Monday, October 24, 2011

Educating Bella

Newly armed with information gleaned from reading every book recommended on Debbie Jacob's website, we were beginning to understand the impact of Bella never having been properly socialized. Bella didn't know how to react to other dogs when she was on a leash and, as previously noted, she usually reacted badly. As suggested in the readings, I thought we had a wonderful opportunity to help build Bella's confidence and social skills at the same time by taking her to an 'obedience' class.

Who needs obedience class?
I already know sit = treats.
Too old for most Puppy Kindergarten classes and certainly not ready for the advanced classes of older dogs, a little research led us to a "Beginner Obedience" class for slightly older puppies who just needed some "assistance" in the obedience department. Obedience wasn't specifically the goal, socialization in a safe, controlled atmosphere was but getting both Jan and I on the same training page could only be a plus.

A note before we get to the actual class to set the stage for our state of mind walking into the training center: Bella was born essentially wild and had to hunt to eat for the first few months of her life. She was very, very good at "hunting" slugs, a bit less so at hunting creatures that can actually move faster than the literal "snail's pace" but she was always, always up for the game.

Not quite ready for Prime Time

Given Bella's remarkably bad social skills, her fear of people and her overwhelming prey drive, we were justifiably a little worried we'd be thrown out of class on our very first night. And yet intrepidely we set forth. We entered the classroom with her tugging and snarling and met our other classmates:

  • Tank, the aptly named 8-month old yellow Lab,
  • the most lovely and confident Husky-type mix, Peyton (Bella's first boyfriend), and
  • a teeny, tiny Toy Poodle whose name I can't remember so we'll just call him "Lunch".

Our blessed trainer, Sheila, started the class by telling us no matter how bad our dog was, it was probably not the worst dog she had ever seen. "Probably"? I'm guessing we all felt certain we were about to be the exception. Bella then proceeded to bark and growl through the entire class alternating between trembling in my lap and trying to "defend" me from any who came near (with the most absurdly inappropriate puppy play bows thrown in just for good measure. Huh?)

Bella's idea of "loose-leash walking"
Our classmates learned more than they ever wanted to know about approaching and working with fearful dogs: how tossing her treats was a good way for her to begin associating people (strangers) with all good things, how to position ourselves between Bella and the fear-inducing item and use high-value treats to bring her attention back to us. We learned that keeping dogs moving can keep their attention off each other and so spent a lot of time walking the dogs around the room.

This too shall pass

We got through the first class without Bella eating "Lunch". We had tons of questions and Sheila was so patient with us. One thing we learned very quickly was that Bella was very, very smart and we weren't asking enough of her. She absolutely loved learning. (Actually, I think she just absolutely loved tripe and if she had to perform some dumb trick to appease the stupid humans to get it, well, she could live with that.)

By the end of the 8-week session, we (and she) had learned all the basics: the puppy push-up of sit, down and stand; come and stay; front, look, touch and loose-leash walking. We learned about shaping behavior and one of Bella's most reliable "tricks" to date is still the "down" she learned on her own without us tugging or pushing or forcing anything. (Her enthusiasm for this particular command is still the cutest little thing.)

Tank eventually dropped out of class. I'm pretty sure his mom was last seen flying behind him holding on to his leash somewhere in Ohio... Peyton became a rock-star hanging out at doggie day care with the famous Vick-tory dog, Handsome Dan. Bella and "Lunch" went on to have more classes together eventually learning how to play (gently) with each other. Bella even passed her very first "Pup Quiz":

Near the end of the class, we got to try our hand at some agility obstacles where Bella managed to demonstrate her intelligence once again as she continually out-foxed us with the tunnel. She did go through it once but Bella is particularly wary of barrels so we never really expected her to go through one lying on its side. We were proud of her for trying but never forced her to go closer than she was comfortable doing on her own.

She showed such enthusiasm for the jumps and weave poles, however, that we have recently started her in an "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class. She's going to be amazing!


  1. This sounds like a great class.  I love how they called her a drama queen!  Glad it's going well!

  2. Sounds like you found a wonderful teacher for your class. You made an excellent choice.

    When we took obedience classes at the SPCA, they set tables on their side to give each dog a place to relax behind a barrier so they weren't constantly stimulated by the sight of other dogs. It wasn't fool proof but it seemed to help.

    Hope you'll share about the agility class for reactive dogs. It's great you found such a thing. I bet Bella loves it.

  3. What a lovely report card:)  So glad the class turned out well for you and Bella. The right trainer can make all the difference for many dogs and owners.  Looking forward to reading about the agility class:) 

  4. Good for you all! Wow! High Paws to Bella and her pawrents! Superb!!! :D Wish there was an agility class for reactive dogs around here. I would luv to attend. Went through two obedience classes myself. Not quite as reactive now butt not 'cured' either. Best of luck to you all in the agility arena! :D

    Waggin at ya,

  5. Hi Finn!  It was a good class and yes, Sheila assess both Bella and her parents quite accurately right from the start.  To be fair, Bella really can be a drama queen - you should hear her when she 'hurts' herself!  Oooh you'd think the world was coming to an end. ;) lol

  6. Hi Pamela,

    Yeah, the reactive dog classes we're taking are in a bigger space and they have blankets and fences they use to separate the dogs if necessary.  I've found that very helpful.  

    These initial classes were in much smaller rooms but also with mostly much smaller dogs since they were still basically puppies.

    Definitely planning to share the agility stuff.  She's a natural.  :)

  7. Hi Sue - We did get a great trainer right from the start and still call Sheila in whenever we run into problems.  She's played a very big part in our lives since getting Bella (for reasons that will become clear in time - think "Gus") and we're happy now to call her friend as well as teacher. :)

  8. Hi Roo!

    Glad to hear your classes have helped you become less reactive.  I don't think that's something that ever really gets 'cured' so much as 'managed'.  Having folks that understand it and are willing to work with you on it is a really good thing.  I hope someday you can find a class - I think they're becoming more common so you never know. 
    Thanks for saying hi!

  9. Yay for Bella! I'm glad to hear that the classes are going so well. 

    Oh, and PS - I saw your comment on my blog. If you want to talk about thyroid stuff, you can email me (wantmorepuppies at gmail). :)

  10. Alfie | Alfie's BlogOctober 25, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Hearing about Bella's first class reminds me of my puppy class where I howled throughout the whole lesson - the humans were so proud! :o)
    Looking forward to hearing about the Agility classes! *wagging tail*

  11. It sounds like she learned so much, good for her! Such a great report card- I always get so ridiculously proud whenever my dogs accomplish... anything! ;)

  12. Hi Pup Fan, thanks for your email address - I'm flat out this week but will drop you a note soon.  Bella was just diagnosed, is on the meds and they seem to be working, I'm just looking for some personal insights from your experience - problems you've had, things to watch for or  even if it's just been easy as pie to manage.  That kind of stuff.

    Thanks for your offer. 

  13. LOL - oh Alfie, you and Bella would make quite a team. Tell your parents, we can definitely relate but it's nice to know we're not alone. rofl

  14. Oh stop - your dogs are wonderful!

    We HAVE to focus Bella's energy (or she'll focus it for us) so training and tricks have been a very good thing.  My old Lab didn't know any tricks but then, he was never getting into trouble so we didn't need the distraction. ;)

    Thanks for saying hi!

  15. this is such great news! yay for bella!

    this is also exactly why we were hesitant about taking desmond to a class setting--his leash reactivity is awful (we also have a copy of Feisty Fido, although mr. des has made no attempts to steal or eat it, unlike miss bella here). in fact, his training challenges are a big part of the reason i enrolled in school to become a certified dog trainer myself. i really felt that after paying a one-on-one trainer to come to our house and that going...not totally as planned, i couldn't justify spending any more money on training unless it was to become a trainer. i could start a new career, i could help desmond, i could help other dog owners, and i'd be able to train all the dogs i'll have in my lifetime without hassle.

    i had no idea that there are agility classes for reactive dogs. we should look into that. :-)

  16. Hi Lauren - yeah, I saw your video of Des on the new leash and can see you have your hands full with his reactivity. Bella was a LOT smaller than Des when we took her to her first class (about 35 lbs?) so we weren't worried about not being able to control her.  In fact, she's more scared than anything and did spend half the class in my lap.  :/

    I think the decision to become a trainer is a good one if you have the interest and the opportunity.  It's not for me (I'd happily work with dogs but trainers train people more than  dogs and that's really not my thing ;) but I'm glad there are people willing to do it.  It's become so important these days.  Good luck with it.

    We are lucky to have a new and fairly fancy dog training center right in our town - I don't know why our town because we're nowhere important - with a bunch of different CPDT and Karen Pryor trainers.  There are classes specifically for reactive dogs (Ruffians!) who can then go on to agility for reactive dogs.  There are classes in Nose Work, regular agility courses, tracking and service dog classes.  It's kind of crazy what we have available to us in dinky-town USA. ;)  I have a post planned about these classes because they're really something special.

    If nothing like that is available where you are, you have a great opportunity to start something like it when you get out of school.  :)