I know, I know, I am lazy. I haven’t written anything in… well, weeks.
It’s not so much that I’m lazy, just busy — busy with things that don’t make for very interesting blog entries. It’s getting cold and gross outside so I haven’t been on many adventures with Cerb, and school has been demanding a lot of my time and emotional energy. At the end of the day, I just feel like coming home, curling up in a blanket and staring vacantly in the direction of the television. I know, I’m so exciting.
I really do want to write more, though. And I want to read some fiction. I have all these awesome bookish friends who are reading exciting new novels and doing read-a-thons and I am jealous! I feel guilty reading anything other than school stuff at the moment because I’m trying to prep for my next comprehensive exam, prep a course for next spring, and read a lot of background information to ready myself for the dissertation process. I don’t trust myself to get a new fiction novel, because then I will get absorbed and not be able to put it down (I know myself well). I can easily gobble up multiple novels in a day, yet dragging myself through a 20-page journal article is some sort of Herculean feat.
Cerb’s Control Unleashed work is progressing in a most delightful fashion. The system works, people. Last week was Week 5 (out of a 6-week term, though the program is such that you could really keep going on forever). The course begins at Week 1 with the dogs gated in their own areas with sheets over the gates so the dogs can’t see each other. For many dogs (including mine), just being in the room with other dogs puts them over threshold. Cerb was fired up that first night, set off by other dogs barking, people moving around outside the room, the sight of his beloved Auntie Karen, and even just being touched. I had to drag him into the hallway outside the classroom a few times just to get him calmed down and thinking again. If the sheets hadn’t been blocking his view of the other dogs, he would’ve had an absolute meltdown.
Back to Week 5, last Thursday. Over the last few weeks we have worked on Cerberus being calm on his mat, doing some “box work” (heeling and attention games in his gated area), and gradually drawing the sheets back so that the dogs can catch glimpses of each other. I played the “Look At That” game with Cerb, clicking and rewarding him whenever he looked calmly at the other dogs. Eventually, he would look at them and then immediately turn back to me for his treat – looking at other dogs, once triggers for his reactivity, eventually becomes a game that the dog voluntarily plays without being asked.
On Thursday night, we arranged Cerb’s gated area as a long rectangle running side-by-side with another dog’s area. The dog next to us, Stella, is a stunning blue brindle pit bull who seems very calm and biddable, but apparently gets a bit stare-y and fixated on other dogs. So we pulled some of the sheets back and Cerb played “Look At That”, and then Karen asked me to do some heeling with him while Stella did restrained recalls between her human parents. Right next door. On the other side of a stretched-out piece of X-pen.
You know what? He nailed it. He freakin’ nailed it. Cerb tucked himself into heel position, wrapped his neck around my leg to look up at me, and heeled perfectly down the length of his area while Stella trotted back and forth between her owners barely six feet away. He didn’t even look at her. He barely looked at the third student in the class, a little bat-eared pit bull named Annabelle who is scared of strange men, and when he did, he didn’t have an explosion — he just checked her out as we did a 180-turn at the end of his area and headed back towards his mat. At the end of each heeling pattern, he voluntarily retreated to his mat and waited for the next task.
I mean, with progress like that in just five weeks, imagine what we could do in another semester of class. Imagine what we could do if we kept working on this and took his mat to competitions and trials. The sky is the limit. Cerb may never be able to play with other dogs, but I have more confidence now that he will be able to co-exist with other dogs at trials and keep his brain in working condition.
What’s more, we did it all force-free. We clicked and treated our way to calmness. Cerb wasn’t punished for reacting, the way I’ve seen other trainers address these issues. He wasn’t choked or pinched for exploding at strange noises. I’m not a “cookie dispenser”, either. Cerb ignored those other dogs and heeled the whole length of his area because he knew it would pay off in the end, not because I was bribing or luring him along with a treat in my hand. When we returned to his mat I paid him well, of course, but that’s just fair: You do for me, and I do for you. He had earned his treats with good behavior that he offered without being threatened or compelled.
I feel a lot more optimistic that Cerberus and I can achieve our goals in competition. The change in attitude plays a big role, I think. Feeling despondent or defeated about your dog’s problems is natural but unproductive. I won’t lie to you, I have spent (more than) my fair share of time wallowing in my grief about Cerb’s reactivity, but it didn’t really get us anywhere, right? It made us a couple of shut-ins, looking at the world outside as a fun and exciting place for “good dogs” that we could never fully experience because of Cerb’s “issues.” Taking the Control Unleashed class has changed my attitude about that. Now, I feel like I have the tools to keep Cerb safe out there, be it a walk through the city streets or the competition ring at a Rally-O trial. Yes, my dog has some issues, but what sets us apart is that we’re working through them rather than letting them hold us back.
Listen to me, all brave and confident from the safety of my office. Okay, so I’m not 100% cured of my anxiety about Cerb having an Incident at a trial. I doubt I ever will be — it’s just not my nature. I think I’m getting better, though, and I’m determined to get out there and get the titles my dog deserves for all his hard work in training. I know he is capable of great things. It’s up to me to help him show it.