For those of you who don’t already know, Balton the Brave is a name that developed during what I might identify as a turning point in our training efforts. Balton the Brave is more than a name at this point, it’s an emotion. A feeling that is in a class all its own, which identifies every singular snapshot moment where I can clearly identify how hard he is working to be good, how well he is working to manage his stress, how brave he is in that very moment.
I love Balton in so many moments – our quiet moments, our playful moments, our learning moments, and our challenging moments. But when my superhero dog shows up, I don’t think I could possibly love him more.
From Wednesday night to Saturday morning, my parents and my husband’s family were in from out of town. My parents and their dog stayed with us, and in the weeks leading up to their visit I was planning for it. We painted, we cleaned, and we made a plan for Balton.
In previous encounters with in-home visitors, my well-intentioned efforts often involved introducing him to people in an effort to “socialize” him when he quite simply wasn’t ready, or crating him in the kitchen so he could see what was going on, and guests could move about freely but he could be in his safe little den. These misguided methods inevitably led to high stress levels all around, but most especially for Balton.
One of the things I’ve learned is that common training knowledge has exceptions when you’re dealing with a dog who doesn’t generally deal all that well. As it turns out, the “safe place” of a dog crate for a fearful dog does little to help him when you have it positioned in a place where people would walk towards it to walk by it. Womp.
One of the other things I’ve learned through these encounters is that humans aren’t so great at following instructions. Or maybe I’m just not that clear in them? I don’t know – but in instances where I have advised guests not to look at the dog or talk to the dog, they do both within seconds. In instances where I say toss treats on the floor, they somehow want to try and toss them into the dog’s mouth. Which requires them to pay attention to the dog. Womp, womp.
So, this time around I took the “take no chances” approach, coupled with a “the best defense is a good offense” approach. The latter approach has been implemented by Balton on a few occasions and gotten him in some trouble, so the cornerstone to success this go round was that I would be implementing it on his behalf.
Before the visit, I readied my stockpile of Kongs and Marrowbones with my housemade recipe of frozen yummables. It was sort of like a doggie stew with chicken stock, ground beef, dehydrated food, and kibble. Hardly a gourmet recipe worth reposting, but here are some good quick recipes for stuffing your own Kong at home. While the boys are fed their meals in a Kong so they have to work a little at them, the frozen and high value delicious treats I stocked up on are few and far between, so his receiving them marks a truly special and wonderful occasion.
Our trainer had taught us the importance of two forms of management when we have people over as we continue working with Balton on his training. So when we are out on walks or have people in our home, we need to have a two piece management plan in case one piece fails. We also want to make sure we’re working to keep Balton from practicing unwanted behavior, or getting stressed out, and allow him safe opportunities for positive association building with the guests in our home.
Wednesday night was the night with the most people over, as the in-laws also came by for dinner. So, Balton was given a good run at the dog park before we went home to our guests, and when we came through the front door, immediately ushered upstairs to our bedroom, given a delicious frozen yummable, and asked to “go to bed.” He settled into his crate (management 1) and was given a stress relieving activity to work at and make him feel good, then closed in the bedroom (management 2) safely behind a closed door.
After we had wrapped up dinner and the dishes were washed, and everyone sitting calmly around the table, we practiced a little counterconditioning and desensitization. I went up with my treat pouch, a leash, and a basket muzzle, and hung out with Balton at the bottom of the stairs. Again, we had two forms of management and a stress relieving activity, as well as an easy out so he didn’t feel cornered (could easily run up the steps to escape the scary monsters invading out home if needed). He is becoming an old pro at offering behaviors and paying attention to me for rewards, thanks to our work at Rowdy Rovers class and out on our walks. Our visit was brief, and he happily focused on me for a few minutes and did sits, downs, and touches before we retreated back upstairs – notably before Balton was given an opportunity to get stressed out. No reactions, no incidents, no fear.
We continued this pattern over the course of the next few days, and Balton perhaps spent more time in our room than he would have liked to. Friday after I got home from work, we allowed him to come out of the crate and stay in the kitchen, draping a sheet over his baby gate so as not to cause visual stress, and muzzling him. My parents were good at letting me play host (i.e. not going towards the kitchen) and Balton settled on his bed or the cold kitchen tiles (it was also about 100 degrees during this visit…yuck).
Super Hero Sa-nooz-in. Mom’ s got the scary monsters under control.
We even took him on a walk with my mom Friday, and again on Saturday morning. My mom handled her dog and Ollie, and I walked Balton. We walked side by side, let them walk ahead, and let them walk behind us. Balton was unfazed, which was a big, big deal for us. Balton has met my mom on a few earlier occasions, and it’s clear that he has gotten to be pretty okay with her – when she moved around at home he didn’t bark, but when my dad did he would woof about it some. This is also super encouraging behavior though, since it shows as people give him time and space, he can come around if they just take it slow.
Saturday morning the house cleared out – and while Balton’s interactions were incredibly limited with our guests (he was more around them than engaging with them) – he shined. I think he felt like we really did keep him safe this time. In turn, he was able to relax and feel good about himself when they came, they went, nothing bad happened in between, and he could return to his usual spot on the couch.
Saturday afternoon – life back to normal and a very proud pooch!
While he might not be the dog who can hang out during house parties, we have an Ollie for that who will happily oblige to seeking out attention and accepting snacks from guests. Nevertheless, knowing we can have strangers and Balton under the same roof, and even in the same room for little bits, with a little bit of advance planning and management (while we keep on truckin’ with the training), is a cause in my mind for celebration and superhero fanfare.