Yesterday, we had a private appointment with a professional dog trainer, Tommi Koivula. This started the Arkatassu training course we are attending with Una, arranged by Koira- ja kissakoulu Heiluva Häntä (free translation: Dog- and cat school Wagging Tail). Here is a link to their web page: http://www.heiluvahanta.fi/. Go to Kurssit, Koirille, Arkatassukurssi. There you can find a description of the course (in Finnish…).
The agenda includes many different exercises, depending on the needs of each dog. With Una, we want to address her general anxiety in strange places, and with strange people and dogs. We discussed Una’s past, her health and her behavior in different situations. I got a lot of general information on rescue dogs, useful in building Una’s training. I’m glad that Tommi emphasized the need to rule out health problems before addressing any behaviour. I agree 100%! Concerning training, we need to build a toolbox: exercises we can use in the stressful situations.
We have been working on this already, at home, and have made good progress! The best example is Una’s behavior in the park. As I wrote earlier, we have stayed out of the park for a month or so, to avoid putting Una to a situation that is too difficult for her. Meanwhile, we have practiced very diligently on the streets and in the forest.
Exercise number one: Una coming to my side, walking with me past moving cars, people and dogs. Here I have kept the exercise very vague, on purpose. What I mean is, I haven’t wanted to pick out and reinforce any exact behaviors using clicking. It is such an exact tool that it pinpoints a fraction of a second – and I need to know exactly what I want if I use it. A good example is our targeting practice, where Una learned to touch my finger with her teeth, instead of her nose as I intended… I should attend the chicken training course to shorten my reaction time 😉 So, vaguely, I have asked Una to come to my side, tapped my thigh two times with my hand, and given her a treat. When Una got the hang of it and started offering the behavior, I have reinforced that. I have also praised her (“hyvä”) and given a treat when she looks at a person or a dog, calmly.
Exercise number two: I ask Una to sit in front of me and offer my finger so she can touch it, get a click and a treat. I repeat this many times in a row. I practiced this when there were no people or dogs in sight, first. Then also in more difficult situations, where Una spots a person or a dog further away and gets worried. In these situations, I place myself between Una and the person. Una tries to peek from left and right, if the situation is difficult for her. I lift my knee to the side, to prevent her from peeking, or (on the side where the leash happens to be) lift the leash with my hand so it rises to her cheek, directing her head back. When Una stops trying to peek, we return to the targeting. This works very well!
For a week now, we have walked in the park again. Una has reacted a few times, barking. When this happens, I say “mennään,” and walk to the opposite direction, dragging the barking Una along if she doesn’t follow. When she calms down enough so she can hear me again, we start exercise number two. I have used “mennään” in easy situations, too, of course, so Una knows it means we ARE going NOW and it is not voluntary… I have planned on teaching her the “leave/jätä” command, but haven’t gotten to it yet. It would be useful in situations like this, too, I think, after it is an established routine.
Not including those few insidences, Una has been much calmer in the park! We have a better contact due to the training we have done, and the new tools to use if Una gets upset. I also started doing short tracking exercises. Well, I’m not sure if Una really has gotten the idea or is simply searching for food on the grass 😉 But anyway, I walk on the grass in the park, dropping a kibble of Una’s dry food on the ground, stepping on it, dropping another, stepping on it and so on. I walk like this and Una follows, tracking and searching the kibble on my footprints. This was a brilliant idea, if I may say so myself! When Una is tracking/searching, she doesn’t pay attention to people walk past, she is so focused on her work 🙂 AND, she tracks the same track again the next day, finding the rest of the kibble! She clearly remembers where the track is, and goes to check it. This morning, she actually tracked a two-day-old track (we hadn’t been in the park the previous day), and found kibble!
All this has changed her mood in the park completely: when we enter, she is clearly anticipating the fun and focusing on that instead of spotting the offending people and dogs 🙂 Jipii!!! The reason I’m so thrilled about this is the fact that Una very often starts a tug-of-war with me on her leash in the park. Almost never anywhere else. And since we know that animals don’t play if they are stressed or worried, any signs of playing are an important indication of Una’s state of mind. Therefore, I would very much like to use the park on our walks 🙂
Yesterday, we were in the park, Una exploring the longer grass along a stream. I saw a person with a dog approaching. It was someone we had met a few times already. The dog is a male Coton de tulear, a small and friendly dog. Una has successfully told him off a few times (growling). Now, Una started to wag her tail slowly when she recognised them. And when they came close, Una made a play bow!!! Wow!!! Nothing more came of it, Una stayed in the position for a while and that was that… But this was the first time she did even this much, instead of just trying to get away, or growling 🙂 Una has made a second doggy friend 🙂
On our appointment, we presented our current skills to Tommi, and he made some suggestions on how to proceed before the next session. We will start practicing 1) eye contact and 2) targeting on a small ball on the end of a stick. Also, we will work on getting Una to sit a bit closer to me (in front) so I can manage her more easily in difficult situations. Tommi suggested I might use the gentle leader harness on Una, to improve handling. In that harness, the leash attaches to the front instead of on the back, like in the Happy Dog harness Una is using now. If the dog pulls, she gets turned sideways, away from the target she is trying to get to. Sounds very handy in situations where I need to get Una to focus on me. I will consider purchasing that harness.
We started on eye contact this morning. It was raining and Una didn’t feel like getting wet, so I took pity on her and we went inside and had a training session instead. She very quickly understood what I wanted, clicking on eye contact. Clever little girl! We also practiced adjusting Una’s location related to me when she sits, to get her to come closer. I used targeting on my finger as a tool here: touch -> “sit” -> click -> treat. Una was a bit confused at first, but quickly got the hang of it.
When I teach Una to sit by my side instead of in front, I need to pay extra attention to the direction of my treating. We did this for the first time this morning. She turns towards me when she sits, anticipating getting the treat in front of me. And this is how we have done it so far. There has been no need to adjust her position in any other way: Una has a tendency to drag behind me instead of walking on my side or in front. By treating her so that she needs to reach across my front has adjusted her position very nicely, more forward. But, as I said, it would be useful to introduce other treating positions to her, as well.
Apart from the training we are doing for the course, we have had fun with lying down. I put my hand on the ground in front of Una, and she lies down. I think she takes my gesture as a play bow, and lies down with a wagging tail and happy face, very quickly, throwing her front legs forward 🙂 This is also her current I-don’t-know-what-you-want-so-I’ll-offer-this -trick 😉
I’m repeating myself, but I just want to express again how much I enjoy training Una without any formal restrictions or demands on how the performance should look like. So, if we are ever considering training or competing in obedience, it will be the new sport rally-obedience (rally-toko)!
The absolutely best thing yesterday was the moment when Tommi commented that we seem to have a good relationship, Una and me. This made me very very happy, since I wish all the best things in life for my girl, and this is the most important of them all 🙂