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What do Dog Training and Blackjack Have in Common?

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

two dogs on porch waiting to go for a walk

Have you ever played the card game 21, also known as Blackjack? Once you’ve been dealt a hand, you get to decide whether to stick with what you’ve got, or to push your luck by trading in a few cards for better ones in the hopes of totalling 21 exactly. If you stick, you’re safe but it may or may not be close enough to the goal, depending on what the other players have. If you trade, you risk going over 21, which essentially blows any chance of winning. Dog training can be like 21. When you’re teaching new behaviors, you want the dog to “get it” but not let things get to the point where he becomes bored or distracted. Even more importantly, with behavior modification, if you push things too far too fast, you risk having to go back to square one, or worse.

Those were the thoughts that went through my mind as I walked Sierra and Bodhi around the park. Yes, I said Sierra and Bodhi. As some of you know, our normal routine is for my husband to go running with one of the dogs, and for me to take the other to our local park for some hiking and training. But my husband’s work schedule has been erratic lately, and I didn’t want the dogs to have to go for days on end without exercise. I figured it would also be an opportunity to work on their behavior issues when walking together—and believe me, they’ve got some.

Thanks to all the work Bodhi and I have put in on his dog-dog reactivity, he’s doing just great when we pass other dogs. At the first sign of his feeling stressed, even with Sierra there, he’ll place himself by my side and look at me. I haven’t done the same amount of work with Sierra, because she was never dog-reactive; she does, however, get very snarky with Bodhi when we pass other dogs—she figures they’re hers. Actually, she figures pretty much everything is hers, but that’s a whole other story. We’ve also worked on her paying attention to me as we pass other dogs, as she has a tendency to go into a stalk-walk that worries approaching dogs, not to mention their owners.

We often follow a narrow trail that veers off the main park path. It winds through the mountains, and you find yourself surrounded by sage, rosemary, cotton-tailed rabbits and coyotes. You truly feel like you’re out of the city. I love it. The only problem comes when leaving the trail, as it ends with a steep decline that runs adjacent to two homes where dogs live, and there’s not much wiggle room. I’ve taught each of my dogs separately that when we reach the top of the decline, their job is to walk by my side. Besides the potential dog-behind-fence problem, I just don’t put sliding butt-first down a hill high on the list of treatments for my lower back issues.

This morning, Bodhi, Sierra and I wound around the trail and reached the beginning of the decline. Both dogs walked with me, one on either side as I’d taught them, but I could tell by the amount of pressure they were taking treats with that they were already aroused. They knew what was coming. I didn’t hear barking, but just as we reached the bottom of the hill, it became glaringly apparent that not one, but both dogs were out in their yards. As we passed the first one, a large, barking German Shepherd, Sierra managed to do a three things in the space of maybe a second: she locked eyes with the dog, lunged toward him, and turned in a flash to snark at poor Bodhi, who had dutifully placed himself next to me. I quickly rewarded Bodhi and got Sierra under control and walking by my other side.

We reached the second yard. Sierra began to snark at Bodhi again but thought the better of it, which I’m betting had more to do with my verbal correction of a moment ago combined with the jerk on her body harness as a result of her lunging and me pulling her back, than it did with any sudden attack of conscience. Either way, she managed to restrain herself while walking past the barking black Lab. Now we were just past the two houses, and Sierra and Bodhi were both paying attention to me. I had them sit, and rewarded them with hot dogs. My initial reaction was Great, let’s blow this taco stand!, but then I thought, Hmm, why not turn a stressful situation into a training opportunity? (Okay, in my head it sounded a lot less eloquent, and a lot more like Crap, we’d better practice.) So, much to the surprise of the dogs behind their fences, we proceeded to walk back past them again. They barked slightly less vehemently than the first time, and Sierra and Bodhi did great. We practiced it twice. Success! I decided not to push my hand any further. Oh, believe me, we’ll be working on it on plenty of other days. But sometimes, like this morning, sticking with what you’ve got is plenty.


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