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Transferable Skills - Confidence Building for Sensitive Dogs

Teaching the skills needed to cope, away from the stressor

My goal is to help every dog and owner team reach their full potential. To achieve this I build in the teaching of transferable skills.

There is a misconception that we need to teach a dog to cope with situations they find difficult within that environment, but that is not true and risks making things worse. Rather we teach the skills needed to cope, away from the stressor and once they are learned transfer them slowly into the problem area.

Jim the Ex Racing Greyhound

When Jim the Greyhound arrived at his foster home, the plan was that he and his foster carer, Alex, would spend lots of time together, which included going out and about. As Alex doesn’t drive, his plan was that Jim would travel on the buses with him, the charity had been confident that Jim would cope with this without a problem. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and travelling wasn’t going to be as straightforward as hoped. We began our work by exploring the reasons why Jim might be finding bus travel difficult. Racing Greyhounds often have limited exposure to different surfaces under their feet, especially moving surfaces. Jim was lacking the skill of proprioception, an awareness of the position and movement of the body. We added in proprioception activities in the home for Jim to build his skills up. Racing Greyhounds like many rescue dogs have often lived a limited and regimented life, there was a good chance that Jim had never been that close to large vehicles like a bus before. Being able to cope with being close to a bus and then climbing onto a bus would require a variety of skills such as assessment, adaptability and communication. I like to break learning down into small achievable blocks, so we built a plan. Jim would need to cope with the sound and sight of the bus, therefore we added in walking to the bus stop at a time a bus was due, not getting on at this stage but observing Jim’s responses and responding appropriately. Once Jim was relaxed in the presence of a bus he stepped on, proprioception work around steps at home helped with this. Alex began by travelling one stop, Jim stood the whole way but coped. From here the pair made swift progress and built up to a 15 minute journey. Alex and Jim could start taking their adventures on the road. In the last report from Alex, Jim now settles into a down position on a bus, he has his own sleeping bag to lie on and he has been rewarded with a new toy, lucky Jim!

From my experience, the key skills that dogs need are:

  • Problem solving

  • Listening

  • Discrimination

  • Assessment

  • Redirecting focus and attention

  • Proprioception

I like to build these skills via a variety of games and activities, that both dogs and owners enjoy.

It is my experience that when dogs develop these skills away from triggers, their confidence and ability to cope increases and behaviours such as sound sensitivity or lead reactivity begin to decrease.

It is important to remember that training and behaviour modification is not designed to remove unhelpful behaviour responses completely. Under certain circumstances a previously learned response can always emerge. Rather, the practice and continual reinforcement of new behaviour and new response, means that you can call the new behaviour up under new conditions.

With more options available, dogs can even become creative and choose brand new, more helpful behavioural responses for themselves.

The sentence above is in bold type because it is easy to forget that a previously learned response can always emerge. For example, you feel you are making great progress with your dog's lead walking behaviour, it has been weeks since he has barked at another dog, but then it happens again. You begin to doubt your new skills and even begin to doubt your dog, but all that has happened is that something in the situation, the circumstances, cued your dog's old behaviour of barking. If this happens to you, take some time to consider all the factors that may have triggered the old behaviour such as:

  • scent - we struggle to appreciate the world of scent in which our dogs live

  • sight - not all dogs see as well as we do

  • sound - dogs can hear things we cannot

  • time of day

  • weather

  • time of year - many dogs in the UK associate darker evenings with fireworks

  • lead/collar/harness - what do they predict?

  • clothing - hats, glasses, umbrellas, canes, may all affect a dog's response

  • movement pattern, breed, colour, age of other dog

See if you can change or avoid any of the above, or use your own skills to cue a different response in this type of environment.

Also consider underlying events that might be having an effect on your dog's behavioural response such as:

  • Diet or hunger

  • Fatigue

  • Health issues or pain

  • Previous life experiences - especially if you have adopted your dog

Keeping a diary - written or video, can help you identify patterns in your dog's behaviour and work to change them.

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