jonnycow2The thing about dog training is that sometimes it’s you and your dog in a room, learning to spin or some other discrete behavior; you have everything you need and all the time to work out the plan and make adjustments. Other times, it’s you and your dog taking what the world hands you. You know the saying about life handing you lemons?  Last week, for me, it was cows.  Jonny asked to stop at a rest stop to use the canine bathroom facilities.  I expected a quick sniff of a few trees, a potty, and away we would go.  Imagine my surprise when  I looked around and saw cows hanging out by a fence 80 feet from us.  Unexpected livestock! Cows!  Sure, let’s work on polite cow behavior. My mind flew into a few quick assessments. Has he ever seen cows? I don’t know (later I verified with his puppy raiser that he had in fact never seen cows). Do I have treats? No, they are in the car. Do I have a clicker? No, it too is in the car.  I had about 10 minutes before I had to get back on the road.  What did I do and why? What didn’t I do and why?   This is the story of Jonny and the unexpected cows.

Jonny had not noticed the cows yet.  My first decision was to let him look up when he was done sniffing; not to point them out.  I wanted to give him as little direction as possible, letting him make as many of the choices about the cows on his own as I could, safely. I did not give him a cue of any kind. I did, however, play a lifeguard role and continually monitor the distance we were from the cows. I didn’t want him to notice them when he was too close and in over his head, before I found out how he felt about the cows.  I kept him moving in a line parallel to the fence as he sniffed.

jonnycow5Then one of the three baby cows (so cute!!) stood up.  Jonny immediately looked over and noticed the cows for the first time.  He stood there, transfixed, looking at them for a while.  Again I did not give him instruction.  I did not cue a watch, or a sit, or anything.  This would have been intrusive and affected his ability to make his own decisions. It would have robbed him of his internal locus of control.   What I did do was monitor his arousal level in relation to the cows.  When you are in this situation you invariably find yourself standing behind your dog. I teach clients to look at ear placement, tail use and position, overall body tension, weight shifting, and rate of breath as just a few indicators of their dog’s state of arousal.  Why would this be important?  As Jonny’s chaperone in this life, managing his arousal level is my primary job. 

So we stood, waiting and watching.  Him watching the cattle, and me waiting for him to let me know what direction his mind was taking him.  Were these cows something to defend himself against?  Yell at?  Move towards to find out more?  He was focused, but his arousal was just a bit above relaxed and normal — his body was mostly loose and somewhat relaxed.  He was still, but not threat still (see The Threat of Stillness by Nicole Wild).  His tail was telling me he was excited, as it was up and wagging slowly.  This could go either way.   He could be getting ready to pounce forward and charge the fence, or he could just as easily give the cows a play bow. Being in this space with your dog is unsettling for a lot of people.  Not knowing what will happen next is scary, and people have a tendency to hyper-manage their dog, telling them to sit or come away from the cows. I felt safe, given the distance and Jonny’s manageable level of arousal, letting him have his own time and space to make a choice.  So I took a big breath to settle my nerves.

He looked back at me. He has a long reinforcement history for offering eye contact.  I didn’t click or treat the eye contact because I didn’t have those things and I felt it would have been too heavy-handed for the moment anyway.  I said calmly, so as not to further agitate with my voice, “What a good boy you are.  What do you think of those cows?” while taking a few steps backward away from the cows.  This way, when he looked back at them he would be a little farther away, possibly getting an even lower arousal state so we could attempt a re-approach. 

One of the babies got up and trotted off.  Jonny made a decision to move quickly toward them. My response was a “Whoa Jonny,” as a low level disruption, not a cued behavior and not a punisher. He looked back at me and I said “Yay buddy!” Then I asked for a hand target and a jump-up-on-me, by patting my chest. These are known behaviors that he now finds self-reinforcing, and they offered a legal outlet for the arousal from the moving cows.  The chance to do these behaviors reinforced his reorientation away from the baby cows. Then we walked (quickly because that is more fun) away from the fence to increase our overall distance.  I then encouraged him to sniff some trees and pee (known as Calming Signals, these behaviors are self reinforcing and self soothing).  He did a full body shake, which releases tension (calming behavior). Then we were ready to approach the cows again.  This time he walked calmly up to the fence and watched them for a bit.

Learning is happening all the time.  Constructing your dog’s experiences of the world so that they learn to self-inhibit and self-calm is the name of the game.  In this situation, I used playing games with mom, jumping up, and moving quickly as reinforcers for the correct choice of looking back at me when aroused.  I also allowed Jonny to make his own decisions about how close he wanted to go, and intervened only when needed and in the least invasive way possible, letting Jonny go right back to making his own choices.

Be a resource.  Be reliable.  Be ready.

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