Beginning Dog Training: Merlin Chronicles

I’m calling this Beginning Dog Training, because every time we start to train our dogs, we’re beginning dog training. I don’t care how advanced my training skills may or may not be, or how advanced my dog’s skill set may or may not be, every single training session is a new beginning. So get into your beginner’s mind, and start training!

Since the loss of Nitro, almost two weeks ago, now, I have decided that I owe it to Merlin to give him any opportunities for interaction and training with me that I can give him. We have trained for foundation agility, barnhunt, tracking, and nosework, in the past. I’ve also taught him very rudimentary obedience behaviors, and lots of tricks.

Merlin is a special dog. All dogs are special, in their own ways, but in some ways Merlin is, what I might call “Extra Special”. He is easily aroused, easily distracted, intolerant of touch (doesn’t enjoy being petted much, and only for very short intervals), cannot tolerate grooming without being heavily medicated, and even then is nearly impossible to pedicure. He is friendly, but after an initial greeting, he becomes so over-stimulated that he will hump the new friend, and likely grab their clothing with his incisors. He doesn’t bite, but he does grip. With smaller children he is likely to squash them against the wall and hold them there, while barking at me to acknowledge that he has “captured it”. He exhibits some herding-type behaviors in situations where those behaviors are completely unacceptable. He exhibits some generally obnoxious overstimulation behaviors.  Training alternate behaviors has not been effective, for many reasons, including a multi dog and multi human household in which consistency is often nonexistent, nor has using “corrections”, which I won’t go into here, and which I know don’t work, and  I do not recommend for any clients, ever. Management is the only really effective strategy with him thus far, though now that Nitro is gone, more effective training may be possible.

Overall, I have found Merlin to be a difficult dog to work, or to find any type of partnership with in a working context. he frustrates me with his hyperarousal, and his inability to retain information he has seemed to master to the point of fluency in the past. His very different work ethic from Nitro has also been a contributing factor to my frustration. Nitro was a “what are we going to do next!” dog. Merlin is a, “I’m frustrated, I don’t want to play anymore, this is too hard, I’m going to stand at bark at you, or grab you” kind of dog.

Given this information, I have again begun to attempt to work with Merlin, because I know, as a trainer, the faults lie with me, not him. I need to work hard enough to find the best way to communicate information to him, without becoming frustrated myself. I know that the more exposure he has, with appropriate management and training at the same time, the better his behavior will become. I have been like Merlin, “this is too hard, takes too much effort, too frustrating”, and the time has come to move forward past that.

Monday we went to obedience class. I was overall pleased with his work there. He was able to focus on me, do some heeling, and generally do the work. However, he barked almost non-stop, which is his default behavior when stressed. He barks in a high pitched, same key, monotone, and doesn’t appear to realize that  he’s vocalizing, which is how I know he is feeling very anxious. Fortunately, I chose a class with an instructor whom I know very well, who understands anxious dogs, and classmates who are also very understanding. I know that next week he will be less barky and yappy, the overarousal and anxiety will slow down with each consecutive visit to the new place and new people and dogs. Not to say that it doesn’t cause me great anxiety and stress, it definitely does. But I will work through that. It’s only behavior.

Tuesday we had a great session of working on tuck sits, play, heeling, and a few other things. I was jazzed, and he was also relaxed and happy.

Wednesday I came into our training session “pre-angry”, because I can’t find my platforms, the house is too messy to have enough space to set up cones for figure 8’s, and life in general was difficult. I was also fatigued. Needless to say, our session did not go well.

After the session, Jacob stopped me to remind me that it’s not that I haven’t worked with Merlin, and tried to train him, it’s just that he’s extremely difficult and frustrating, and that I’ve quit multiple times because he’s so frustrating. I thought about this quite a bit. This is a serious thing, not in the way that Jacob meant it, but because as a trainer, I KNOW that it’s NOT the dog’s fault. It’s may fault, even if my sweet husband wants to give me an out by reminding me of what a pain in the ass the dog is, in general.

So, this morning, I baked bread and thought about training generally, and Merlin specifically. What he knows, what he doesn’t know. He knows so many things, I can’t even remember them all to list them (which I was doing Monday evening as I was formulating a training plan). What he doesn’t know, is what I haven’t taught him. One of those things is to find heel position after I turn left and only take one step. This came as a surprise to me, since he can find heel position from anywhere if I am moving, in a circle, serpentine, or straight line. He can find heel in one step/pivot to the right. But I apparently have neglected to teach him to find heel moving/pivoting left. Well. This is a thing we need to work on.

After the bread was in the oven, we went outside to play in the 23 degree weather. We played fetch with his holy roller ball, (I think it’s his favorite, and I’ll be taking it to class with me on Monday) then went to the pause table. He loves the table, so we worked on teaching the tuck sit, by having him reach forward to touch, without falling off the table. This worked very well, we’ll be working on changing the cue from “touch” to “Tuck” and rename his sit from there. No more rocking back 10 feet!

We played more fetch/tug, then did some heeling. Every left doodle step, he stayed sitting and barked at me. But if I move at least 5 steps to the left, he can find heel easily. Tomorrow, platform/bowl with left pivots.

What is the take-away here? For me, the lessons I am re-introducing to myself are:

  • Start where you/your dog are. You cannot build a wall (or a behavior) without a solid foundation.
  • Don’t go to a training session angry. Better to skip it altogether and just play with the dog.
  • The trainer has to work as hard, or harder, than the dog.
  • Don’t just have a training plan, use it! Use it to do the teaching piece, and to analyze your success/failure rates, and to plan the next steps.
  • Choose what you want to work on. Don’t try to fix everything in one training session. Pick a behavior or two to build on in each session.
  • Keep a journal. Not only will it enhance your training plan, give you data points to analyze, but it will also help on days when you feel all is lost, all is failure, to look back and see progress.
  • Remember that you love your dog, and why you love your dog. Remind yourself.
  • It’s just behavior. It’s not personal.

These are all things I tell my beginning students and private clients. All my trainer friends know these things. This is basic information for training any animal. Some animals just require better application, more effort, more time, and more finesse. If I want to be successful with Merlin’s training, I need to apply all these basic principles, and consistently. As a trainer, and a pet owner, I owe it to the dog and to myself to do the work.  Back to the basics we go!  Happy Training, all!