Monday, February 25, 2013

Overcoming "Obstacles"

Agility obstacles, in this case.

We've learned a lot about Bella in the last year and a half. Probably more than we learned in the first 3 years she lived with us. One thing we've learned is that her reactivity to other dogs is wholly directed by her fear of them.

When they stay a safe distance away, and aren't aggressing toward her, she is perfectly capable of controlling her own reactions towards them. Of course, if they get too close, she's a firm believer in the maxim 'a good offense makes the best defense' and will not hesitate to make overtures to prove to them just how tough and fearsome she is.

Another thing we've learned is that Bella may not be as fearful as she is wary.

Bella's modus operandi is 'run first and ask questions later'.

Bella is afraid of everything. Everything new, that is.

Given enough time, patience and encouragement, Bella doesn't just figure things out, she revels in her accomplishments. This has been especially evident in her approach to agility obstacles.

The first big hurdle we had to tackle before she could do any agility was to get Bella over her fear of sticks and poles. Because really, a dog afraid of poles on an agility course is just a trembling mass seeing monsters at every turn.

So I played a game with her that involved the cardboard innards of a roll of wrapping paper and something akin to dragon slaying.

When I could walk into a room without her fleeing from the cardboard "stick", I moved to putting it on the ground and rewarding her for being in the same room with it. Eventually moving on to making an agility jump out of it. (The process of which you can see here.)

So when we got to agility class, Bella was not seeing monsters everywhere. She was seeing jumps and weave poles and ladders, oh my!

We expected to have to take this approach with every obstacle in the course which is why we were sooooooooooo surprised when within the a month of starting class, she went up and over the A-frame with nary a look back. (November 2011)

Who are you and what did you do with our Bella?

Well, lest we get too carried away by her initial bout of bravery, Bella reminded us that, yes, she is indeed a cautious, scared-y dog and would take her time over several of the remaining obstacles.

We started doing "off-leash sequences" with the dogs in class December 2011. This was really nerve-wracking because we had no idea what to expect from Bella. When it was her turn, the other dogs would be taken out of the room but still, Bella's nervous energy of being in a scary place combined with being off-leash sent her into fits of zoomies that were both adorable and completely embarrassing. (Uh, yeah, let me see if I can corral and catch my dog... Give us a moment, would you?)

We learned the best way to deal with Bella's zoomies was to just ignore her. Although she was so cute and so happy that even Carolyn our trainer had a hard time not smiling over them. But ignoring her worked and eventually Bella came looking to us for approval and we were able to direct her attention back to the task at hand.

We also learned the secret to off-leash work: better treats.

I've mentioned before that we settled on Red Barn Naturals food logs for our work on Bella's reactivity. But to get her to come back out of zoomies, Carolyn suggested we up the ante in the treat department and we knew just what to do.

Bella has always had a fondness for jerky. Of course, given the issues with cheap chicken jerky treats being made in China, we've been making our own for quite some time. And we decided for Bella's off-leash sequences, we could break those jerky treats up into pea-sized pieces and our chicken-addicted dog would follow us anywhere.

You know what? It worked!

As long as we calmly and quietly took Bella's leashes off while bribing, er, tempting her with extra-luscious chicken (or turkey) treats, our little zoomie dog zoomied no longer. Hallelujah!

Of course, she didn't always pay attention and she certainly didn't go over all the obstacles either but we were making progress.

The Big Three

The three scariest obstacles for Bella have always been the dog walk, the tunnel/chute and the teeter-totter.
The Dog Walk:

We started working on the dog walk in November 2011. It turned out to be one of the first obstacles that taught us how to teach Bella to trust us. Because it was so scary to her, we had to be very careful not to "lure" her on it.

We used the "touch" command to get her to focus on a very small feat she knew well in order to take one step forward at a time slowly, deliberately, consciously over the walk. And, lo and behold, only 5 months later, she conquered the dog walk for the very first time. (April 11, 2012) Now she goes over it every chance she gets. And even some chances she doesn't get.
The Chute:

In January 2012, we participated in Something Wagging This Way Comes' "January is Train Your Dog Month" hoping to teach Bella she could survive going through the tunnel and subsequently the chute. (You can watch her progress in a video we made for the event.)

Working with her at home and in class, it was still 3 more months before Bella actually made it all the way through the closed chute on April 27th, 2012. Now we can't get her out of it.
The Teeter-Totter:

Some day I hope to be writing the story of Bella conquering the teeter-totter but, while we are making progress, that obstacle still remains a blip on our horizon.

Our trainer, Carolyn remarked to us at one point that once Bella figures out she can do something, she just can't get enough of it. She's no longer afraid of it and pushes herself faster and higher and harder each time. And she never looks back.

As we thought about that, we realized it is something has always been true. From the very earliest days when we first brought Bella home and she conquered "The Stairs", she has been obviously and noticeably proud of her accomplishments - relishing in them and showing off to all who will watch.

This makes her very different from a lot of scared-y dogs and I wonder if we'd be more correct in calling her cautious than calling her fearful? But then she turns in to a quivering heap on the floor at the vet's office or crumbles at the sound of snow falling off the roof and I think "No. No, fearful's good. Fearful's accurate." Feisty and ferocious in her own way at times but maybe where Bella comes from, fearful was life-skill well-learned. It's that combination of traits that has made her both a joy to train and a challenge to teach.

But with every accomplishment, she learns to trust both her own abilities and our steadfastness.

She is growing in to a beautiful, strong, loving dog and watching her transformation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.


  1. It has been so amazing to see her confidence grow. Agility is such an amazing sport, not just because it's fun to watch, but because it can be so powerful. Thank you for sharing Bella's agility journey with us!

  2. Your patience just amazes me! I don't think I could do it! I have to say, both my boys had no issues learning agility at all, but they both turn into quivering heaps at the vet! And all the agility in the world (he's 1/2 way to his MACH) won't help Jimmy's thunder and fireworks fear! I've lost more than one run to an untimely rumble of loud thunder.

  3. It's so cool how fast she has conquered her fears. I could stand to learn a lot from Bella.

    Agility is great for that, I think. It gives dogs these big rewards for trying something new and teaches them that things may not be as scary as they once seemed. It shows them they are capable and strong. It gives them markers of success, something our crazy rescues may not have had in their lives before. There are just so many reasons I love the sport, so many reasons that have nothing to do with competition. I can't wait to read about Bella conquering the teeter next!

  4. Woof! Woof! My mom can totally related ... Your last sentence says it all. Treasure every precious moment. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

  5. It's wonderful to read this - about Bella's incredible progress and your amazing patience. It sounds like agility is just wonderful for all of you.

    My departed dog, K, was "cautious", and she was absolutely terrified of the teeter-totter (the dog walk was another very tough one). We built a mini-agility course on our property, including a teeter. She was so scared of the teeter that she wouldn't go near the entire agility course.

    To make a very long story short, we used Susan Garrett's technique for teaching her the teeter. We propped both ends so that it didn't teeter at all, and we finally convinced K to jump on and off it... baby steps until she'd walk across it. Then, we made it so that it teetered by 1"... and very gradually we worked her up to doing a normal teeter-totter.

    The interesting thing was that she was just like Bella. After she mastered that teeter-totter (literally years after we started trying), she was so proud that she did it every time she had the chance and did it with SUCH enthusiasm. It sounds as if you've had similar victories with other agility obstacles, and I hope that it happens with the teeter-totter!

    I felt, with K, that agility helped her find her confidence in this world. She was nowhere near as fearful as Shyla. If I had to rate them, K was a 2 out of 10 (10 being maximally fearful) and Shyla is a 9 - a whole new world for me... In the spring, I hope to start teaching Shyla agility (when our course melts out).

  6. I loved this post! It truly shows how much you care and know your girl. It obvious that she trusts and loves you both very much!

  7. Your persistence and patience is very admirable! That is so adorable that Bella relishes each thing she conquers :) Wonderful reward for you all! Paws up to all of you! :D

    Waggin at ya,

    PeeS: Got a poll on my site, when you have a moment, can you weigh in? :)

  8. Nothing is quite like watching your dog succeed...being able to see them have that "ah ha!" moment when they realize they can do it is truly priceless!! great post!!

  9. Pamela | Something WaggingFebruary 27, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    This took me back to starting Honey on agility equipment as a step toward getting aboard a sailboat.

    I wish I had this post to read then. I definitely spent too much time luring when I should have been using touch to get her comfortable.

    But it's amazing how dogs, like people, don't all fear the same things to the same degree. We have to respect their individuality and listen to them. Like you're listening to Bella.

  10. The teeter is a tough obstacle, in my opinion one of the toughest because it moves. Which to me is scary to begin with. Sometimes it comes down with a loud bang, another scary.

    You are doing amazing with her and I have no doubt that yes, one day you will be writing about her conquer of the fearsome totter.

    Your last sentence really resonated for me, "watching her transformation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life." I feel the same about Delilah. While not a fearful dog she was very unruly, whenever anyone tells me what a good girl she is, it makes me beam with pride.

    You've come a long way!! Great job!

  11. It's wonderful to hear that Bella is blossoming and gaining in confidence - what a joy for you both! It will be fun to see how her new skills affect the rest of her life and relationships. Thanks so much for sharing.