Yesterday, in my post, Joan asked her dog Sam (not their real names, and a scenario from a few years back) to sit during a session with me. Sam didn’t sit, instead he backed up and sniffed the floor. Both Joan and I praised him.
There are so many thousands of reasons why a dog will not respond as anticipated to a trained cue, but in this particular session with this particular client and dog, here’s a little more background.
Sam was a large lab type dog, about 3yrs old, with a history of barking and lunging when he saw dogs when he was being walked on leash.
Prior to working with me, when Sam was younger between the ages of 6-18m, Joan had taken him to a series of obedience classes where the approach was to verbally and physically (through a leash jerk) correct the dog for unwanted responses.
When Joan and Sam began working with me, Sam was very obedient but he wasn’t very safe. He would respond consistently and quickly to basic obedience cues such as sit, down, stay and heel in most settings. But was still reacting adversely to the sight of other dogs at distances of 30′ or less.
During the session described in yesterday’s post, Joan and I had been working together for 3 months. Sam had shown good improvement in his ability to tolerate other dogs at varying distances without escalation, increased in his repertoire of safe coping skills in varying settings, and Joan had shown great improvement in her abilities to read her dog and act in ways he responded positively to. For this session we were in a parking lot with view to an outdoor mall area that included a pet store.
Joan had just gotten Sam out of the car, and was preparing to shut the car door. She asked Sam to sit, so that she could shut the door without concern of him being in the way.
Joan didn’t realize as she asked Sam to sit that a dog had just come out of the pet store and was being walked through the parking lot about 50′ away. Sam saw this dog, though Joan yet hadn’t.
3 months ago, Sam would have obediently sat. Joan would have turned to shut the car door. The dog might have continued approaching. Sam would likely have been placed over threshold and barking and lunging would have likely ensued.
Instead, Sam disobeyed the sit cue, and relied on the coping skills Joan had been diligently supporting and encouraging over the previous 3 months. He moved to further increase space between himself and the other dog by backing up, and he attempted to disengage visually by sniffing the ground. Joan did a great job supporting his efforts by praising him, and then moving with him to increase distance between them and the dog further, allowing Sam to continue to remain sub-threshold, and not shifting into her older penchant of putting obedience above all else.
About 9 months later, Sam and Joan had progressed to being able to walk with some neighbors and their dogs around their neighborhood on morning walks. A goal Joan had really hoped they’d be able to reach (but as she and I had discussed when our work together began, she realized Sam might not be a dog who ever enjoyed group walks. In the end Sam was a dog who once he learned that de-esclation skills would be supported by Joan, and in structured settings such as the neighborhood walks, seemed to really enjoy the walking company of other dogs). Instead of seeing the other dogs and escalating, Sam saw the other dogs and offered relaxed tail wags, relaxed facial expressions and had become adept at increasing space when he felt he needed a break. Joan had become adept at reading both Sam and other dog’s body language, advocating for and supporting Sam as he needed. The walks were now enjoyable for Sam, Joan and the rest of the group. Great work Sam and Joan!