In the mire of behaviors, I accidentally caused, Helo’s inability to crate while other dogs walked by was pretty high among the most embarrassing. Maybe even the highest. Not the time he ran around at flyball practice while everyone glared at me and I drove home crying. Definitely not the time he kicked my pants off in front of the UPS guy - that was pretty funny! Not even the two times he jumped the fence because he thought the dog in the other ring was pretty cute and refused to recall off them and ducked from being caught. No, it was that at the facility I taught at he couldn’t sit quietly while I was busy. If we were attending a seminar I had to be mindful of where he was crated so that he wouldn’t rage at someone trying to quietly pass his crate.
Dog forbid if a dog looked at him closely or walked up to the crate!
I reached out to many people over the years to ask for help with this (and many other) problems. Many times the answer was along the lines of I needed to learn to manage him better and accept my fate. My gut said different. It said life could be easier if I could find the missing piece of the puzzle. I went off searching, attending seminars of various types.
Eventually, I found it! An answer to many of my problems - correct socialization. A hard answer that wouldn’t be easily accomplished and certainly not something I could do alone. The hard part was knowing I had found part of the solution and not being able to follow through. I tried for the better part of 2 years with support from awesome friends like Rose, but I gave up feeling incompetent and insecure.
At this point, I reached out to a big name R+ based trainer known for her behavioral problem-solving skills and offered to pay large sums of money for help fixing the crate problem. If I could not fix it through socialization I would follow any program she suggested. Her response? She’d do a phone consult with me but she didn’t think she could help me. I met her a few months later at a conference and requested to be her volunteer so I could listen to her lectures. I tried to break the ice and chat with her a little but she was more interested in talking to her friends. Well, ok then.
Down, frustrated, and feeling increasingly like the answer must be I’m a bad trainer I tried using an e-collar to solve his crate problems. Stimulation a bit above his normal working level to interrupt the behavior. Did I mention I was Desperate to find a solution? It didn’t work and temporarily created some superstitious behaviors despite conditioning the collar to mean positive things before use. Back to square one.
Then came Shannan. We reconnected after several years. She had been our puppy trainer for Mochi at Petsmart years before and for no particular reason we didn’t stay in touch. She agreed to take Helo while we were on vacation for board and train. It would be stressful for him - a deep dive into group socialization and spending time at a grooming salon in a crate where Shannan would have to deal with my biggest shame.
You see, he didn’t just bark a little when other dogs passed him - he roared with fury. He looked scary and angry and I caught myself thinking “that is not the dog I know.” He’s not angry or scary, he’s an absolute doofus. But people whose dogs were roared at would glare (rightfully) and not see the squish I adore. Just the scary, loud dog who a trainer probably shouldn’t admit she owns.
Back to Helo’s board and train. Part of the answer was socialization! It also involved using some aversive techniques like flooding (exposing him to dogs being near him crated in a small room and passing often) and applying an aversive to convince him amping up and roaring wasn’t a good idea. One of our trainer friends would also shame him if he barked at her dogs - a surprisingly effective addition. Social pressure is huge for Helo. What we’ve done has gone a long way to solving his problems and the change in him over the last 3 months has been incredible!
He has lapsed once, it was not nearly as intense as it was before. I can now actually use positive reinforcement on him because he’s able to watch dogs pass him with a clear mind. He’s not spinning up waiting for the perfect moment to dive at them to bark. He’ll eat the treats I give him in his crate - not something he was usually capable of before.
I won’t theorize too much on the why - I think in part he was anxious about the possible interaction and dealing with some barrier reactivity. To be completely honest on some level I think he enjoyed the sport and adrenaline rush.
Since his board and train and continued socialization in classes, many of my student’s puppies have wandered up into his crate face to face with no more than a glance to me from Helo to check-in. “Good boy” I say loudly and sometimes a reminder, “no bark” which he knows from home. Sometimes he chooses to sniff with them, sometimes he goes into the back to avoid confrontation. He doesn’t have to be social, he does have to not be a jerk.
He hates being covered and pulled anything cloth into his crate. I was on the verge of making him a PVC box to go over his crate so I could put covers over him because when he stayed covered it helped the barking. Being able to watch and handle seeing other dogs means he goes in less stressed and comes out less stressed.
Parts of me are disillusioned with the positive community after this and a few other experiences. I still love and identify primarily as R+, but gone are the days when I wanted to try to raise my puppy by never saying no to him. I’ve left almost all of the groups I’m in that are force-free. I’m sure after this more people will unfriend me and I’ll lose the last bits of attachment to the non-FDSA force-free community I have.
I still don’t think we should start with aversives.
It would be easy to read this and think I do but every behavior plan has to consider the experiences of the individual in front of us and their needs. Helo had a long history of me attempting R+ solutions for crate reactivity including a manners minder, open bar/closed bar, crate games, etc. His answer was the correct aversive applied quickly to interrupt bad choices, reinforcement for good behavior. Socialization with a group then continued low-key non-play focused socialization as well as time with friends he likes to play with.
Here’s the thing, even the style of socialization I know is not well-loved in some of the positive community. “It’s flooding.” On some level yes. “He’s stressing.” Yep. He did stress and still does if someone else handles him. But my dog needs to learn stress doesn’t mean he can’t use his noggin. We never work him until he’s shut down (learned helplessness) or spun up so much he makes bad choices.
The improvement has been fast and a bit startling! I don’t think any of the current social students who didn’t know Helo before have a clue he was a reactive dog. That I’ve had people tell me he’s aggressive. Not trainers, thankfully, laypeople who don’t know the nuances. Many years ago Sarah Dixon described him as “a stable dog who doesn’t know it yet.” I trusted her assessment but wasn’t sure how to get from that to just “stable dog.”
We’re on our way. I wish I could have done this sooner buddy, but I’m glad we can do it now and that the lessons I’ve learned will help other dogs.
Are you struggling? Know there are many of us out there - my story is not unique. Ultimately while I may be angry with the positive community for making me feel like I was limited in what I could do for my dog there are many wonderful people out there who do right by dogs and change lives like Shannan has done for me. Your answer may not include aversives but you need to work with someone willing to help you explore the root of the problem.
We all do the best we can with what we know. I’m not one foot out the door on R+, I will continue to endeavor to do everything in the most dog-friendly way possible. I will continue educating myself through places like Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and go to seminars with presenters who I know also work to be as dog-friendly as possible.
But I have to look at the dog and human in front of me and ask in my soul: if I avoid the hard stuff that certain parts of the positive community have told me for years is abusive am I serving this team? Is it abusive? Is there a place and time? What is the line?
These are questions I’m still answering. I hope to do another blog in the future discussing some of this in finer detail but my head still swirls with anger and years of pent up frustration so I’m not ready.
I will be.