Monday, July 7, 2014

When It Isn't a Training Problem

Early last week, our newest addition, Tempo, turned into a 12-pound walking behavior problem.  Now, even on his best days, Tempo is still a Jack Russell terrier who didn't receive one lick of training for the first six years of his life, but usually his cuteness still greatly outweighs his terrier moments, and we all like and enjoy each other.

Around last Monday, he became disagreeable about just about everything.  If he was inside, he didn't want to go outside.  If he was outside, he didn't want to come in.  If he was in the living room, he didn't want to go to the bedroom; if in the bedroom, he wouldn't want to go into the living room.  Don't even think about moving him.  If he was in your lap, you better stay put.  If he was laying down, don't dream of picking him up.  He didn't want to go to his crate.  If he was in his crate, he didn't want to even lay eyes on you, and he barked incessantly.  House-training became a thing of the past.  Mostly he glared at us, all "sideways-eared" as we call it.  Lowell was reminded of a Twilight Zone episode, pretty sure Tempo was trying to turn us into a cornfield.  Sometimes he made much uglier faces, and it was pretty clear what he was thinking.

By Thursday night, we were beside ourselves.  We felt like failures as dog owners and dog trainers.  We knew he was a "diamond in the rough" but nothing we couldn't handle, so how was it possible that he was actually getting worse?

Was he too stressed in a house full of bigger dogs?  No, it really didn't seem like it.  He likes the dogs, and even in his crabbiest moments, has never had any qualms with them.  Did he not like where his crate was, on top of the Border Collie's crates?  We moved it to the other side of the room on the floor, to no avail.  He was getting exercise, training, mental stimulation, attention, and quiet rest time as well.  We feed a good diet.  We think his life is pretty low-stress.  We use force-free training methods - never any corrections or punishments.  We knew what issues he did have (some impulse control and minor resource guarding stuff), and had been implementing positive training protocols to address those things.  What on earth were we doing wrong?!?

Friday morning he woke up, and refused breakfast.  He spent that morning mostly slinking around under the bed or the couch.  When he did emerge and let me hold him, I could hear from his (loud and constant) stomach sounds that things weren't settled right in there.  He was fussy and stretched a lot and couldn't get comfortable anywhere for very long.

He ate a small amount that evening, pepped up a bit, but continued to be a jerk and not himself.  Saturday he refused breakfast again.  Still behaving like a ray of sunshine.  He had one bout of diarrhea, still had a bit of a rumbly tummy, but no other symptoms.  We continued to monitor him, treat what symptoms he had, and were vigilant for any other changes or signs for more immediate concern.
Feeling crappy

Saturday afternoon, he came out of his crate from a nap, and was a whole new dog.  He ate, played, wagged his tail (well, his "nubbin"), jumped on us with kisses, played with his toys - "killing" them violently, and tore around the yard like a maniac.  His ears are pointed skyward again - not sideways and sad looking.  He is biddable (for a JRT), agreeable (for a JRT), and seems to genuinely like us again.  He only grumbled to himself once when we moved him over on the couch last night (like I said, he's not perfect).

I always remind the dog owners I work with to rule out physical/medical reasons for behavior changes, but this was a good reminder of just how subtle things can be.  I suspect now he hadn't been feeling 100% all week, but there were no other noticeable changes besides his personality.  I had started to wonder if he had a seizure disorder or some other weird brain stuff going on, and would have started doing diagnostics as my next step if his behavior hadn't improved, but still I really was puzzled and thought I would probably be grasping at straws there.  We are thinking he was having some stomach discomfort maybe related to some new training treats we tried, or perhaps some type of virus he picked up.  It didn't seem major, but enough to make him uncomfortable, and consequently unpleasant, turning his "training issues" into something resembling a much more concerning behavior problem.  We are glad that it seems to have passed without too much incident.

Sometimes things are obvious - the dog who is having accidents in the house turns out to have a UTI, or the dog who snapped at you when you scratched his head has a raging ear infection.  But sometimes it isn't that easily diagnosed.  If your dog suddenly undergoes a drastic behavior change, or if you are using sound, proven behavior modification principles and seeing no improvement at all, please remember to rule out medical issues as well.  Your dog will thank you!

What about you?  Have you ever had a training issue actually turn out to be a veterinary one?
Happy again after a day of play!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hard Learned Lessons: On Goals, Fairness, and What It Means to "Quit"

"Being realistic about what a dog can and cannot do is an act of love." - Suzanne Clothier

Five years ago, I had big dreams and big goals.  I had been bitten hard by the agility bug, and I wanted to start a dog as a puppy and do everything right and one day have a world-level competitor.  I immersed myself in DVDs, seminars, on-line courses, books, you name it.  And I researched and researched and felt ecstatic when I put a deposit down on the puppy of my dreams.  When he was born, I knew the second I saw his photo that he was the one I'd have.  I picked him up in May five years ago, and haven't been apart from him for a single night since.  We fell madly in love with each other.  He and I are the same. Soul mates. We get each other, and we are a lot alike.  We set out with big expectations and big dreams.

That puppy was Cadence, of course.

Cadence is brilliant, clever, resourceful, passionate, energetic, determined, affectionate, funny, and charming.  He is also cautious, sensitive, particular, emotional, opinionated, and prone to worry.

Cadence loves long hikes on remote forest trails, swimming, running, camping, campfires, frisbee, soccer balls, chest rubs, playing with Maebe, and car rides.  He loves to learn, loves to do tricks, loves to problem-solve, loves to use his nose, loves to get as close to me as physically possible, and loves to play agility.  

He does not love chaos.  He does not love out of control motion.  And he does not love being at your average agility class or trial.

For all the genius, drive, and physical ability that Cadence showed from an early age, I struggled for four years to get him to feel comfortable in a group class or trial setting.  When I walked him into a building or a ring, what I saw was a dog who was stressed.  How could he possibly do agility (something he did love) when there was so much noise, so much motion, so many other dogs he didn't know, so much out of control?

Many times I questioned whether my goals were fair.  Whether they were realistic.  Whether they were worth it.  I saw a dog trying as hard as he could to ignore his discomfort all for my sake, and questioned how important something like agility was.

I was told not to give up. That I was doing such a great job.  That he showed such promise on the agility course.  

And I know what others who only saw him in that context must have thought.  That he was "reactive."  That I should medicate him.  Neuter him.  Get tougher on him.  Start punishing him.  These things all were said to me.  People all had their interpretations of his behavior, and what I should do, yet nobody acknowledged his (to me) obvious stress.  Maybe they also thought I should stop, but nobody ever said that.

To his amazing credit, he tried hard.  Harder than most of us would have.  If a dearly beloved friend or family member asked me to get up and sing at a public event, I couldn't, no matter how happy it would make them.  In fact, I'd probably actually resent being asked to do something so outside my comfort level.  But I was asking the same thing of Cadence.  And he did it, without resentment.  We entered some trials, got some beginning-level titles, earned a few ribbons.  I entered him for a full day at an outdoor trial in June last year, his first time at a venue other than where we normally train and trial, and he did a good job.  A few seconds here and there of distraction, but he ran each and every course with me and picked up a few more Q's.  I felt he was actually going to do this.

Two days later, life told me again what I had refused to hear for four years, but now in a way I couldn't ignore.  Agility was not going to be our thing together.  I have written here before that Cadence experienced a fibro-cartilaginous embolism which left him with some coordination problems in his rear legs.  In many ways we are lucky.  FCE is not painful, and he is not paralyzed.  He can hike, run, play, fetch, swim, and mess around on agility equipment in the yard.  What he can't do is safely perform competition-height equipment, especially in a state of arousal or stress.  At least that isn't a risk I'm willing to take.

I've spent the last year feeling sorry for him, feeling sorry for myself, and mostly feeling mad at myself that it took this to get me to accept things as they were.  He is so much more, so who cares about the agility? I've felt guilty, like this was the last desperate measure the universe had to take to get me to do the right thing.  And quit.  Quit those aspirations, those dreams, those expectations.  Quit trying to mold the dog I adored, who I never would trade or change for anything, who has given and taught me more than any other dog or teacher, and who has shaped my current life and future in amazing ways . . . quit trying to mold that dog into something else.  He can't be everything, but he sure as hell tried for me.

My regret is not having accepted this lesson before.  Rationally I know I did not cause his FCE.  But now that his physical condition has forced us to shift course, I regret not doing that for him sooner.

And this has me wondering about goals - the ones we create for our dogs and ourselves.  How do we decide what is reasonable? Realistic? Fair? Humane?  Just because enough training might get you to a certain point, is it right to keep on trying?  Should performance goals be the only ones we have?  Do we risk compromising more important ones in the process - goals for our relationships, our comfort, our happiness?  Yes, I believe that training would have continued to increase Cadence's comfort in the ring over time.  But who was I doing this for?

If I had changed course two years ago, and decided that all the many fun things Cadence and I do together are enough, would that have been quitting?  

Needless to say, it has been a year of changing goals and priorities.  Of changing my thinking about what is most important in my life with my dogs.  And in realizing that the path I ended up on, while not the one I expected to take, has landed me in an unexpected and exciting place. Agility continues to be a big part of my life, but now my primary dog training goals involve helping others understand and support their own sensitive, cautious canine friends.  And I like to think I'm better at that anyway.  

They say you don't get the dog you want, you get the dog you need, and while I always say our first dog Jade changed our lives, Cadence definitely changed it again.  Now he and I will write a different future for ourselves, and I'm learning to accept this.  I still grieve what might have been, but I am beginning to value the lessons learned.
What about you?  How have you made decisions about what is right for your dog?