The Behaviorist

So, I’ve been pretty absent here lately because I’ve had something looming on the horizon. Today I took Silas to the veterinary behaviorist. (The real deal, dispenses both training advice and potentially medication type.) After our last trip back home, where Silas was scared of things like: my nephew, because he took a shower and changed clothes; my dad, because he carried a load of laundry; the ironing board; his new toy; and the train noises in the distance, I realized it was time for some professional help.

The thing is, Silas is an incredibly well-trained dog. I’m not perfect. There are obvious and real gaps in his training. At the day-to-day level, though, he has a very solid base of very reliable behavior cues that he does reliably and happily. We work on something almost every day. I’ve counter-conditioned or otherwise trained my way through a pretty substantial list of garden variety fears. About hundreds of things, big and small, he’s getting better every day. His list of “acceptable” life conditions is still expanding, to the point that he can pass as a pretty normal dog in a lot of places.

Nothing I do seems to help the big stuff, though. I still can’t take him on a walk. If he sees a car through the trees in the park, he will try to bolt. He would rather chew his own legs off than walk on the sidewalk. If something surprises him, he still reacts badly. With both of these, there isn’t exactly an implementable coutner-conditioning regimen. I can’t plan increasingly difficult surprises. I can’t get him far enough away from a car that he isn’t flattened to the sidewalk. It was time to call in some precise, targeted help. We tried private training lessons last year, with a very good trainer, and he thought Silas might have been beyond his ability to help.

Mostly what I wanted to know was how bad he really is. Am I overreacting to his anxiety? Are we on the continuum of average, somewhere?

In the end the verdict was kind of a yes and no. Silas was, of course, perfectly well-behaved in her office. He neither peed on anyone’s shoes nor barked at them during the initial greeting. (Although, the staff at a behaviorist’s office isn’t exactly passing out the ear scratches.) We did take him out on the sidewalk, so that did get shown in its full effect.

My main homework is deceptively easy sounding: I need to teach Silas how to relax. He, as was extremely obvious even in an office full of strangers, has no idea how to just not interact. The assistant spent what seemed like an eternity teaching him to lie on a bed, and he never would relax and do it without prompting. The behaviorist looked at him doing this and said, “He really loves to work, and he’s very smart. This is great! Except, it means he will manipulate everything in his environment just to get you to give him something specific to do.”

There is a massive quantity of other information that I have to process. We have a lot of lifestyle and behavior things to think about, plus a more serious training plan for the cars. For now, we’re exhausted. Poor Silas worked hard for the two hours of his visit. And bless his little heart, the landscapers are coming this afternoon.



17 thoughts on “The Behaviorist

  1. I’m impressed that you’ve taken this step…Sounds like a LOT of information to process for both you and Silas…I’d love to read about the different training exercised you were advised to work on and how they proceed…I learn so much from you


  2. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that Silas was scared because your nephew showered and changed! While it seems humorous to me – I know it must be difficult for you to deal with a lot of his issues. Although I continue to be impressed with how you continue to work with him and have called in the “big guns” – a behaviorist! I really hope she can help and I know you’ll do your best on that homework!

    Please keep us updated – I can’t wait to see what changes will occur for you and Silas through this new process!


  3. I am looking forward to reading more about Silas as he works through his situations. Good for you (again!) for taking the time to assist him and help him feel more comfortable. What a lucky little guy!


  4. Good for you to see a problem and try to fix it. Good luck!

    One thing I will say is that to me Silas is still a young dog. Just 2. We had issues with Storm when she was young. She was worried about a lot of things on walks and would try to bolt if she was in an uncomfortable situation. She will still go nuts of someone leaves something in a yard that was not there the last time she passed by. Obviously, bolting was dangerous so we couldn’t have that. I took her to a lot of obedience classes (which were not fun, but necessary) and we also did hunt test training with her. The combo of both seemed to give her confidence (especially the hunt test training). I also think she just plain old matured. Is there an activity that Silas loves that you can do in an environment that is comfortable (or maybe not terrifying) to him? You may find that if he succeeds in that, he will build confidence generally.


    1. Thanks! The behaviorist did say that 1-2 can be a hard phase for dogs. Like human teenagers, they still need guidance that they really don’t want to look for.

      Mostly I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t on a dangerous/aggressive track–some of his freak outs can sound pretty scary. She confirmed that that wasn’t terribly likely, so now I can relax a little.

      A “job” to do would help him tremendously. The behaviorist suspects that a few of his problem behaviors at home (like barking out the window) are a kind of misplaced work drive. He really looks a lot like the dogs the guys back home use to hunt squirrels. You, I’m sure, know what it’s like to live with that. We’re in a catch-22 with dog sports, though–I absolutely agree that they would help, but he’s not steady enough. Solo training classes are over $100/hr here. I’m doing research right now to start training him for nose work, which we can do as a solo activity.


  5. it reminds me so much of Delilah who never seems to just relax. Oh she will lie down but as soon as I get up, she does as well and follows me wherever I am going. Personally I think she has a little PTSD but we’ve never been to a behaviorist so I don’t know. I love those days when I look at her and can see she is relaxed. We’re getting there, we really are. And you will too.


  6. It sounds like it helped you to get some perspective from a professional. I hope you can implement some things that will teach Silas how to relax.

    And yes, nosework should be good. Many group classes are good for reactive dogs because the dogs work alone. The other dogs wait in their crate, another room, or the car (if the weather is cool enough).


    1. Jen, I knew you’d be interested. There was seriously a part of my brain that went just for the geek factor. I need to sort my thoughts out and get a few things up here, because some of her advice is (I think) stuff that is pretty generally applicable.

      I mentioned the Relaxation Protocol, because the trainer we did private lessons with gave it to me. She said that it would help Silas tremendously, in all likelihood, but that we might need to work up to it. Which was part of my feeling, too, and why I’ve always fizzled on actually using it–after about the third or fourth day, that thing is *hard.*

      Right now we’re at “ignore the dog’s desperate attempts to get you to do something with him” and doing some more rudimentary mat work. That is: relaxing is a thing it is okay for you to do.


      1. It’s funny, to have to teach a fellow creature that it’s all right to be lazy, isn’t it?

        I’ve never done the Relaxation Protocol with Elka myself, but it’s one of those things I’ve found myself recommending to people! (that might be strange)


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