We went back to school! Kind of.

If my blog posts thus far haven’t been a big enough hint, my life has basically been one long learning experience since we adopted Nelson. From reading up on the history of pit bulls to dipping my little toe into the pool of dog behavior and training, it’s the most learning I’ve done since college, and I’ve been loving every second of it. You know, give or take.

Progress is almost never a straight line, with dogs or with people, and recently I realized I’ve been in a rut. Being immersed in rescue and having “trainer friends” has made me feel a little too comfortable; my dogs need work, sure, but I know what to do. I have the tools. I have the know-how. I just need to find some time to do the actual work.

For one thing, I will never “find the time.” The Time Fairy will not appear and sprinkle a few extra hours in my day with an energy shot thrown in for good measure. I was being lazy, but that wasn’t the only issue.

To be honest, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by my three. They all have different things to work on and different levels of proficiency in the basics. Nelson can do sit, down, stay, touch, go to bed, go to crate, whatever you want, as long as you have a treat. If you don’t have a treat, well, eh, hmm, he’ll see how he’s feeling. Annoying as that can be sometimes, my biggest concerns with him were 1) charging the fence when the neighbor dogs come out and 2) muzzle training (which I talked about previously here). Niles’s reactivity and pulling on walks is something I’ve already blogged about, and given our particularly icy winter this year, it was really not fun. I knew I had to keep him under-threshold, but good golly, that’s hard when a squirrel up 50 feet in a tree sends him over instantly. Also, he could probably use some work on the basics. I haven’t been super consistent with him; sometimes, when I ask for “sit,” he immediately sits. Other times, I get:


Celia is also reactive on walks. Weirdly, she’s louder (Niles performs a mostly silent round of acrobatics) and reacts to more things, but she seems to recover better and can still have a mostly-normal walk once we’re past The Thing.

Compounding this laundry list of Stuff to Work On was the insidious notion that I couldn’t work with my dogs unless I had high-value treats, the really good stuff. Positive, force-free trainers do place an emphasis on using high-value treats — chicken, steak, cheese, Happy Howie’s, etc. — when counter-conditioning or working on difficult things, but somehow that had gotten twisted around in my head to mean, “My dogs won’t work for kibble, so don’t even bother trying.” I never even consciously thought it, but looking back on the past few months or so, I realize I didn’t even do basics unless I had Happy Howie’s in the house. High-value treats tend to be expensive and high in calories, so I was constantly running out of treats and never running out of excuses to not do work.

I got out of this rut because:

  1. My friend Melissa added me to the “Naughty but Nice” dogs group on Facebook and
  2. I started taking a basic obedience class with Celia

The Naughty but Nice program was developed by UK force-free trainers, Tom Mitchell and Lauren Langman. It focuses on dogs like mine, who have some bad habits and frustrating behaviors, but aren’t necessarily dealing with major fear or aggression. Although I wasn’t able to afford their full training course, I did get their DVD and they provide tons of free advice within the group; they have a big focus on addressing the foundation items rather than specific situations, as well as keeping the program manageable for busy people. They’ve helped me put the puzzle together, as it were; I have a lot of the pieces, but they showed me how they fit together. They were also the ones who finally got me to feed my dogs less out of a bowl and more while doing training, even though I’d heard it a thousand times before. I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure an actual lightbulb turned on over my head the first time I saw my dogs actually work for kibble. And then I kicked myself, because duh.

In typical Carly fashion, I went all or nothing on this. I was like, “I need to put ALL my focus on the NBN stuff! Nothing else is worth doing! Basic obedience, out the window!” And then, thankfully, I started a basic obedience class with, you guessed it, Melissa. The TL;DR here is that Melissa broke me out of my rut and restored balance to the universe.

We did a basic obedience class with Nelson, and then I did a few more with various foster dogs I had. I really thought I could handle the easy stuff all by me onesie from the comfort of my living room, but after having Celia back in the house since early January, I’d only managed to teach her “sit” and a really half-assed “down.” Isn’t that so stupid? I can see it’s really stupid as I’m writing it. I had to say it out loud before I realized it was stupid.

We only had our second class yesterday, but it’s become the highlight of my week. It’s so fun. Celia is a smart cookie and has made more progress in two classes than the previous two months, and there’s really nothing better than watching something click — literally and figuratively — for your dog. It’s magical. Watching Celia’s wheels turn and then seeing her figure out what I want is genuinely the purest form of happiness I’ve felt in months. It’s also been a major confidence boost for me, and I’m more motivated to work with my other two dogs knowing that I can be an effective teacher.

There’s no deep meaning to this post; I just wanted to share my recent hang-ups and successes in the event that they might help something click for somebody else. If you want a brief takeaway, I’d say there’s no harm and the world to gain in hiring a force-free trainer if you’re struggling with your dog. Even if you think “Eh, he already knows this and that, can’t see how it would help,” it never hurts to go back to basics.


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