Well, by now most of the schools in the country are back in session, and my various learning institutions are no exception. The university is back in full swing and you can’t turn around without bumping into a dazed undergrad (they’re so cute and confused!). I’m not taking any classes this semester, but my plate is full anyway. I’ve got some papers to write, an exam to study for, a class to prep for next semester when the tables finally turn and I find myself standing in front of all those undergrads — I’m trying not to panic. I’ll get it all done. In fact, I’m eschewing a tailgating opportunity this afternoon to stay home and catch up on reading. Hopefully I’ll make some time to do something fun with Cerb, too.
I’m not the only one in this household who went back to school lately. Cerberus is taking his first class in a loooong time. I think I mentioned this before, but Karen (my trainer and good friend) is teaching some classes at a local business and I offered to be her assistant/apprentice. She took me up on my offer, but only one of her two offered classes had enough students to run. She proposed turning the later class into a Control Unleashed series and I was 100% in favor of that idea. If you’re unfamiliar, Control Unleashed is a book by trainer Leslie McDevitt and it is magical. MAGICAL. You can use the program for all sorts of problem-solving, but it’s most commonly used for reactive dogs – dogs who get stressed in new surroundings and respond by either shutting down and being unable to work or, in Cerb’s case, exploding and (also) being unable to work. I think I talked about this a little bit in my last entry when I mentioned we were doing mat work. The mat work is a huge part of the CU curriculum, because the mat becomes an easy-to-move “safe place” where the dog can retreat and relax. If you have a dog who seriously needs to learn to just chill and collect his thoughts, I strongly, strongly recommend checking out the Control Unleashed book and trying some of the exercises. I have seen this method work miracles.
Of course, when Karen offered to teach a Control Unleashed class, I was all over it. What an excellent opportunity for Karen to see Cerb out of his element and to support and guide me through helping him. Karen often sees Cerb when he’s pretty happy, because he loves going out to her farm, but he’s very different in a class setting around other dogs. She offered a position in the class to me in exchange for my help with her earlier session, a puppy socialization class.
Wednesday night, the night before classes started, I was totally anxious. I bought, cut up and froze four different kinds of stinky, smelly, soft, delicious raw treats to take to class in case Cerb needed some extra motivation. I cleaned and folded his mat. I packed my clicker. I paced. I had Deep and Meaningful conversations with Cerb about how We Don’t Eat Other Dogs and Mummy Just Needs You To Do This For Her, Please Please Please. Then Thursday arrived and it was too late for any more begging.
Puppy class was a riot. First of all, can we talk about how difficult it is to accomplish anything when there’s three herding-breed puppies galloping around? Add to that mix the owners of all of these puppies, who are very much the Concerned Playground Parents trying to keep one eye on the puppies and one eye on Karen, who was explaining what the class is about and her philosophy and approach to puppy socialization and training. Then you’ve got the common beginner mistakes, the things we all do but might forget about as we spend more time training: repeating verbal cues until they become meaningless (Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!), trying to juggle a leash, a clicker and a bag of treats (time to invest in a treat pouch!), using treats that are totally boring or that crumble everywhere when you try to use small pieces… You know exactly what I’m talking about, because we have all been there.
At first, I felt really awkward because I felt like I was in the way. Karen had everything under control, people were trying to wrangle their puppies, and I felt like I was being a distraction because I sat down on the floor and puppies piled in my lap. As class went on, though, I felt more comfortable helping out. There were two very boisterous Aussie puppies and a much more delicate and timid Sheltie puppy who was getting bowled over every time the stampeding Aussies galloped by. She was obviously distressed by this and having a hard time focusing on her owner, so we blocked off half the room with some ring gating and made a safe area for her so she could watch the other puppies but not get pushed around so much. Once we had her in that safe area, she picked up “sit” and “down” like a pro. She’s obviously very smart and willing to please, but just has a much softer temperament than the other two pups. I was able to work one-on-one with the Sheltie puppy and her owner while Karen coached the owners of the other two puppies, so that made me feel really good — I feel like I actually had a job to do and wasn’t just getting underfoot. Yay, I helped!
And then it was time. Time. I collected Cerb from the car (it was late in the evening and quite cool outside — on warmer days, I’ll crate him inside the building) and we came back into the room, where Karen had set up three gated areas (one for each dog in the class) and covered the gates with cloth so that the dogs couldn’t see each other. There’s two other dogs in the class with us, a gorgeous blue brindle pit bull and a lovely batty-eared pit mix. Both are much more shy than my dog, who tends to externalize his insecurities and try to intimidate/scar off his triggers. Karen walked us through what the class is about and introduced us to T-Touch, a calming massage technique we will use at the beginning of every class. Of course, Cerb was having none of that. He was Very! Excited! to be in this new space with Auntie! Karen! and! treats! and every time I tried to pet him, he would jerk away, give me an open-mouthed grin, and try to engage me in I-am-about-t0-go-over-threshold play. Sorry, buddy. We have to work! I eventually convinced him to relax on his mat, but he was still really alert and tilting his head at the different noises coming from elsewhere in the building. Someone was standing outside the door (with a frosted glass window) to our classroom and that was cause for EXPLOSION from Cerb, so I had to take him into the empty hallway at the back of the classroom and get him to calm down again.
I will admit, because I think it’s important to be honest, that I have a really hard time “taking myself out of it”, as Karen says. I love my dog and want to help him, but I am also an anxious person who is very concerned about what other people are thinking. I know what people think when they see my dog, so I know what they must think when he has a meltdown. He’s intimidating when he’s asleep, for goodness’ sake — think about what he looks like when he’s having a meltdown over another dog or some other scary thing. It gets to me, it really does, so as I hauled him back into the dark, empty hallway and tried to get him to calm down, I was on the verge of tears. I heard Karen’s voice from the other room: “Just let him calm down. Give him a chance to relax. And remember to breathe. Take yourself out of it.” After a few minutes, I felt calm enough — and felt my dog was calm enough — to come back into the room. The rest of class was great. We did some more mat work and Cerb demonstrated for the rest of the class how he would return to his mat even when I lured him away from it by dropping treats by my feet.
I was still feeling negative about his behavior at the end of class, but as we cleaned up the classroom Karen told me she was pleased with how things went and that Cerb had done a good job. She has so much faith in us as a team, it is hard to be down on myself and on Cerb when she’s cheering us on. I think this is why it’s so important to find a trainer you can work with when you’re trying to solve these difficult issues – you can buy the Control Unleashed book and DVD and work through things yourself, but if you don’t have someone cheering you on, it is really easy to feel very negative about your dog’s behavior and your ability to change it, and when you feel negative, you want to give up. A good trainer can keep you feeling upbeat and accomplished.
We’ll be okay. We have a lot of work to do, but I can already see Cerb improving in just one class. I’m excited to see how much more we can grow over the next few weeks.