Why 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.
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.