Cardinal Rules: You Can’t Be in a Hurry

This morning I had the privilege of working with a lovely (albeit slightly nervous) Jack Russell cross named Wilke. Wilke is a rescue dog and is, quite endearingly, very attached to his new owner. As soon as we left the house and the owner’s door shut behind us, Wilke hit the brakes.
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I encouraged him on and we started walking but he was very uneasy and kept turning around to try and go back home. I kept walking but he began to bark, determined to get back to his house. I knew he’d be fine once we got to the park a few blocks away so in my most enthusiastic voice I said “Wilke! This way!” and I took off running toward the park. It worked, and Wilke took off after me.

We spent over an hour at the park together exploring, playing, meeting other dogs, and Wilke learned the heel with auto-sit in about 15 minutes under the expert handling of Angie, one of the City Dog apprentices. Clever boy Wilke! But despite his aptitude for the training, and his curiosity in exploring the park, Wilke just didn’t seem all that happy. Every time we released him from command and let him take us where he wanted to go he did the same damn thing: he tried to take us back home.

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Given Wilke’s behavior we decided to end the training session with something we call confidence exercises. These are simple exercises which usually serve no practical purpose other than to challenge the dog to look at the world from a different point of view. A great, entry level confidence exercise is to have your dog stand or walk along a tall walkway. It’s like the canine equivalent of walking on a balance beam – you’re higher off the ground than you’re used to, you need to pay attention to your balance, and to be fair, it’s a little scary the first time you do it.

There is a wall I like to use on Clere Street that’s perfect for taking small dogs through this confidence exercise. The wall is about 4 feet high, 16 inches wide, and maybe 25 feet long. We picked Wilke up and put him on top of the wall. He froze and then laid down. It’s a common reaction – most dogs have never seen the world from this perspective and are a little frightened they might fall. Side note: if you do this exercise make sure you stay next to your dog the whole time and keep the lead in your hand – SAFETY FIRST!

So, there we were, me, Angie, and Wilke, outside in the beautiful springtime sun, with Wilke laying down atop the Clere Street wall. We let him stay there for about 5 minutes just to get used to the idea of being high up, and then encouraged him to move forward by taking a half-step ahead and calling his name. He didn’t move. After a few minutes of encouragement Wilke abruptly stood up, took two steps forward, and immediately laid back down. PROGRESS! Long story short, we stayed there working this confidence exercise for about 20 minutes during which time Wilke traversed about 4 feet. And that’s what brings me to today’s cardinal rule of dog training:

It took Wilke 20 minutes…20 MINUTES!!!…to walk 4 feet. Have you ever tried walking just 4 feet over the course of 20 minutes? It’s ridiculous and requires ridiculous amounts of patience.  But for Wilke, every step he took required a huge amount of courage. When we took Wilke down off the wall he held his head high, puffed his chest out and marched around our feet wagging his tail. In fact, he did all but grin at us. He was happy, proud and confident, and it was the first I’d seen that side of him the entire training session.

Whenever you start something with your dog, whether it’s a confidence exercise, training session, or teaching a new command, be prepared to take whatever time the DOG needs to complete the exercise. Don’t rush it. It might take a little longer than you’d like but the rewards can be so great.

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