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On Spring, Love, Dogs and Volcanos

Oh, it's so good to be back!  As many of you know, last summer a detached retina put me on somewhat limited training duty.  Four eye surgeries later, my vision is a working sensory array again, and I'm super excited to be getting ready for the new training season.  I'm also stoked to be able to offer a brand-new course that I think everyone will enjoy and benefit from:  You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog (more on that in a moment.)

Most of all, I'm grateful--to my family, my friends, my co-workers at Siskiyou Humane and all my wonderful dog training clients who were so patient and understanding during a difficult time for me.   The support I received--endless rides to doctors when I couldn't drive myself, assistance with chores I couldn't tackle and tolerance for my crankiness--was extraordinary and beyond my words to express the appreciation it's due.  Thank you.

During that period, I tried to make the best use of my down-time by--well, golly, big surprise--studying everything I could about dogs.  And training, and neuroscience, and behavior.  I read books, watched endless DVD's and enrolled in online classes.  Since I was restricted in where I could go and what I could do, I didn't get to do everything I wanted to do with my own dog (though really, do we ever?)  Tinker, bless her heart, spent most of the winter training in the living room, getting limited walks out in the rest of the world, and unfortunately learning to be a bit reactive to all the things that made ME reactive with my poor eyesight.  She also kept me company without complaint, and made me laugh endlessly with both her genius and her clownishness.  Most of all, she made me think.

Not everyone has a relationship with their dog that reaches into a heart of intimacy that transcends words.  Not everyone would choose to, and that's okay.  For those of us who do find ourselves in That Place with the dog or dogs in our lives, finding ways to communicate and train that are respectful, ethical and loving goes beyond a gooey heart-warming idea and becomes an imperative.  We're aware, or should always be aware, that there is another being on the end of our leash whose entire quality of life is dependent on us.  Tinker had no choice about all those missed walks and hikes.  I couldn't see well, so she got to train in the living room and the few safe places we could access.

I am deeply and profoundly and stupidly in love with my Catahoula mix girl.  And yet, I never want to forget that, no matter how strongly I feel about her, she is her own animal:  a creature that has her own feelings, her own agenda, her own desires, and in Tinker's case, her own strong opinions about what she likes, doesn't like and wants to do or not do.  Yes, she's "just a dog."  But in my own experience of the heart, my spiritual world view,  all beings count.  They are beautiful.  They are individuals.  They are their own animals, not an extension of human needs and desires.  And they have needs.

All dogs don't all need the same things.  There are many, many lovely and gracious pet dogs that don't seem to need very much:  physical comfort, a walk around the block and kindness from a person who cares from them satisfies them entirely.  Then there are the other dogs.  Dogs like Tinker, that come into our lives not as easily-satisfied blank slates prepared to adapt to our old routines, but bursting with ideas of their own.  Tinker, my Queen of the Fixed Motor Pattern--call them instincts or drives or whatever used-to-be-scientific term that is currently out of favor--who ate the bark off a tree in my backyard trying to reach a raccoon, climbs like a cat, sniffs like a bloodhound and jumps like a deer--or a bull exiting a china shop.  Her curiosity about the world around her is insatiable.  Her need to know, to explore, to solve problems and "kill" all squeaky toys is as important to her as the air that she breathes.   

Every week at the shelter we receive dogs of all kinds with the same fundamental problem:  they were their own animals, and it somehow went unrecognized.  They weren't like the "last dog," the old and perfect dog.  They had too much energy.  They didn't listen or stay in the yard.  They needed things and wanted things of their own--things as important to them as the air that they breathed.  And they were never given, for whatever reasons, the skills needed to cope with the inevitable disappointments of life:  how to wait, to control their impulses, to listen in the face of distracting temptations and earn what they wanted by being calm and keeping their heads in the game.  Also every week it seems that I speak to wonderful, lovely and committed pet parents who are at their wits' end trying to get their high energy, high drive, highly "opinionated" dog to be--some other kind of dog.  It isn't that they didn't train or try to train the dog--they did exactly what worked perfectly well with their last dog.  It's just not working.  And it's not going to, for a few simple reasons.

As a dog trainer, of course I'm big on training--we all like to think we can teach a new behavior and presto! the dog will be a marvel of Lassiehood.  But if there's one thing I've learned from working with hundreds of shelter dogs, it's this:  training on top of unmet needs is like trying to put a cork in a volcano. 

If the dog isn't healthy, if the dog is an emotional wreck of fear and anxiety, if the dog hasn't had any exercise for weeks or has been exhausted by a few frightening nights lost in the woods, they can't focus, or think, or learn.  Like a child sent to school on an empty belly, they have other more immediate concerns that need to be addressed.  Just trying to jam "better behavior" on top of existing problems is a lot of work, not much return--and likely to blow up in our faces.  To be successful with these dogs, we have to address their underlying needs first.

Please be clear that "addressing needs" doesn't mean "catering to every whim."

We can't always have what we want when we want it, not us, not our dogs--of course, we can't.   Life isn't perfect.  It does, though, have to be good enough.  If it's not good enough, behavior will inevitable suffer.  And no amount of training will help if it's not aimed at the Real Problem.

You vs. the Volcano: Reaching Behavior Success with Your High Energy Dog is a course for anyone or everyone who has a dog like my Tinker.  A dog with a lot of energy and a lot of behavior that's important to them--but that may not be working for you.  It's a course about problem solving, about finding compromises, about draining the "juice" out of the Volcano so that you have a dog you can work with and live with.  It's about getting those underlying needs--which often aren't what we expect them to be--met, or even using them as motivators in a kind of training judo to get exactly the behavior you want.

It's about seeing your dog clearly, appreciating him for the amazing individual animal thathe is--and making it work for both of youby taking actions that are truly effective.

Whether you are considering the course as a Working Team with your dog, attend as an auditor or just come to the opening lecture session, I hope you will join us!

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