After a less than stellar showing at our first group class, I was hoping we’d do better next time. Sierra had been so distracted and intermittently shut down during the initial class that we hadn’t been able to accomplish much of anything. In fact, I could barely get her attention. It’s not that she didn’t know “sit” or to look at me when I called her name. She did. The problem had more to do with her learned helplessness and worry during training than with her intelligence or ability. Hey, it takes time for a four-time rescue dog to learn to trust again. I get it. Still, what good is obedience training if the dog will only comply in private?
This week, we were assigned a position in one of the room’s corner booths, which was a bit more spacious and farther from the other dogs than the one we’d had last week. (The trainer wisely rotates the dogs each week so no dog becomes territorial of a specific area over time.) That probably helped, as did the fact that we’d been in the room before, and Sierra now understood she wasn’t there to play with the other dogs. My being armed with a bag full of hot dogs and string cheese didn’t hurt, either.
This time, we were a team. The class reviewed down from a sitting position, which Sierra did well at home and, I’m happy to report, just fine in class. Then we taught the dogs down from a standing position. I hadn’t addressed that particular skill with Sierra, and it quickly became clear that no one in her previous homes had, either. I followed instructions to move the treat between her front legs while resting my other hand lightly on her lower back to help with the last bit of the down if necessary. I’d never used my hand to physically guide a dog when teaching this skill (though I do lure it the same way), but as it turned out in Sierra’s case it was necessary, unless I wanted to shape the behavior, which would have taken longer than we had in class. After three repetitions the light bulb went on, and the fold-back motion became faster. The wonderful thing was not that Sierra could achieve what was being taught, but that she could actually pay attention and process information well enough to learn something new in a previously over-stimulating, anxiety-producing environment.
Next was a “hula hoop contest.” No, the dogs weren’t expected to stand on their hind legs and swing a hula hoop around their torsos—that’s advanced class! They were to walk by our sides on a loose leash as we each paced around our own individual hoop that had been laid on the ground, changing direction on the instructor’s cue. When the music stopped, the dogs were to sit inside the hoops. The first dog to do so would win. (The traditional musical chairs type game with all the hoops in the middle of the room had been modified because of the few fearful dogs in attendance.) Round one was a tie between three dogs, none of whose names started with the letter S, though we missed it by mere seconds. But when the music stopped at the end of round two…woohoo! Sierra won! Now, that’s a comeback! Go, Team Sierricole! (Well, if Brad and Angelina can be Brangelina…)
The instructor then asked how many dogs pull on leash; predictably, most of the students’ hands went up. Sierra was chosen for the demo. A pile of treats was placed on the floor, and the idea was for her to walk next to the instructor with the leash loose in order to reach the treats. If she pulled, the instructor would gently turn and walk in a different direction. (Trainers may know this as “penalty yards.”) Sierra did great—in fact, she did too well, and it wasn’t as dramatic a demo as it could have been had there been a less cooperative dog involved. But, hey, if doing too well was her worst problem, so be it! Of course, that doesn’t mean Sierra walks perfectly next to me when she really wants to get somewhere—like the entrance to the park. But we’re working on it.
All things considered, this week’s class was a 100% turnaround from the last. That beautiful furry girl and I will continue to practice and to do our homework, just like the other students. And I know we’ll keep getting better and better. I don’t plan to blog about class each week, but I hope that if you’re reading this and have been considering attending a group class, you’ll go (even if you’re a trainer). There’s a natural teamwork that develops as you learn and practice together that can help to deepen any relationship. Also, learning even basic obedience skills together can help with behavioral problems at home. And if any of you have a rough first week of class, if you feel like a failure or are even considering not returning, hang in there. It gets better. If we can do it, you can too.
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