learning from each other

The most important lessons are the ones I have to learn myself. In the last post I mentioned feeling frustrated by some less than ideal behavior we were seeing from Oso, namely jumping on me in the house and biting at my shirt. This behavior started pretty out of the blue a couple weeks ago. The jumping could be brought on by excitement about his dinner time, or when I first come home from work, or while he’s being corrected for another behavior, or when Natasha and I hug or even stand too close together. He jumps on Natasha sometimes too, but not nearly as often or as animated as with me.

I reacted very strongly to this new behavior when it started because it was so concerning for me, especially the mouthing which I really don’t want to tolerate. My first reaction, to push him down off me along with a loud correction, was only making things worse. I’d push and shout, he’d bark and jump some more, I’d growl, he’d growl, I’d get angry and he’d start running around the house, et cetera. Eventually I would get him to “go to his place” and he’d sit there and whine until being released, then maybe start jumping on me all over again. It was driving me nuts.

Quickly enough, I got over myself and realized it was ridiculous to think I could force this dog to calm down by treating him aggressively, no matter how much his behavior was frustrating me. I had to practice more self-control if I ever wanted the dog to control himself. So I started following Natasha’s lead, by turning my back and ignoring him when he started jumping. We both got back into the habit of giving him affection when he settles himself down, not when he’s pacing the floor and demanding our attention. This means we ignore him for a few minutes at the start of the morning, when he comes out of his kennel, or when we first come home to him. We try to make those low-energy times, even though he’s really excited about what’s happening.

It’s about modeling the energy I want him to take on. When I feel relaxed, he will relax. He may jump once or twice, he may bark, but soon he will stop if he’s not getting a rise out of me. I had to stop thinking I could “win” by making him sit or lay down. I had to get over myself and just chill out! It’s not a big deal. He is a dog, he is misbehaving, he will stop. Take a deep breath, walk away.

I’m getting better at communicating with him mostly by listening to him more closely. If I can anticipate his energy shifting, I can redirect it while he’s receptive- before it escalates. He still jumps on me, several times a day anyway, but it’s becoming less frequent and less animated. I still get frustrated sometimes, but much less often and I stop myself more quickly. We are both growing a lot and mellowing out.

In the past week or so we have actually seen quite a shift in our Bubba (which is what we call him most of the time). He’s been wonderful on leash, thanks in large part to some tips I gleaned from this column on loose leash walking. He had been pulling a LOT which was becoming as maddening to me as the jumping. I realized that in my earlier effort to get him to heel, I was rewarding him as soon as he would come to my side, and in a flash he’d be up ahead of me again. Now I delay giving him a treat until he’s been heeling for a few steps, maybe just ten to start. Treat, give the “heel” command again, and go maybe 20 steps before the next treat, increasing the distance every time. At this point he can trot around 100 paces at my side in between treats. The hardest times to keep him in a heel are when he’s fresh on the trail of another dog. Once his nose catches a scent he likes, he’s driven to follow it.

This has already been a long post but I also want to mention that his reaction around other dogs has also improved. He no longer reacts at all to the other dog in my office that walks past my desk several times a day. Most of the time it’s not hard to keep him from barking at dogs we encounter on walks either, if they’re not too close, and especially if they don’t bark. He’s had a couple recent encounters with off-leash dogs running up to him that have gone better than I expected. When he does get worked up, it’s not to the point of going bezerk anymore. We haven’t created any more opportunities for direct socialization with other dogs though, and we really need to keep doing that as much as he’ll allow.

Bubba is rising the to challenges we’re presenting him. We have high expectations for good behavior and he tries to meet them. We reward him with affection and organic kibble mixed with delicious leftovers. We’re heading in the right direction.