Lir 11 weeks ishWhy do we dream of what is easy?

We don’t learn much when we go unchallenged, but success and predictability feel much more reinforcing in the moment. So it was with Lir. I have spent the last twenty years as a trainer, and, really, the last eight in deep study with some of the top positive reinforcement trainers in the country and the world. I tame and train wild horses using awareness, food and the laws of learning. I help people teach new coping skills to dogs who are full of panic or profoundly aggressive, dogs who have been passed by or failed with multiple other trainers. I relish the puzzle of untangling the A-B-C of a situation and confirming my perception when the animal responds to the new contingency I’ve set up. It never gets old.

But with Lir I was in a bind from the start.

He was in his critical period for socialization, a magical window for social learning, when, if I exposed and supported him skillfully, he would be far more likely to grow up to be a stable, relaxed and resilient adult. But, he was already a bit behind on his socialization, as evidenced by his strong emotional reaction to unfamiliar dogs and low posture around men. He had some emotional impressions that I needed to reverse with repeated, low stress, positive exposures. This is typically done quite easily by combining a safe distance and food together. But Lir had no appetite in public. (In fact, he did not finish even one full meal of 1/2 cup food at home for fourteen days.) Using a leash to maintain distance overstimulated him to the point of leaping and barking. I needed new strategies, and fast, before his critical window closed at twelve to fifteen weeks. On the short end, I had three weeks to make some fairly large emotional changes.

My gut said he needed to learn to complete cycles. I knew he had solid dog skills here with my dogs, and that it was the surge of excitement on sight of other dogs that he needed to learn to manage. I suspected that multiple experiences where he went rapidly from orientation to greeting to relaxation would help his nervous system from getting “stuck” in fear or excitement. I was lucky enough to have a multitude of dog friends, current students and past clients who were available with well-socialized adult dogs to meet Lir. I chose dogs who were very relaxed seeing other dogs and were able to eat when he approached, so he could get scent information without the added pressure of being approached. The briefer the time between orientation and greeting, the shorter his rehearsal of over-excitement or apprehension would be.
I did lots of set ups with gates, so he could walk right up avoiding the leash pressure issue, and he became able to move from orientation to greeting with a far less conflict. It took three weeks of very consistent, nearly daily experiences, but he started to initiate low but more immediate greetings without overstimulation and then to moved to often soliciting play.

Meanwhile, at home, he was disinterested in any sort of organized training session. Unlike every single one of my other dogs, being in a room with me and high value food – beef jerky, liver sausage, cream cheese in a tube- was not more reinforcing than being out in the house at large. He was stressed by any restriction on his movement or choices and by changes of environment. If I let all the other dogs in with us, he could concentrate and eat, but he was a very relaxed eater.

He could take it or leave it.

The two things he seemed to find reinforcing were autonomy and ripping cardboard, neither of which are super efficient or easily dispensed reinforcers.

Full disclosure: Three weeks in, before I left for Clicker Expo to teach and just before Lir was really rounding the corner to being more relaxed seeing unfamiliar dogs, I decided to bring him back to his breeder. I wrote her a message late at night explaining how difficult he found everything and that I was afraid he just wasn’t my dog. I couldn’t see a clear path for him to become my joyful partner who loved being out in the world, learning in dedicated sessions and teaching alongside me in a groups of ever-changing unfamiliar dogs. Maybe he would be happier being someone’s pet. I sent the message and went out to the barn to do late night horse chores. In my mind I prepared myself to take him back. I imagined the long drive back to Canada, watching his beautiful patchwork coat move away from me as I willingly gave him up. I would send him with his collar, I decided, because I wouldn’t be able to look at it anyway. I could keep his tag, since someone else would probably re-name him.

When I finished my chores, I walked back into the house and there he was, his feet up on his gated area, his cream cheese Kong empty behind him, happy, excited to see me.

I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t send him out into the world to someone who might not make him cream cheese Kongs or understand his over-excitement as needing support or treat him like a difficult dog, rather than who he was, Lir. There, in that moment, I accepted the real situation at hand. Instead of being disappointed and concerned about his dog caution or incredulous that he found food only mildly valuable here and there, I stopped fighting the situation and accepted it. I gave in to becoming a student all over again and I gave in to Lir becoming whatever he was able to become regardless of my expectations and hopes. I surrendered.

Kung Fu Panda

There is a scene in Kung Fu Panda, where Shifu, the Kung fu teacher tells Po, the soft, clumsy, silly Panda sent to him to be the next dragon warrior that he WILL make him the dragon warrior.
And Po laughs and says, “Come on! How?”
And Shifu replies, ” I don’t know. I don’t know.”  In that moment of admitting his ignorance, Shifu becomes powerful again.

And there I was. I did not know.
But I did know we would continue.


thumbnail-10It seems like a hundred years have passed since I first wrote about Lir. Meeting a puppy once and making him the receptacle for all of your dreams is an exercise in hope and imagination, pure speculation, really, but raising a puppy well is deeply grounded in reality.

Exactly four weeks ago, when Lir turned nine weeks,  I drove back to Canada to pick him up. The weather forecast had predicted chilingly cold temperatures but clear skies and no precipitation. Halfway through Michigan, though, snow started to fall gently, then intensely. What I had hoped would be a blip on my journey turned to snow covered roads, headlights illuminating swirling snow and semi trucks rushing past blowing curtains of snow so dense that I was unable to see anything but white for what felt like entire minutes at a time. I crawled along at 40 mph, wishing I could go 20, but trucks and SUV’s were going 60 and their passing was more dangerous than the (truly dangerous) snow covered roads.
I saw a sign for an exit, and my heart leapt, but the road was so snow covered, and the terrain unfamiliar, that I missed the exit altogether and had to keep driving. I was still shaking from the last semi completely whiting out my visibility, when, Siri let me know there was an accident up ahead.
All traffic slowed to 20 mph, thankfully, and I began to breathe evenly again. A white van was flipped on it’s roof, wipers going, having hit the concrete barrier near the median. Any humans had already been removed from the scene, and I sent good intentions to them as I passed. I was able to get off at a nearby exit and have never been so happy to sip black tea and watch re-runs of That 70’s Show. I was alive. How lucky.
The next day I got back on the road and by late afternoon, I was at the drop off spot to pick up Lir. What a strange feeling it is to meet someone in a parking lot and be handed a shiny, fluffy, bright-eyed pup who knows nothing of the larger world. Suddenly, you are on your journey together. Now. Begin.

Luckily, Lir traveled well and if the car was moving, he slept. I didn’t know how he would feel about traffic, noise, men in big coats but the trip threw us into the world and he absorbed a lot of new sights and sounds with just a little observation and processing. Overall, I was really happy with how he adjusted to his reality being totally upended. And I learned he loved beef jerky, after he quickly grew tired of the other reinforcers I had brought along.

We made it home a day later, before dark, and got him introduced to our dog family here at Idle Moon. He was more cautious than Ruth and Hesper had been meeting our dogs, and I had a twinge of concern I filed away for later in terms of his dog comfort. But a single data point is just that, a single point and he had been on a long journey. He settled in with the group and I gave him three days to just relax and get to know his new family.

It wouldn’t be until the weekend that I would learn that his first response to new dogs was a conflicted mix of excitement and fear, barking, backing up, jumping forward and an inability to self-calm enough to approach to get scent information. My fantasy of a “perfect dog” was replaced with the reality of the dog I had in front of me. I had to pull out my skills to help him find more functional behaviors in relation to other dogs. I had to leave my own emotions for later.

Why do we dream of perfection? Why do we dream of journeys that are easy?
I don’t know, really, because what is hard often ends up to be far more beautiful and worthwhile. My ego had been set on a perfect, relaxed, social pup who would be ready to start his education where I wanted to start it. I still didn’t understand, at that time, that Lir was a clear, bright mirror sent to reflect me back to myself so I could be better time after time after time.


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Lir Lionheart

On October 25th, a litter of Coolies was born at Killara Station, home of Canadian Cobar Coolies. It was a litter of ten puppies, five boys and five girls, born to Hunterslea Adelaide and CCC Tucker. It had every color of pup imaginable, and hopefully, a puppy who would grow up to be my next working dog and colleague. (For me a working dog is a companion who will co-teach all my group classes, attend behavior consults, seminars, hike, compete in obedience and rally and serve as a living representation of good communication between a human and a canine.)

We all have certain traits we are drawn to in our canine companions. A dog might look like a childhood dog we dearly loved, or have the same ears as our friend’s dog who is a favorite. I see this all the time with clients who adopt a second dog who looks like it could be an actual sibling of the dog they already have. Some of these biases operate under the surface, and some are conscious. I  gravitate towards female dogs, short coated, with huge, upright ears and blue eyes. Piper, my now almost 15 year old working dog, is the best dog I have ever had the pleasure of working with and her appearance has become a preference for me. So, when I went to Canada to meet the puppies, I already had my eye on a short haired, seemingly blue-eyed girl puppy who hit all the emotional buttons that Piper had installed in my heart. I was open to changing my mind but I thought it was unlikely.

When I arrived at Killara station to see the puppies, Sue let them out of their whelping box right away so they could run around and I could sit on the floor and interact with them. As a litter, they were stunning. So many colors and patterns, all swirling together into one glorious whole. People talk about this sort of balance in their koi ponds, having the right mix of colors and patterns of fish so that the whole is a work of art in itself. That’s how beautiful this group of puppies is. The little girl puppy I had been drawn to crawled up into my lap to sit, quietly, but my attention was drawn to a different pup, a fluffy boy pup, who moved in joyful circles and arcs, bouncing, light as helium. I ran my hands over the pup in my lap and looked up when the boy pup knocked into my elbow in one of his playful circles. He radiated happiness and confidence.

I studied him further. He handled new experiences with resilience, quickly returning to his baseline of bounding and joyful curiosity. He was social with all the other pups, playing appropriately, not too rough, not shutting down. He had a lot of behavior, all the behavior you want juvenile animals to express: running, jumping, mouthing, leaping, exploring, chewing. Baby animals should express enough behavior to make your head spin. And he liked touch, liked people and could settle in your arms. In short, he was a behavioral dream. And really beautiful. I decided he was my pup within the first half hour.

That night at my hotel, I warred with myself a bit. I’m used to deciding with my heart, not my head. I knew he was the best choice for me, by far, behavior-wise, but my heart wasn’t sure. I was going back the next day to visit again, before I drove home. I decided I would keep an open mind.

Lir Lionheart leaping in joy
Plugga leaping in joy and looking at me. This is his first time outside.

When I arrived the next day, I was again overwhelmed by just how beautiful the whole group of puppies was. What a decision! We let the pups out again and immediately,  I knew Plugga was the one. Seeing him again on day two confirmed how spectacular he was and this time my heart was wide open. My new working dog was a long-haired, beautiful boy. I had told myself before I went to Canada, that it’s best to remember you don’t know a thing. To trust that the universe is wise and will guide us if we can relax and listen. Still, I felt divinely surprised. Lucky. In love.

He will come home to Idle Moon Farm just a few days after Christmas, at nine weeks old.
When he gets here he will start his new life, as Lir Lionheart. Lir, for the Irish king, and Lionheart, for his big, brave heart.

CCC Plugga, aka Lir.