Sunday, April 8, 2012

January Is Train Your Dog Month!

Something Wagging This Way ComesWhat? Yes, yes, I know - it's April. So I'm officially 4 months behind in my blogging efforts. (And I bet you thought you were running behind. ;)

Anyway, back in January (yes, of 2012, har har har), Pamela over at Something Wagging this Way Comes laid down the gauntlet with her "January is Train Your Dog Month Challenge". I chimed in that we would be participating, and we did - we just never did the follow up. We were supposed to post about this back in February.


I suppose I could have declared failure and let it lie but it's just not in my nature. And since I can never pass up an opportunity to brag about Bella, I say "better late than never!"

Bella loves a challenge

One of the most fundamental aspects of Bella's life is training - to help her get over her fear, to build her confidence and to guide her in simply becoming a functioning member of society. It's constant because it's necessary. I've never really done this with other dogs in my life. Sure, most knew how to sit here or give a paw there. I even trained one of my earliest dogs, Alfie, to give me a hug. But it didn't go much beyond that.

Alfie and me
When we got Bella, however, we realized 2 things: 1) we were in a little over our heads with the extent of her fearfulness and 2) she has a remarkable amount of energy and inquisitiveness that, if not properly channeled, would end us all up in a heap of trouble.

As a result, Bella has been through Beginner and Intermediate Obedience, Ruffians 1 (how to work with reactive dogs) and Agility for Reactive Dogs - Beginner and now Intermediate. She loves agility but has always been afraid of the tunnel and now she's also facing the dreaded "chute".

One of the things she has been most afraid of around the yard since we first brought her home are the collapsible bags used to gather up leaves and other yard debris. And the tunnel and chute look an awful lot like them, albeit sideways versions.

In an effort to spare our agility classmates the 10-minute delay that was accompanying any attempt to get Bella through the tunnel/chute during class, I decided this would be what I'd work on with Bella for the Challenge.

Another part of the Challenge was to choose something that would both train Bella and further solidify my relationship with her. Already aware of the benefits of working with Bella to overcome her fear - she learns to trust herself and she learns to trust us - I knew the more of that we could bring to her life, the better.

Our (not especially exciting) training program:
  1. First things first, we needed to get Bella to be in the same room with the scary thing (for now, just the tunnel without the fabric part of the chute extended). This consisted of nothing more than giving her a treat every time she went anywhere near the object. No clicking, just treats at this point.
  2. Move on to getting Bella to approach the object on her own terms. Every time she did this, she was rewarded with both a click and a treat. We are beginning to shape a desired behavior here and you can see her start to figure it out in the video below.
  3. I then began asking for more and more from her before she got her click (and subsequent treat). If at first she just had to look at the object to get a click, the next step was to wait until she touched it to offer the reward. When she was comfortable touching it, then she had to put her head inside to garner a click. Finally, she had to go all the way through the chute to win the rewards of clicks and treats (as well as some good old-fashioned play time).
  4. Once she was consistently going through the tunnel, I began to let out the fabric of the chute a little bit at a time. Retreat back to step 1 and lather, rinse, repeat.

"Let's go to the video tape" *

One thing I did learn while editing hours and hours er, 45 minutes of video is why positive reinforcement trainers aren't getting television shows on Nat Geo: this training method is simply not "fun" to watch. It's slow, it's boring, it's tedious. I was falling asleep watching me train my own dog. But it works. And more importantly, it promotes a healthy bond between you and your dog.

And while she still won't go through the closed chute, Bella does romp right on through the long tunnel in agility class now and will go through the chute if we hold it open. Given time, and a little more practice, she'll make it the rest of the way, I just know it.

Having cut out the many minutes of Bella just lying on the floor looking at me trying to get her near the tunnel and the numerous "I'm just going to sniff over here for a while"s, I have whittled the evidence of our Train Your Dog Month participation down to a, hopefully somewhat entertaining, minute and a half.

Thanks Pamela, for the great Challenge. While training is something we do almost every day, having a specific goal in mind gave focus to our efforts and really paid off.

And on the off chance some of my visitors didn't watch the Challenge play out in real time back in January/February, here's a link to Pamela's results and a Linky to all the folks who did have their act together enough to actually play by the rules. Enjoy!

* Yes, I am older than dirt but no, I'm not really much of a sports fan.
Music: "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" by Kelly Clarkson


  1. Wow! Good job Bella and Mom! :) That tunnel does look like fun to go through. I'm thinkin I wouldn't like it with the end closed up either though ;)

    Waggin at ya,


  2. Dip Bridge & ElliotApril 9, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    Ha! No chance of that with my blo*dy dogs, lol!
    Lynne x

  3. Ha ha - I LOVE the video!! It's so fun to see her having fun while she is training :) Nice work - and I love your song choice too!!

  4. Bella's doing GREAT! We LOVE agility...Sage goes every week for a lesson. She's managed everything and does much better than her handler.....

  5. I love how Bella's tail is wagging as she figures out the tunnel! You've done a great job of desensitizing her to the scary chute. She looks great!

  6. And I thought I was behind with things right now - I only just got round to reading this post - glad I made it though - Bella is such a brave pup - way to go Bella - you rock!! :)

    Your pal Snoopy :) 

  7. Perfectly chosen soundtrack... go Bella! :)

  8. Thanks, Roo.  We worked pretty hard to get to this point.  (As long as we don't actually staple the chute closed, I think she'll finally get through it. ;)

  9. LOL - oh come on, they could do it. Of course, they are so close to royalty, I think they could hire that job out and have someone do it for them. :)  (I *love* your dogs.)

  10. Thanks - the song definitely seems to speak to Bella. :)

    To get Bella through any of this scary stuff, I have always had to make a game of it - she does not respond to just coaxing and encouragement.  She's far too smart and much too stubborn for that. ;)

  11. Thanks Sage.  It's been from watching some of you other dogs on blogs that we ever even considered doing this with Bella.  

    She's been going every week since September to a class that uses agility to help reactive dogs learn how to deal with each other.  The last part of the class is just one dog in the "ring" though so it's like a mini-private lesson and Bella has come such a long way with it.  

    I doubt she'll ever be as brave as Sage though - getting over that teeter-totter is a long way off.  (And yes, Bella is FARRRRRRRR better at this than her handler is. ;)

  12. Thanks.  She's come a long way from when we got her so now when I try to teach her something new, it's not quite as much of an ordeal.  Still takes a slow approach though.

  13. LOL -  thanks.  I think with Spring in the air, everybody's been really busy.  We're really proud of how far Bella has come - just like your mum is with you (even though you've done so much more).

  14. LOL - should have known you'd like that one.  (Don't tell Pamela though. ;)

  15. So glad you posted your response to the challenge (and the outtakes as well). Great job to both of you. 

    I found it especially encouraging since we're facing similar fears with Honey. Seeing the edited version of what I know was a lengthy process makes me feel we're going in the right direction.

    Congratulations on your progress. I look forward to seeing more Bella videos in the future. She's has a lot of star power.

  16. Thanks Pamela, I am sorry I couldn't get my act together enough to post this at the proper time.  

    I didn't realize Honey was a fearful girl until you started to write about it during this challenge.  It's a long slow process trying to change how a dog "feels".  And I wonder if we're actually dealing with slightly different issues - Honey seems to me to be a bit shy/timid and fearful as a result.  I'm not convinced Bella is really shy. I think she's fearful as a result of her street smarts (she knows 'run away' is the safest first option).  I'm not sure how much it matters from a training perspective - it was just something that got me thinking...

    And as for 'star power' - thanks.  Bella definitely has personality to spare. ;)

  17. aww, bella is so cute! it's nice to see you guys are making progress with scary things. 

    by the way, that photo of you is awesome--and we, too, taught desmond how to "hug" us the same way. :-)

  18. The tall, thin dogs give great hugs, don't they?  (Beau was just way too big to teach him that and Bella gives hugs but I have to be on my knees to get them. :)

    I'd love to see a pic of Des giving you a hug!

  19. That's a nice video of her. Trinity hated agility class, well let me rephrase that, she hated the obstacles all but the A-frame, the jumps & the ladder. It was hard for her to get excited by them when in a 1hr class we could only do it 4-5 times. One day i'll rent out the ring & see if she wants to try it again. It sucks cause I originally wanted us to do agility together. oh well.