As you may recall, Balton and I have been improving upon our superhero skills during a recent stint at Flight School. We’re now officially more than halfway through the class and it’s definitely been a unique learning experience for the both of us. Balton’s trainer, and one of his biggest advocates, told us going in that she was less concerned about Balton’s ability to perform as in his ability to remain relaxed and maybe even happy in the new environment. I’ve tried to keep this in mind.
As I mentioned from Week 1, the Basic Skills classroom is much smaller than the one we usually work in, and everyone is much more in Balton’s space than what we typically encounter in our reactive dog class environment. Still, he managed to settle in well and overall, seemed surprisingly comfortable and focused in the first class. Going back for Week 2, I didn’t know whether he would continue to do well, or if he would carry in some new stress, which I know can happen. Sort of like the first time you take a cat to the vet, kitty has no problem getting in the carrier and seems to do all right through the visit, but then the next time kitty needs to go to the vet, or get into the carrier for anything, all bets are off.
Week 2 was a little more kitty carrier response, so to speak.
Frankly, I think Balton was just having a more reactive night than usual. We have a standard Thursday night school routine that involves me high tailing it home from work, taking both boys out for a potty break, grabbing our gear, giving Ollie a Kong, and rolling out the door. He’s to a point where he usually is good through all these regular rituals, but not so much on this day. Balton saw someone walking down the street on the potty break that made him go into a leash gremlin fit. Then he saw some people from the car while we were at stoplights (and we hit just about every light, of course) who needed to be told off. For my part, I was throwing treats into the backseat, running late, feeling frazzled, and breathing deep in an effort to curb my own inner gremlin.
I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing a mat with me and Balton, because he has long since had some issues with laying down on the floor. The classroom floors, for one, are sort of icky for him (we train in a dog daycare facility). Laying down is also a fairly vulnerable position for a dog to be in. But, when he lays down and gets himself into a settle position, it helps him to get his mind into a similarly more settled state. Anyways, Week 1 I had forgotten to bring the mat with me, but Balton had done just fine without it. I probably should have thought it a fluke and come prepared with the mat the next week, but hindsight is 20/20, right? Sure enough, the idea of laying down on the bare floor he had readily laid on one week earlier was a no-go.
I discovered that our usual go-to best snacks of meatballs and chicken were ineffective at getting/keeping attention, and since they was the best I had in my bag of tricks, Balton was pretty caught up in staring and barking at at the other dogs in the room. Towards the end of class, he was less reactive but still seemed stressed, and was quite honestly kind of shutting me out. We just never found our groove, and I think we both left class feeling exhausted.
Six months ago, I likely would have stewed and lingered and worried we were moving backwards in our progress. I might have worried that we should not go back the next week for fear of setting him back. I might have wondered if this was all a hopeless plight.
While these thoughts all sort of flashed in my head for a brief moment, I was able to identify a little more easily that we had quite simply had a bad day. And ya know what? Bad days happen, and it’s absolutely okay.
The next day, I loaded up on new and interesting treats (including some cheese sticks and steak strips from the grocery store). I decided not to be complacent at home and we began doing some more skills practice in a less distracting environment. We started working on shaping our Week 5 Talent Show Trick. In between weeks 2 and 3 of Flight School, we got back to partnering with each other and refreshing on how much fun learning is.
I read this article from Reactive Champion and was gently reminded that some classical conditioning, or creating a positive emotional response/association (vs. operant conditioning, or teaching a behavior) is sometimes all you can do or expect with a stressed out dog. Also, that “behavior modification is not a race against others.”
Sometimes, you just have to take a couple steps back in order to get a better look at the picture in front of you, before stepping forward to straighten it out a little bit.