Have you ever had this experience? Your training or behavior plan is moving forward. You are doing well. Your dog is responding. Life is getting better. Then all of a sudden, everything falls apart and it seems like you are back to square one.
I certainly have. This week, my dog has taken a turn in the wrong direction training and behavior-wise. Shadow is being very emotional on our everyday walks. What does this mean? She is constantly searching for squirrels. If a dog barks behind a fence a block away, she comes unglued. If a dog eyes her while walking (or god forbid lets out a bark or two) she will respond as if her life is being threatened. She is barking excitedly when we arrive places in the car. And she’s started jumping on people again.
She’s always been a very “high” dog, meaning that she will get easily overexcited by pretty much everything in life. But we’d been making tremendous strides. She has been calmer on walks, mostly leaving the squirrels alone, and her barking in general has gone down by about tenfold. But this week has been rough on her.
It has also been rough on me. I am a professional trainer, right? My dog should know how to behave in public. I am overwhelmed sometimes, but mostly I feel sad when she is having such a hard time. But even trainer’s dogs go through ups and down in training. I keep reminding myself that Shadows ups and downs are normal (especially for an adolescent dog), but still it is humbling and I question if we are on the right track.
So how do I handle these ups and downs?
- First, I have to accept that it is happening. It sometimes takes a few days to register when she goes into one of her more difficult phases. But now that I’m accepting that she has lost her brain, I will take a week or two and try to protect her from overexposure to new, exciting, or scary things. A cooling off period so to speak.
- Second, I will up our fun and play. One of the best ways to help shift those stress hormones is to have some fun and enjoy life.
- Third, I will manage the arousal in her life. To the best of my ability, I will keep her life routine and low key for a few days or weeks.
- Fourth, I will do some easy training games. This will help click her brain back into thinking mode and out of reactive mode.
- Last, I will look for anything that may have triggered the shift and decide if, in the future, I need to address it through training or behavior modification. Please notice that this is the last thing I am doing, not the first. One of the things that I think people want to do is to “fix” problems right away by diving headfirst into what is causing the stress. Destressing needs to happen first, before the fix.
So why do these ups and downs happen with our dogs? First, ups and downs are a normal part of training (for us and for our dogs!). Shadow had been teetering in the high arousal zone the past few weeks which is also normal for an adolescent dog. But we had an experience that was particularly rough for her–she was startled and aggressively barked at by two dogs behind a fence. They caught us off guard. She got scared. Her adrenaline kicked high. So this experience likely had an effect. Because this is not the first time barking dogs have upset her, I will make a plan for helping her overcome her concerns. But I will wait for a week or two, when her stress level is lower.