Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dog Whispering?

Every now and then I tune-in to "The Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic Channel. While I think the show does share some strong messages about dog psychology (and human psychology in relation to dogs), I sometimes find the shows to be a bit frustrating. Cesar, the host, does a great job of showcasing how well he works with dogs and their people, but the segments too often are cut just short of providing actionable advice (other than "buy Cesar's books and DVDs" of course).

Perhaps the trick is watching enough episodes that the tidbits of information finally coalesce into a coherent instruction, because today's episode actually did teach me something. And the resulting transformation in my interaction with Baxter during this morning's walk was quite substantial. The subject of the show was a Brittany who, with that familiar hunting dog enthusiasm, pulled incessantly on her leash during walks. This has been a problem with Baxter (and us) since he was a little puppy...

Context flashback: When I took Bax to puppy obedience class, he would heel and walk loosely on a leash with no class. But when we got out into the real world, all bets were off and walks became a tug-fest. My husband and I read the Monks of New Skete book and worked hard to establish our roles as pack leaders. We tried a slip (choke) collar, which sort of worked if we yanked on it every five seconds, but it pulled most of the hair out of his neck and Bax seemed to be constantly resisting it. Then we got a Gentle Leader, which helped immensely at first, but he eventually developed strong neck muscles on one side and still managed to pull (although not as shoulder-dislocatingly hard as without it).

Over the years, nothing much has changed in our walking style. In the house, the pack order is well-established and Baxter is quite deferential and eager to please us both. But for some reason, once we're in the outdoor realm, Baxter still turns into a furry Napoleon, charging boldly into whatever lies ahead and dragging us along for the ride. After a while, I finally gave up and just figured my dream of one day walking Baxter with a normal collar and leash wasn't ever going to happen.

Something changed this morning and I'm pretty sure it was me.

In the episode I watched this morning, Cesar showed the Brittany's owners how to project an energy of leadership when they walked their dog. He had them keep a short leash and pull the dog back to a heel position, which helped. But the real change was obvious with the shift in the human walker's attitude -- projecting an air of confidence and leadership seemed to work wonders with the dog.

"Could it be that simple?" I asked myself. Could this whole pulling thing be just a matter of attitude?

Note to self: check your attitude. Let's see. When we walk, I talk to Baxter, but my body language is pretty much resigned to a back-leaning, resistance-countering dog-in-the-lead position. I'm usually eager to get my own exercise in, so stopping every five seconds to give him corrections does rather get in the way. I've tried keeping Bax at heel before, which works for a time, but then it turns into an isometric exercise for one arm and I feel bad that I'm depriving him of his sniffing and exploring time, which seems to be one of his favorite aspects of the walk.

My former obedience instructor led me to believe that it's possible to allow a dog to walk freely in front of you on a loose leash if the dog is just trained well enough. Is it possible that Baxter will always see being in front as a sign that he's in charge? Is it possible that my feelings of guilt about keeping him at heel have actually caused our walks to be the pulling, sniffing free-for-alls they currently are?

Fake it 'til you make it. When a corporate trainer told me this last year I initially bristled. I don't like the idea of acting when I'm not in a play. It just doesn't feel authentic to me. But I later realized that there is an element of truth to it in certain situations, especially when my own lack of confidence is the issue. If I play the part of a more confident person, I gradually become a more confident person. I get it, this is basically what Cesar is telling me to do with the dog.

So this morning I faked it. I left the Gentle Leader at home, put on Baxter's regular collar and leash and I stepped out the door first. I held Baxter close to my side in a heel position while I held my head high, stood up straight and walked like a woman with confidence and conviction. Much to my amazement, Baxter walked right next to me. He barely tried to pull ahead at all and responded immediately to a slight tug back.

"This won't last," I found myself saying internally. Oops, back to confidence. We continued. I let him have occasional "free time" to sniff in a couple of places and to do his business in spots I know he loves, then we were back to work. Baxter almost seemed proud to be walking next to me. He was a dog on a mission, and he looked up at me occasionally as if to say "how am I doing?" At one point, when we were on a fairly enclosed strip of walking path with no one else in sight, I even dropped the leash and, to my astonishment, Baxter continued to walk right next to me. When he started to pull ahead I said "hey" and stepped on the leash (something I've seen street kids do with their amazingly well-trained city dogs) and he slowed back down to walk next to me. The next time, all it took was a quick verbal and Bax was back at my side. Apparently attitude is far more meaningful to Baxter than I had ever realized.

I'm not ready to say he and I are cured of our "tug of war" walking entirely, it will take practice, especially in unfamiliar areas rife with sniffing opportunities. But this morning's walk was nothing short of AMAZING and it changed my perspective. Maybe Cesar's whispers finally reached me after all...

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