I used our first good car trip to go to the vet

In April Silas started refusing to get in the car. All summer, my husband and I have been working with him. We went on dozens of “happy” trips as a family, because Silas was more comfortable with both of us. A few weeks ago, I took him to the park solo, and it was just a little premature. He started off happy to go, then balked at the last minute and had to be really encouraged to get on in the car. So I haven’t taken him again. Instead, we’ve done a few more happy family trips.

At the same time, Silas’s stomach has been pretty bad for the last few weeks. He has a vaguely diagnosed underlying stomach problem, separate from his food allergies. His vet thinks it’s acid reflux, and she seems confident enough in this diagnosis that we’ve never done additional tests. He wakes up and doesn’t want to eat, then he feels bad because he didn’t eat. Some days, but not often, he’ll throw up.

It comes and goes in phases. For some reason, it seems to pick up whenever we’re doing more training. I don’t know if the connection is my imagination, if having too many rich training treats upsets his stomach, or if Silas is just naturally regulating his calorie intake and upsetting his stomach in the process.

When I looked back at my records this morning, I realized that he’s eaten breakfast two times in the last two weeks. He’s also been basically sleeping 23.5 hours a day. His Whistle reported 12 minutes of activity yesterday, and 15 the day before.

I’ve been really, really hesitant to take him to the vet, because I didn’t want to “ruin” the car. But, enough was enough, and he had to go.

He leapt into that car like he’s never even thought of being terrified by it. I, on the other hand, felt like the biggest jerk in the history of jerks.

It was a good vet visit. Silas was nervous, but all things considered he’s a champ at the vet. He walked into the exam room and tried to jump up on the table. Lots of stress signals during his exam (lip licking, ears down, panting), but he was a good patient. No barking or teeth showing or anything. Then he jumped all over the vet, licked her face, and tried to make her hold him. (Seriously? He doesn’t even try to make me hold him.)

He also ate his weight in hypoallergenic veterinary diet cookies. According to the vet, no dog has ever liked those cookies, and here’s my picky eater with the nausea problem chowing down. Oh, Silas.

The verdict is that his acid reflux is, indeed, all that’s wrong. He’s not losing weight, he’s very rarely throwing up, his teeth are “amazing,” and his physical exam didn’t seem off in any way.

We’re going to try to give his Pepcid last thing at night, since he won’t take it in the morning, and see if that gets him through the morning blerghs. I’m also going to change up his training cookies to something a little easier on his stomach.

And maybe, if I’m very lucky, he’ll get in the car with me again one day.

Advocating for your dog

Silas is a deceptive little creature. He’s generally interested in other people and dogs, but his reactions tend to change quickly once things get too close.

This means that strangers think he wants to be petted. Right up until he starts barking at them, that is, and they act like my dog is a hell creature.

The problem is that this belief is so strong that I have difficulty overriding it. We get a lot of scenarios like this:

Stranger: “Can I pet your dog?”

Me: “He’s really not good with new people.”

Stranger: “Oh, but dogs love me!”


Me: “He’s very shy.”

Stranger: “He doesn’t look shy to me!” (reaches down to pet Silas, gets barked at.)

It’s exhausting. Why can people not listen to me?!

Sleeping Silas

The problem with my statements in both of these cases is that the stranger thinks I’m asking for help. Their magical abilities with dogs will help Silas be less afraid of new people. Their petting will override his shyness. My dog has a behavioral problem that they think they can help me fix.

Once I realized this, I changed my tactics.

Me: “If you pet him, he will bark at you.”

Stranger: “Well, he sure is cute.” (Goes on about their business.)

It turns out, people are a lot less likely to ignore your objections when the consequences are clearly explained.

What Happens if the Dog Gets it Wrong?

I’ve been watching a lot of World Dog Training Motivation Transparency Challenge videos this morning. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s an idea from the very wise Jean Donaldson. Dog training has picked up so many coy terms for punishment that it can be hard to tell when a trainer is using even heavy-handed aversive methods. So, Jean Donaldson created this set of questions (roughly paraphrased here) that should be asked to clarify any trainer’s position:

1) What happens if the dog gets it right?
2) What happens if the dog gets it wrong?
3) Is there a less invasive way to proceed?

Professional and amateur dog trainers have been posting videos explaining their stance on these three questions and challenging each other to do the same.

I’ll post the videos I watched this morning below, all of which are from trainers I respect:

First, Grisha Stewart. Her incredible sympathy for reactive/fearful dogs has been an inspiration for me, and her answer to the last question is really wonderful:


Second, Michael Baugh, whose video wins for beautiful production values + sound dog training:


Third, Thomas Mitchell, a great up-and-coming dog trainer from the UK. You may have heard of the Absolute Dogs Training Academy that he runs with Lauren Langman. Tom gets bonus points for fitting the Premack principle into his discussion of rewards (and for chopping off his head in the video, because I always do that, too.)


Finally, I also love Eileen’s video (from Eileen and Dogs), for general awesomeness and for acknowledging that we do stupid things and sometimes need professional help:


What I found most interesting in these videos was their answer to “What happens when the dog gets it wrong?” The answers vary slightly in their specificity, but the general theme is that if the dog makes a mistake it is your fault for asking too much, and we shouldn’t do this.

Let me just say: I agree with the first part of that. I’m not so sure about the second. In fairness, I absolutely believe these trainers would give more nuanced answers over a cup of coffee in a chat with an experienced dog person, and some of them do give more details. The whole point of the Dog Trainers’ Challenge is that it is intended for the general public. So, I’m using my luxury of space and audience here to ruminate.

Is constant success our goal?

If you really want a dog to be successful 100% of the time, you can arrange that. It’s absolutely important to remember both that we can help our dogs succeed and that we can inadvertently make them fail. The more carefully you think about the demands of your training environment, including things like distractions, the better off you’ll be.

But when was the last time you played a game you could always win? If you completed every level of Candy Crush on the first try, would you still be playing it? If every slot machine turned up a jackpot on every pull (and thus could only pay back exactly what you put in), would casinos even exist?

I’m not saying that you should constantly overwhelm your dog, but dog training with zero challenges is boring. Your dog is smarter than you think, and you’ll never know that if you’re obsessed with always setting the dog up to succeed.

As positive trainers, we can let failure be a big bogeyman. “I don’t know what to do if my dog makes a mistake! I can’t correct him?!” The key is to have a plan. Before you start training, ask yourself what you’re going to do if, within the context of this exact training moment, your dog makes the wrong choice. You’ll find that you have more options than you think.

Where We Are Now


(No, Silas is not at Niagara Falls. I was there briefly on one of my recent trips, and I hated to post three times in a row with no photos.)

I find the record-keeping aspect of this blog to be the most personally useful for me, even if it isn’t the most fascinating reading. So, excuse me while I ruminate on our current status.

The Big Picture
Silas is doing extremely well. He’s handling environmental stress (things like noise) much better. He seems happier and more relaxed most of the time, and small mistakes don’t have the enormous fallout they used to. For instance, the tree trimmer came while I was out of town in early August, and Silas was only extra-paranoid for a few days.

With that said, here are some individual updates:

Instead of barking twelve or fifteen times a day, he might bark at one thing every two or three days. He still reacts strongly to the doorbell (my fault for losing my Relaxation Protocol mojo), which has extended to include barking at the UPS truck idling outside. He barks at some dog noises from outside. He will alert to people noises outside, but he rarely barks at them. I expected a big uptick in barking once school started back, but I haven’t seen it so far.

He’s walking on the sidewalk almost every day now. This walk is still only 1-2 minutes long, because he always walks the same route. I’m trying creative ways to get him to go a little further. Last night we met my husband on his way home from a bike ride, which got Silas to 1) go back out our front gate once he was already inside and 2) go about five feet further than he usually goes. He was also a little happier. We may try that again. I made an ill-considered attempt to take him to the busier side of the park on Labor Day weekend. It was still way too much. We left quickly, but he didn’t ever panic.

His car riding is really much better. On Saturday he quite happily got in with me, even when he thought my husband wasn’t coming. That’s a step up from when I took him to the park last, which was a little touch and go. Once the weather cools off a bit I’m going to resume regular park trips with him, which will be our real test.

General training has totally gone to pot this summer. We made the rookie mistake of thinking of his training as “exercise.” You know what’s wrong with that? You exercise a dog until he’s tired and stops. The activity itself is gradually less fun, until the dog decides he’s done with it. Every day, you practice “this is boring and I’m done.” Our retrieve has gone from pretty good to “What? Bring the ball back? Nah.” Even Susan Garrett’s Recallers games, which Silas knows and generally loves, have been a huge bust lately. But we’re working on it.

A new cloud on my horizon is stranger reactivity. We’ve been very careful to walk Silas when there aren’t any people on the sidewalk, so that he doesn’t have any additional stress. (My neighborhood is very predictable.) Too careful. Silas has never liked people to be in unexpected places or to be doing things he doesn’t think of as “normal.” On the trail in the park, for instance, is okay, but if someone is standing off in the bushes they have to be barked at. So now he barks at every person we see on the sidewalk, unless they have a dog. People aren’t supposed to be on the sidewalk! This doesn’t seem to be generalizing to other environments–we even spoke to a lady at the park this weekend–but I need to watch out for it.

Have I Been Wrong All This Time?

I’m very rarely embarrassed by Silas anymore. I’ve sprinted through parking lots. I’ve turned tail and run from people with perfectly friendly dogs in the park. I’ve scowled at children. I’ve rejected a lot of treats. Whatever.

The only thing that still gets me is Silas’s stranger behavior. He has a routine that looks a lot like this:

1) Silas sees a person
2) Silas hauls me toward them
3) They see him and start saying how adorable he is
4) As we reach them, they reach down to pet him
5) and he starts barking at them

This barking is never as serious as when he decides to really bark at someone, but it’s still scary when he’s so close. He doesn’t do it with everyone. Some people he genuinely adores, and some people get his super-submissive “just let me cower down here and pee on your shoes” routine.

Today in the park, a woman on a bike pulled over to ask if Silas was a whippet. Nope; just a mutt. She was preparing to dismount and begin petting, so I said, “He’s a little skittish.”

At which point she looked down at Silas, who was bodily dragging me over to see her, and said “Really? He looks pretty happy to me.” Which, you know, was totally true. When I stopped short so that she couldn’t reach out for him, he started trying to climb on a picnic table to see her better. Feeling a little silly, I said, “If you tried to pet him, he would bark at you.” I could tell this for a fact. I can’t pinpoint it, but something about his body language was very telling.

After she biked away, I started thinking. I’ve always assumed that the greet-and-bark victims were somehow frightening upon closer inspection. They reached down to quickly, or smelled funny, or something. I wonder if, instead, he’s just getting too excited?

It’s one of those cases where the answer doesn’t really matter. No matter why he does it, I need to do a lot of work with people. Still, it’s a possibility that I find very comforting.

Sometimes it’s Good to Get Away

In the last month, I’ve been out of town ten days. Ten whole days, and not because there was an out of town family emergency. Aside from three sub-24 hour trips, I think these ten days are the only times I’ve ever left him for “fun” reasons.

I think it was good for both of us.

My husband, spared the day-to-day brunt of Silas’s problems, tends to be significantly less paranoid than I am about inadvertently contributing to Silas’s issues. I worry about pushing Silas’s limits, because I’m the one who cleans up the fallout when we go a step too far. I’m overly conservative, though, and it winds up holding him back.

While I was away most recently, my husband decided Silas could go for walks every day. Sometimes they went twice. I’d been sticking to my extremely cautious three times a week schedule, and there they were going twice a day. And you know what? It was fine. We’ve taken him every day but one since I got home last Friday, and he’s still fine. (Although, sigh, he’s showing some problematic stranger behavior. I’m hoping he’ll habituate to the fact that other people sometimes use the sidewalk, because he’s both a long way from being happy enough to take treats out there and very rigidly set in walking the One True Route.)

It was also good for me to get away. I came back not just with a better training plan, brainstormed in the sensory deprivation of an airport hotel with spotty WiFi, but also with a renewed sense of optimism.

I’ll leave you with a little video of Silas racing to the door, happy to go for a walk:

I never thought I’d see such a thing.

Do you enjoy time away from your dogs? Or is the mere idea horrifying?

Lifetime Goals


It’s hard to set goals when you have an anxious dog. Their progress moves in such unpredictable fits and starts, forward and backward, that setting up a timeline will make you crazy. SMART goals don’t work well for us.

Still, somedays their training feels like a hydra–what should I counter condition today? The nail clippers? The sidewalk? The car? Strangers? The doorbell? How about our other training? Silas loves learning new behaviors, but it’s easy to get stuck on just practicing the half dozen tricks he already knows. How do you organize those without the pressure of a dog sport?

Last week, in the hopes of giving myself some kind of structure, I made a list of what I’m calling our “lifetime” goals. When I sit down and make our training plans every month, these are the things that I want to be working toward.

I would like Silas to:

  • Walk happily in a variety of environments
  • Tolerate strangers, even if he doesn’t ever love them, including inside of our house
  • Get adequate physical exercise to stay healthy and prevent injuries
  • Get adequate mental exercise to stay excited and engaged
  • Have a great recall, so that I don’t live in quite so much terror of accidental equipment failure
  • Be comfortable with the amount of physical handling required to live a healthy life

In the great spirit of back-to-school time goals, I’ll pass this along to all of you as a challenge, either to blog about yourselves or just to mull over. What are your “big picture” goals?

Sometimes Being Bad is Being Good

I told this story to someone the other day, and I realized I should tell it to you.

For those of you who are newer to the blog and only used to the much-improved Silas, his car phobia used to be much, much worse. If he could see a glimpse of metal through the trees at the park, he wanted to leave immediately. Since we’re in an urban area, this was a challenge, and for a long time we had exactly one “safe” park.

Even at the “safe” park, we struggled when it was time to leave. Given the choice between staying in the forest and crossing the parking lot, Silas picked the forest. No matter how hot, tired, and ready to go home he was, he just couldn’t get across the parking lot. When he was small enough, I would carry him, but as he got older he got both less interested in being carried and much heavier. I can lift him, but carrying him over a distance wears me down pretty quickly.

Eventually, Silas learned that he could get through the parking lot on his own, if he bolted. This was sheer, blind panic. I went along with it because it was better than the alternative, and in a perverse way it was actually progress. We would step to the edge of the parking lot, I would get a good grip on his leash and check for traffic, and then we would run flat-out, directly to the car.

One day he balked on me and I couldn’t get him back to the trail entrance closest to the car. Instead of our sprint being 30 feet, it was a hundred yards.

As we approached the car, we bolted past a lady with a beautifully well-behaved border collie. She had a waist bag of treats and the general attitude of effective training. There is Silas, pulling like mad at the end of his leash because I can’t keep up with him, and me, running well over my fastest natural pace and one false move from being on my face. No treat bag–I kept them in my backpack just in case, but he wouldn’t ever eat them–no attempt to rein him in.

Border Collie lady passed our car as I was putting Silas in, and gave me a withering look of superiority. How dare my “bad” dog and I exist? Didn’t I know anything about dog training? For a few minutes I felt really bad. It had taken me almost a year to get this “terrible” behavior.

Then I realized that she was a miserable human being who had no authority to judge me or my dog. “Minding” and “behaving” are not the only goal, and sometimes “being bad” is still progress.

My Dog is a Sloth

Sleepy dog

I bought Silas one of those Whistle dog activity trackers. If you haven’t heard of these, they’re like a dog Fit Bit. They use an accelerometer mounted on your dog’s collar to tell you how much time per day your dog spends moving. (I paid for this myself. Why does nobody ever ask me to review things I actually want?) I think this makes me the biggest yuppie in the history of the world, but whatever.

Any day now, I’m expecting the founders to e-mail me and say “Umm, did you really install that correctly?”

Because Silas doesn’t go on walks of any duration (his grand sidewalk excursions, of which we are mega-proud, last about two minutes, and we’re just now making real headway on the car thing), I set his goal at thirty minutes a day.

In almost a week, he’s hit this goal one time, although in my defense he’s gotten close on a few other days. The app suggested that most dogs his size get at least an hour.

I have a few theories kicking around about what’s going on:

1) Because we’ve been virtually housebound for months now, Silas is out of shape and lazy (like me). Or, he’s just adapted to our easy-does-it lifestyle.

2) When I trained him not to pester me with a toy all the time, I did it too thoroughly. Because he’s not pestering us, we assume he doesn’t want to play. Evidence for this one: he’s quite happy to engage if I get up and grab a toy.

3) Age and wisdom. I think three is a little young to slow down quite this much.

4) Boredom.

5) Summer is brutal.

6) Over-medication. I’m hesitant to blame his medication, not only because he’s been at this dose for a while but also because he is quite perky when he’s not asleep.

7) Last week was atypical. Which it was–I trimmed his nails twice and he went on two car rides, both of which are the kind of mental stress that disproportionately wears him down.

8) Our indoor play is a lot more vigorous than a leisurely trot around the neighborhood. Since, unlike the people trackers, the dog tracker only measures moving time, short bursts of intense exercise aren’t rewarded. I’m not sure what the appropriate conversion metric would be.

I’m going to keep an eye on him for a little longer before I start to get really worried. In the meantime, how active is your dog?