Monday, July 2, 2012

When training classes go bad

Previously on Bringing up Bella, Bella's mom was whining over her "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad" year. It wasn't really meant to be a pity party or even to suggest that I thought I was a horrible mom for missing something going on in Bella's life, although in retrospect, that is how it sounded.

It was really just an attempt to begin to identify Bella as a "Highly Sensitive" dog and our realization that there was a dimension to her education that we weren't even aware we needed to address. We knew she lacked socialization as a puppy and we had tried to set up appropriate meetings/play dates/group play.

What we didn't understand adequately at the time was her deep-seated fear of losing the comfort and safety she had found with us. And more specifically, how she saw me as the single point of failure for that potential loss.

Our dog is a Momma's girl

Aww mom...
Bella has from the very first been somewhat possessive of me. We noticed it on our first meeting at the shelter when she was on my lap and another dog began to come over to me. She snarked. She wasn't even my dog yet but she didn't want this other dog to take away my attention that she so obviously relished.

Later she began showing her disapproval when I was between her and another dog by moving to position us differently putting herself in between me and the other dog. (While we didn't recognize it at the time, it's clear in retrospect that Bella has some herding dog in her and was herding me away from 'danger'.)

When we brought her home with us and as we began to introduce her to other dogs, we were mindful of this 'over-protective-ness'. We made a point of having me less involved in the meet and greets as Bella would be worried and defensive about the other dog getting too close to me. And we worked on it at the dog park where I could move closer to other dogs while she was too busy playing to care if I patted a pal on the head.

However, after Bella's little dust-up with Maggie, we realized we needed to address this behavior in a more structured way. (Read: we were in over our heads and didn't know how to fix this.) And so began our first venture into reactive dogs training.

Ruffians 101

We are very fortunate to have a number of trainers in our area. One place barely 5 minutes away offers a number of different classes for a whole variety of 'issues', skills and levels. It's a big place that can easily hold 6 - 8 reactive dogs without the dogs having to be too close to each other. There are fences with sheets draped over them so the dogs can't see each other except deliberately during exercises.

Who are you calling a ruffian?!
The first class the owners show up sans dog to get a quick lesson on what to expect. Each dog is to come to class in a head halter and body harness - a leash attached to both. (And if you think that isn't a recipe for disaster for the uncoordinated among us... well, I certainly wouldn't know. ;)

The Douglas Adams' fan in me couldn't help but chuckle when we were also instructed to "always carry a towel". Seriously. It is to become the dog's "mat" and "safe space" during class and, subsequently, at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, there are all levels of trainers in the world and some work better for some dogs and people than others. The person running our class was well-versed in clicker/positive reinforcement training but obviously had little experience with actual scared-y dogs.

In one session where Bella spooked because of the banging/booming of the garage doors, we were told to "get your dog under control". Um, dude, you're the trainer and we're here for you to teach us "how" to get our dog under control, not just tell us to do it.

Bella and her towel
Another entertaining anecdote that made me realize this guy just didn't understand: during an outdoor class one day, Bella and I were waiting for our turn when we were visited by a bee. Trying to get Bella away from said bee, I was reprimanded for causing a distraction for the other dogs.

Okay, I get it. We're all working with dogs who have issues here and ideally we want to give each dog in the class the opportunity to be successful with their task at hand. I get that, I do. But I've gotta tell ya, not at the risk of my dog getting stung by a bee that she's already terrified of. Grr. Arg.

Finding the silver lining

Anyway, turns out the absolute best part of this 8-week course comes near the very end when the dogs are introduced to a couple of agility obstacles. Everyone in class noted that Bella just 'lit up' when she was running the jumps. Even our less-than-observant trainer said she looked like a different dog and recommended she go on to Agility for Reactive Dogs. Happily discovering he didn't teach it, we began making plans to sign her up.

And then I fell off a chair and turned Bella's world on it's head.

To be continued... ;)


  1. What's up with that trainer? I've got to give you credit for sticking it out with him.  I do have to say that life with Bella must never be boring! :)

  2. Hmm...interesting criteria from a trainer, considering the class. I would be pretty frustrated by this!
    Have you tried to find a Control Unleashed class? Or is that what the class is supposed to be? It's great that Bella really lit up for agility, though!

  3. Dachshund Nola and her MomJuly 2, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    You have way more patience then I do! Seriously, what was up with your trainer? LOL can't wait to here the next installment
    Nola's Mom

  4. Is it just me or am I just super annoyed by your so called trainer. I mean seriously, aren't they supposed to help you get control because that's the problem you are currently having. It's like this episode of my laptop backpack not allowed in the grocery store and the security guard asking me to take my laptop out of the bag and carry it in hand while I do my grocery shopping.

    I'm just happy that you discovered her aptitude in agility.

    Huggies and Cheese,


  5. It's exciting to know that Bella likes agility - but frustrating that your trainer we not quite the right fit . . .I'm curious to hear the rest of the story :)

  6. Glad you were able to take from the class what was useful and that you got a gift that will take you into the future together. It's exciting to see your dog "light up" when she does something she loves.

    With Honey, nose work makes her forget scary things moving around her for just a few minutes. I'm looking forward to seeing more about Bella doing agility. I loved your tunnel videos and hope you have more on the way.The biggest lesson I've been trying to learn over the past two decades is to always take care of my dog first. Sounds like you got that one down, even if your trainer didn't quite get it.

  7. I don't think I would have gone back to the class after what he said/didn't say.  Thankfully, you stuck it out and found something Bella loves! :)

  8. Sorry to hear that the trainer was less than helpful. But glad that you have found something that Bella likes!

  9. I so believe it's about finding out what's right for your dog.  Once I left in the middle of a class because I felt like there was too much tension, too many unpredictable dogs.  I wasn't willing to set Delilah back and I always tell people you should be comfortable with your trainer.  I imagine you will not take a class with him again. :-)

  10. I've run into situations where a trainer "looked good on paper" too, and then I was sorely disappointed. Glad you found a silver lining in all of it, and I look forward to hearing how the agility classes work out for Bella. :-)

  11. I would have asked the trainer what his suggestion would have been for getting my dog under control. The Mr. probably would have phrased it less politely. :) I'm so glad you were able to get something out of the class by finding out that Bella loves agility.

    We took Maggie & Duke to the same beginner obedience class to help socialize them and get them used to new situations. Duke sat and shook for the entire first class, but he was a lot better by the end of the 8 weeks. The trainer recommended "getting them used to a lot more things" before signing up for agility - great, thanks for the insight. I think the punks had a different mat or towel for each class since they shredded them each week. Love the Douglas Adams reference, so long and thanks for the fish!

  12. Hi Jen,

    I haven't read/watched CU but from what I know of it, this trainer was basically supposed to teaching us that approach - he just wasn't very good at it with fearful dogs.  (He's got all sorts of letters after his name indicating that he has actually trained to do what he's doing.) The other dogs in the class were reactive - and, while it's arguable that all reactive dogs are reacting out of fear, there is a big difference between dogs who are simply reacting to other dogs out of fear and dogs that are afraid of just about everything - and he was okay teaching them.  The problem we have with Bella is a little different and he just didn't know what to do with her fear.

    The new trainer we're with is very good and we did learn some basics in this class - the "go to mat" idea as well as clicker training fundamentals.  (FTR, we had to work with Bella to get her over her fear of the clicker so you can see what we were up against. ;)

    Thanks for the rec of CU though - I'm going to go grab the book now just to educate myself better.  

  13. I appreciate your frustration, Haopee, believe me, we had it too.  But we've come a long way since this and I guess I see it now as a learning experience for us.

    Sometimes I really appreciate the expression:  "Common sense isn't really all that common."  ;)

  14. CU is a great book (and they just recently released a CU "puppy" book, I think, which I've heard is great, and organized a little better than the original book. 

    Afraid of the clicker? Poor Bella!

  15. Sorry you had a nitwit for a trainer Bella. Butt, sounds like agilities is in your future! Yay! You are gonna have FUN FUN FUN! :D

    Waggin at ya,