Vigilance

If you want to find a cache of dogs who look as much like Silas as you’ll ever see, google “Squirrel Dogs.”

I can see it in his temperament. Not that I know what makes a squirrel dog any different from any other hunting dog, but I can see how he would be a good hunting dog. (Also how he would be a terrible hunting dog, but that’s another story.)

Some of this comes out in cute ways. If I drop his toy from the upstairs loft and ask him to find it, he will walk around the corner, stick his head out between the railings, and look for it. Then he will go downstairs and get it. He will “alert” to a bug on the wall and refuse to go to sleep until someone kills or relocates it. He can find anything that I hide anywhere, even when I don’t want him to.

The downside is that he’s always, always watching and listening and sniffing. He will leap up from a dead sleep because a leaf falls “weird” against the front door. He can spot a moving car from across the park. He fascinated a PetCo employee by the way he was air-scenting for some ferrets. He notices everything.

The problem is that he has no way to process all that data about the world. That car a quarter of a mile away at the park frightens him as much as a car that’s a hundred feet away. The leaf against the front door is as bad as a person being outside. Those ferrets? He couldn’t bring himself to get within three feet of their cage. (They were safely up out of his range, I promise.)

I see my job with him in pretty simple terms. I need to help him bridge between “I notice that” and “I am afraid of that.” Or, even more simply, I want him to understand that he doesn’t have to react to every single stimulus. My usual working formula is one part confidence-building, one part counter-conditioning, one part exposure and familiarization.

Some days I do better than others.

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5 thoughts on “Vigilance

  1. Do you think giving him a single thing to focus on (ie, giving him a job to accomplish) would help? I’m thinking of Nosework here, as I know it helps most environmentally anxious dogs learn to get by in the world as they must find that odor. Even Elli has been helped by it, in much smaller ways as she isn’t a nervous dog by any means. She’s gained confidence around things that move because of her action (like a box falling over her head – the odor is in the box) or climbing onto something slippery (notably the closed toilet seat) to reach the odor on the toilet’s basin.

    I had to chuckle at the ferret thing. Elli went all sighthound on those guys last time we were there. I had so much trouble getting her to leave them alone. Same with those mice on the wheels. Oh man.

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    1. Fortunately most of the small animal cages are over Silas’s head.

      I’ve had a few people recommend Nosework. I’d have to read up on how to teach it myself. Despite my ridiculously large town, the only place I can find that does nosework is still strongly P+ (they “highly recommend” a “positive control collar” for their obedience classes).

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  2. I really liked how you describe your job…helping him bridge that gap…it makes it sound so simple, though I know it’s far from simple…but with your determination and patience you’ll get there

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  3. I feel silly even asking this, but have you tried googling positive dog trainers or contacting your local humane society? I found our trainers when I was googling Treiball. Up until that point I’d struggled to find a full on positive trainer. And there are videos and websites that can help you teach nosework yourself.

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    1. Hahaha. I’m making this same complaint all over the web today, huh?

      I know the best two positive training places in town, and their training just isn’t very inventive. One of them almost never offers anything beyond basic obedience. The other place does a bit more, but still nothing outside of obedience and agility. I think it’s something of a cultural problem. The next city over is much smaller, but I could get incredible classes there. That city has a younger, more active demographic than we do, and I suspect there’s just more interest. Three hours away, though.

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