So You Had A Bad Day...

You've been training hard for months, and now this?! Don't panic - read on to discover how to salvage something from your most disastrous dog-walk to date.

You’re in the middle of an empty field clutching a fistful of cubed cheese, your throat is hoarse from shouting, and you’re seriously contemplating whether tightening that dog-lead you had flung so nonchalantly around your neck only 10 minutes earlier and calling it all a day might be the only option left worth considering.

I feel you. I’ve been there.  I used to be there a lot, now hardly ever at all, but that almost makes it even worse when, all of a sudden, I’m back to being the mad woman in the field, angrily throwing cheese at no-one, whilst muttering unpublishable expletives and trying to figure out if the branches of the nearest tree will  bear my weight.

So here's what you're going to do about it:

One: Don’t be mad at your dog.  I always say this to people, then last week, when I was deserted by the wonder-dog in favour of a rancid cheese sandwich someone had considerately ditched at the other end of the field we were walking in, I found myself struggling to follow my own rule.  As I trudged toward the giant yellow idiot, who was gleefully inhaling her disgusting find as fast as is caninely possible, I was silently reminding myself, ‘Do not punish her! If you punish her you undo everything. EVERYTHING! Be chilled out.  Be happy.  Be as enjoyable - no, be MORE enjoyable - than the mouldy lefotvers she's just chosen over you.’ (Thanks, Nova.)

#TOPTIP: What you can do in this situation, if you really need to, is address your dog with all the expletives that you command... in a happy sing-song voice. Sing-song swearing can be incredibly therapeutic for everyone involved, because your dog will be happy to see you (Wow, she's in a good mood!) plus you enjoy getting some feelings off your chest. Don't shout, hit or in any way punish your dog, because it will do absolutely. no. good. If I ran over to you and punched you in the back whilst you were investigating some money someone else must've dropped on the floor, would you stick around to see what I'd do the next time you saw me running towards you when you had something interesting? Nope. And if I kept doing it, pretty soon you'd start avoiding me at all costs.  It's not the best formula for a great recall, is it? I know you're annoyed. But trust me: just grit your teeth, and sing the song.

Two: Don’t give up.  I know you feel like your dog has just proven to you that all that training was a waste of a time, but it wasn’t.  Remember what life was like before the training? Well… it was like this moment right now.  But worse. And consistent.  You endured consistent disregard for any kind of recall/obedience/social politeness/insert desired behaviour here/etc./ad infinitum from your dog… there were whole dog-walking locations you couldn’t return to twice in the same week, because of ‘what happened last time...’ (or is that just me?)

Do you want to go back to that? Of course you don’t!  95% reliability is so much better than 0% reliability, so chin up, lead her up, write today off, and start again tomorrow. Because if you don’t start again, and you let this moment set the tone for your dog’s future then, eventually, this moment will become your dog’s future.  Give up on recall training, and you won’t be able to let her off-lead anymore.  Give up on reactivity reconditioning, and you’ll be walking her at 5am, and nervously at that.  Everyone makes mistakes. People… dogs… cheese-sandwich-eaters… everyone. Don’t be defined by this one.

Three: Assess, plan, and overcome.  Ok, so you’re home, your dog’s asleep, and you have a mug of tea (or a glass of wine, depending on the severity of whatever just happened) in your hand, and you’re now going to take 5 minutes to go over it.

Let's revisit my example:  I’m walking around one end of a large field with my two dogs.  Nova runs off to the other end.  I don’t mind.  I’m not giving any commands or throwing any retrieves, the field is empty, and I think it’s pretty clear that this is free time – whilst training is important, having free time to just be a dog is also very important. I look up, wondering if she’s spied another dog about to enter, so I dish out a recall, which she ignores. She ignores? Great. Suddenly she’s snouting about at the ground like a truffle pig on speed, so I know she’s found something delicious.  I also know that I, faraway at the other end of the field and clearly not in possession of anything as interesting as what she’s currently inhaling, am now not her number one priority.  So I stop recalling.  Because if I continue to call her, and she continues to be heartily rewarded for ignoring me, I’m sabotaging my own recall big-time. As frustrating as it can be, sometimes you have to know when to revert to damage-limitation.  I amble towards her, pulling the long-line out of my pocket ready to do some controlled short-distance recalls to try and turn this around when, entirely out of character, she raises her head from what I discover to be the afore-mentioned cheese sandwich, and bolts.  Before I reach her, she’s out of the field, straight into a residential area, around the corner, and out of sight. *Insert expletive*.  I dash back into the field, recall my tiny terrier, who luckily, in his old age is an absolute star, clip him up, and we jog out after the giant yellow absconder.

Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you view it, someone had dropped yet another fistful of unwanted food on the pavement just around the corner, which she was heartily tucking into.  I clipped her up and we went straight home, whilst I sang Nova a lovely, sing-song tribute which they absolutely would not be allowed to play on the radio.  Although the second edible bounty she’d found on the street had stopped her from straying too far, it had also epically rewarded her for deserting me.  This was really bad news, and I was feeling pretty gutted. It’s the age-old problem in dog-training: you simply cannot control your environment 100% effectively, 100% of the time.  Set-ups at home are easy, your garden is pretty cushty, but once you take it out into the big wide world, how can you guarantee they won’t reward themselves for doing the wrong thing? You can’t. And when it happens – it sucks.

What most people fail to realise, is that dog-training occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether you’re participating in it or not. Dogs make decisions, and earn themselves rewards, or they don’t.  Whether you’re the one dishing out the reward or not, has no effect on whether your dog has been reinforced for the decision they just made.  So it’s in your interest to get involved, or the big wide world will teach your dog some things that will make your life a nightmare.  At this moment, it just taught my dog that running off into the horizon with utter disregard for your human is incredibly rewarding.  I didn’t want her to know that.

Thanks world.

Fast-forward 20 minutes and 10 buckets of angst, and I’m at home with my cup of tea (because wine-fuelled assessments can only be carried out after 7pm) weighing it all up.  I hadn’t been reinforcing any of the attention she offered me on that walk.  I was tired, it had been a long day, I still had a lot to do when I got home and my mind was elsewhere.  So eventually she stopped trying to earn from me, and ended up seeking - and earning - from the environment.  That was my fault.  She was too far away.  I hadn’t asked her to check in with me at shorter distances before she got so far away.  I should have. I also knew people were repeatedly ditching food in that corner of that field.  It wasn’t that long ago, that both my dogs had hit a jackpot over there, and they probably remembered it.  I shouldn’t have gone back so soon, let them off-lead, and then checked out so readily. What to do? Avoid that location for a while.  Go back to rewarding on-lead focus check-ins. Go back to reinforcing the recall command in a controlled setting. Go back to maintaining a recall distance that is effective. Reintroduce the odd high value food reward.

There are lots of ‘go backs.’  But sometimes, you need to take one step backward, to take two steps forward. And if you don’t make the proactive to decision to ‘go back’ like this – you’ll go back anyway.  Back to how it was before.  Back to 5am walks, back to no off-lead time, back to owning the world’s worst dog, and back to square one.

Don’t do that.  Sing your song, chalk it up, and know what you’re going to do next time.


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