right! I forgot… He didn’t start growling at dogs at the dog park until after that big brown dog slammed into him at the front gate.”)
In addition, it gave me lots of time to observe the dog’s behavior, and the relationship between the dog and his owner. Did the Ginger the Golden obsessively sniff the carpet for an entire twenty minutes before settling down? Did Marco the Mastiff avoid looking at his owners’ faces? There is a lot to learn about a dog and his relationship to his owners (and vice versa) in an unstructured, new environment, and I never wanted to lose that opportunity.
That is why I never wanted to rush the intake interviews, and why I settled on going over just a few things for our first appointment. Usually it boiled down to sending them home with 1) Practical solutions for dealing with the problem for the next two weeks–often management, not cure, 2) A handout or booklet explaining how to treat the problem. I would ask them to read it before our next appointment, but not necessarily begin working on it until we met up again and I could go over it in person and, perhaps most importantly, 3) a cue, practiced in the office, that gave the owners the feeling that they really COULD influence their dog’s behavior. It always was based on positive reinforcement, and it always was something I knew that I could teach quickly.
I link these together because, as I’ve talked about before, not only do we sometimes chatter too much to our dogs, but because there is power in stillness and silence. Please don’t be silent however in your comments, I am truly looking forward to your thoughts. Have you ever tried just going still and silent around your dog? Results?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Maggie is not a happy camper. She’s been lame off and on for over a week. I think it is a pad on her front right, one of the ones badly cracked by frostbite last winter. I’m resting her and slathering it with Queen Bee’s Lotion Bar. Not sure if that will help, but the pad has a hard, raised area that looks almost like a callous. Poor girl.
Except for Maggie, it’s a busy place around here. Jim and I can barely move at night. No need to work out at a health club when you live on a small farm and have a big garden. At least, not in spring. But there are so many rewards, including this native flower that is blooming this week, the Shooting Star.
Polly is reminding us that apparently tails need to be rested.
No rest for the birds in the photos below. Our beloved barn swallows are back and busy as, uh, barn swallows in spring. These two are perched outside the barn with nesting material in their beaks. One nest, that I couldn’t get a good shot of, is full of wool from when the shearer was here. Seems only right.
These next two birds are inside the barn, and I was so surprised when I had a chance to look at the photo carefully. Given that adult male and female barn swallows look alike, what’s with the white versus the cinnamon belly colors? Turns out the darker one is a juvenile. Juvenile? Already? That seems almost impossible, but I see no other explanation.
You can see some of the swallows swooping overhead in this photo. And that’s “George” against the fence, the four-wheeler who has my undying love. He’s named George because he is a Honda “Foreman” model. Jim said there was no question his name should be George, and I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, so George he is. He’s one of my favorite guys in the entire world, because he allows me to get to the top of the hill without having to clamber up every single time I need to go up there. I just got back here from taking George up the hill to work Skip. Skip and I had a great time; not sure how George felt about it.
The last photos are of some of my other loves, including native flowers. Here’s a “Jack” in the Pulpit that is probably really a Jill (the plants start out as males and become females only if the resource base allows it). Behind the Jack is another native flower, the Toad Trillium. Not the most attractive of names, but then, I love toads too, so we’re good.
And then of course, there’s food, high on my list of wonderful things. This is a Beef Bourguignon pie I made for a dear friend’s 75th birthday.
May your week too be full of things that bring health, joy and a significant yum factor.