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We’re in the middle of our third snow storm in a week (and this one is huge)! It’s been a long time since we’ve had a winter like this and it would be ideal to go for lots of long walks with Special Dark (well in the 28+ inches we have today though!). Anyone who knows Special knows how much he loves treats, but playing in the snow might even top treats! Unfortunately, Special is two weeks post op from a TPLO surgery for a torn ACL and won’t be going for long walks in the snow anytime soon.

Last night as it was snowing, all he wanted to do was bounce around it. Play bow after play bow he couldn’t understand why we just stood there, not egging him on as we normally would. Why were there no snowballs flying through the air that usually transform him into a flyball or Frisbee dog!?  For 10- 12 weeks post op, Special Dark is to have to only controlled leash walks. During the first few weeks he’s to be kept quite still, only gradually lengthening his walks from a block’s worth of walking–and no stairs, running or jumping. Oh boy, that’s a long time! But it gives me an excuse to blog about one of my very favorite topics: what it means to be trained.

As my wonderful friend Layla (a super- trainer in Seattle, WA) so eloquently put it: “if your dog fits into your lifestyle as you like it, then the dog is trained.”  It breaks my heart when people think having a trained dog means that the dog does everything you say when you say it, for no reason other than just because: the dog has to be at the human’s side every second of a walk and sitting whenever human decides to stop moving, the dog cannot look at another dog (and must never ever turn his head towards another dog), etc. What is the sense in this? Training is not about creating robots! Training doesn’t mean that dog has to stop being a dog, what’s fair or logical about that? We bring their species to live with us and expect them to completely abandon everything that is natural and normal to them? No!

Training is simply showing dogs that because they live with us humans, there will be certain times when we need them to follow certain human rules and social norms. Training is showing your dog that people, places and things they thought were unsafe before can actually be safe; even wonderful! Training is about creating a strong, healthy bond based on understanding each other. This means they learn to understand what we want from them and vice versa. We learn to read what their bodies are saying the way they are already so perceptive about what ours say to them (even when we’re not so aware of what our bodies are saying to them!).

There is nothing like the feeling you get when you see the look in your dog’s eyes when they really understand what it means when you wave your hand in that one funny motion or when you say a particular word! There’s no way to know for sure of course, but I imagine the dog gets that same wonderful feeling when they finally understand that when we raise our hands in that one particular gesture we mean for them to put their rumps on the ground! I think this is part of the reason that training builds a dog’s confidence and heightens the trust they have in their person.  

Anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve seen the power of clear communication. I’ve seen many instances where a trainer will demonstrate to a class how to teach a particular cue. When the trainer works with the dog, after a few tries and is eagerly responding to the trainer. Inevitably (because we’re all human after all) there will be a few people who initially will get the mechanics wrong. Maybe they lure in the wrong direction, they don’t go low enough or they go too high.  After a few trails of trying to work with their human, the dog turns his head and looks at the trainer! This never ceases to amuse and fascinate me! How I wish I knew what the dog was thinking! If I had to guess (and we all know guessing can be dangerous– no one can know for sure what a dog is thinking), I’d guess the dog was looking for the person who could “translate” for him.

But now back to Special Dark and his TPLO surgery. This is the beauty of training: when it comes down to a situation like this, where with very little warning we were told that he would need surgery and this hike loving, constantly play bowing, bouncy chow chow would need to be immobile for such a long period of time, we knew we’d have to rely on some of things that we’ve trained him. It turns out, some of these would be cues we’ve taught him, some of them would be games we’ve played, some would be fairly new and yes, there would be even be something we overlooked!

In the time we had before the surgery, we began heavily relying on a cue we taught him for fun: “scoop.” Scoop means we’re about to hold our arms out and pick him up. We knew we might need it one day. With this injury he would need to be picked up and carried up and down stairs for a long time, it’s important that he feel comfortable with it. 

We already use “leave it” for a lot of things, so we knew this would come in handy for when he goes to lick the incision.

The handout from the surgeon said that due to the level of pain a dog might feel during physical therapy, they advise the use of a muzzle. Check. We’ve got Special D so happy to wear a muzzle that when he sees it, he wags his tail and even before I can finish unfolding it, he’s pushing his nose into it!

With no long walks in our future, we had to be ready to keep Special mentally busy with our usual indoor games and toys, as well as add a few new ones. “Find it” is exactly what it sounds like. We hide treats under clothes, in a pile of toys, etc. We added a new spin on it and hide them under paper cups and he has to sniff out which ones they’re under. He’s working on his tricks too: things like having treats placed on his paws and waiting until we tell him which order he can take them in. He’s also working on touching various items on cue (stay tuned for this one, there will eventually be a video).

We have a few new puzzle feeder toys for him too. Two Nina Ottoson toys that he can work while he’s stationary. Each of them are challenging to use, even teaching him how to use them wore him out and has been great enrichment for him. Here’s a picture I took of him playing with the “Dog Tornado.” (Sorry about the quality, I took it with my cell phone!).                                                           

                                  

Special also has a stellar “stay” so it’s time to play with that again: long stays, stays where I disappear from view, stays where I walk around him, etc.

So in all our preparations from making sure he’s comfortable with all the places he’ll need to be touched to making a list of all his usual tricks and games to searching the internet for new ideas of tricks and games to occupy him, did we get it all? Nope. We forgot to get him used to wearing an e collar (better known to the world as “the cone of shame” as seen in the movie Up)! The first day was okay because he was too tired to care, but once the grogginess went away, he was clearly unhappy with wearing it. So we started to work on getting him used to that too through desensitization and counter-conditioning, plus we went out and got an inflatable one which we did the same thing with. We now have options for that too!

This is what trained means to me: working together with your dog to get through whatever life throws at you through the use of things you two have done during training. When you have the ability to effectively communicate with your dog, the two of you can get through anything! You can build on things they already know and add new behaviors, etc. It’s the real life application of the wonderful things you’ve done together (from the basic cues to games and tricks) that strengthen your bond! This is communicating with your dog when it counts. There’s no need to ask your dog to heel on every walk, to ask him to sit every 5 minutes just because you can.  That’s not what training is about, training is about the end result of being able to communicate when you need too and it’s about the journey of getting there. It’s about all the fun BOTH of you can have learning cues and playing games and learning tricks. Even though it breaks my heart to think that I cannot explain to Special Dark why his leg is so hurt, it makes me so happy that I can communicate to him the things he can do to help him through this scary and painful time for him. This is the “magic” and beauty of training- there’s no secret energy, no secret tips- it’s just this ability to communicate effectively with your dog that gives both of you the ability to fit into each other’s lifestyle! Whether that lifestyle includes competing in dog sports, therapy work or whether you just want to walk down a crowded street with your dog, learning how to effectively and humanely train your dog will get you there!

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