Paco is a beautiful Dalmatian. A Dalmatian who had a lot of strength at the age of one when pulling the leash. His voice also sounded very threatening when he barked at passers-by, children or dogs. All in all, a situation that was hard on Lea’s nerves and strength.
Today Paco is mostly on a relaxed leash. He now has the head and nerves to interact with women and to learn and execute signals. He can often look at other dogs calmly, communicate or turn away.
The first step on the way was to do less. That means: not more and more training, but less. That sounds easier than it actually is. And that’s why Lea has agreed to interview me here, describing her and Paco’s path. It should encourage other people in similar situations to persevere.
‶ Getting started is difficult without an idea of what the goal will bring. But even with the best vision of the goal, it is a path – a path with ups and downs. And the more precisely we have a picture of this path, the safer we can go. ″ Anja Meier 2020
Anja: Lea, when you think back to the time before we got to know each other, what comes to mind first. What was most bothering you about Paco back then?
Lea: I was most concerned with the difficult dog encounters at the time. Paco is embarrassed every time he sees another dog. He jumped on the leash and mobbed everyone, even if the dog ran across the street. That was exhausting.
Paco represents many other dogs here. His reaction to other four-legged friends can be replaced by reaction to people, cars, movement stimuli. Increasing it purely and pulling strongly on the leash were symptoms of an underlying problem. These dogs are very overexcited very quickly. They can no longer keep up with the processing of the stimuli pounding on them. And that puts them in stress. These stimuli are by no means great stimuli. Just the smell of a dog, the child on a bike, pedestrians on the sidewalk or a flying paper bag can be too much. And then pulling often begins. This train increases the uncomfortable feelings, and with it the stress. However, the dog no longer has the possibility to think about what he has experienced and his reaction and to withdraw, because the existing stress already blocks thinking. A vicious circle that swings up – and that doesn’t end after the walk. Because the cortisol in the body, the accumulated stress, can be slept off, but also keeps you awake. We all know this hormone. If we stay awake for too long, struggling with sleep, we come to a point where we no longer feel tired. On the contrary, we even feel good. That is what cortisol does. And that’s exactly what makes it so dangerous; because the dog does not look tired, on the contrary, even appears to be underwhelmed. However, cortisol is only broken down well during sleep and also only slowly there. A dog that collects a lot of it in the body very quickly also needs a lot of sleep. But: he often does not feel tired. This is the beginning of the second vicious cycle, which swings up from walk to walk. Because those who are already overtired, of course react even faster with stress to small stimuli.
Dogs that are in this state can still learn. And with that, training on symptoms such as leash or mobbing against other dogs and people would certainly have some success. But: only a very thin one. After the first successes, things are moving very slowly or not at all. Because even (nice) training – I don’t even have to talk about aversive methods – is ultimately a stimulus and means further stress. This now adds up to the stress of the walk, which was already too attractive anyway. The result: the cortisol in the body does not drop.
That’s why the first training step is as easy as it is difficult: do nothing.
Anja: What did you think after our first lesson?
Lea: This is going to be a tough job: DI could absolutely understand your reasons and approaches and was annoyed that no one had told me that before. In the beginning, however, it was a challenge to get involved with the new approaches.
The approach for Paco was the same as for many other dogs: no further training on top. Instead: the management of situations and a lot of positive feedback for being just. At the same time, enabling much more sleep and as few stimuli as possible and thus as little stress as possible.
And here comes the difficult part: “as possible”
What to do in the middle of a big city? The dog still has to loosen up and move, of course – especially if it is a young dog. In addition, a constant leash is neither good for the dog’s body, nor for the stress household. Even on the dishes, this constant tension becomes constant tension. It is nonsensical to inhibit the pulling with an unpleasant stimulus. Because through the inhibition nothing else happens than that the dog is afraid of the consequences of pulling. This inner tension is no less stressful than pulling itself. It only brings negative feelings towards the holder if the holder is held responsible for the unpleasant feeling. A short line quickly ensures a short pull on the dishes. The associated familiar feeling quickly leads to a memory of the associated stress, and the stress level increases. A struggle develops. That’s why I give people like Lea two things at this point: good towline handling and lots of breaks with lots of cookies. Both on the towline and above all on the short line. Cookies are not there for “good behavior”, not for training, but simply for managing situations. At Paco, it looked in between so that with every stimulus, such as a person walking close by, a handful of cookies landed on the floor. Paco showed the first signs of stress, there was also a cookie break. This is how a process begins for many dogs: a spiral out of stress. Shorter gas laps and more sleep at the same time reduce the stress level somewhat. Dogs that previously could not or did not want to eat can gradually accept this help in some situations. As a result, the level of stress continues to decrease and the situations in which these management measures can be applied become more and more. So don’t be discouraged: of course, not everything will work out right away.
Anja: There were certainly ups and downs right?
Lea: Definitely. The beginnings in drag line work were exhausting and my shoulders hurt constantly because Paco was on the leash like an ox. It was also frustrating that after five minutes you had to go home to a new location because Paco was already overwhelmed. At the same time, I also noticed how he came to rest more and more and how we were able to solve situations without mob more and more often.
Anja: Have you ever had doubts? If so, what kept you going? If not, what convinced you?
Lea: There were definitely doubts. Especially because it is suggested from the outside and partly also by the family that you have to exercise a dog properly every day and that is not possible on 20-minute walks. That gnaws at you, but I could still see how well Paco is doing the short sessions. Still, I have a dog with a lot of energy who wants to run sometimes. I then made the compromise for myself that Paco was allowed to run and run around with his dog friend Emma as he wanted, even if it took him a day or two to calm down again. However, I accepted that and was able to drive on the remaining laps of the minimal program with a clear conscience.
What Lea describes here is important in many ways. Although she did not adhere to my strict “do nothing”, she was able to deal with it by being aware of why the excited behavior came after Paco’s hours of tobacco. She did not get into a frustration trap and always toppled everything, but got to know Paco better and better. And with it also its limits and its needs. Lea was also able to carry out the remaining measures without constantly reproaching and doubting herself. It is very valuable and completely legitimate. I and other dog trainers can read dogs well. We see relationships and causes, but we still don’t know your dog as well as you. And we won’t know him or her even after two or three appointments. That is why it is so important what Lea has done here: Paying attention to her needs and her gut feeling and harmonizing both with behavioral therapy.
Anja: You also have the slow introduction of stimuli, the recognition of when it is too much and the resulting action really do a great job. Can you give me a few examples of how you got there?
Lea: We have observed a lot. I mean my dog, and Paco his environment. I tried to recognize in good time when Paco was getting too much and how that was going to be expressed. Over time, I was able to make a good estimate of what was and was not, and read the small signals that Paco had sent. For Paco it was a huge help to be able to look at stimuli (for example playing dogs) from a safe distance. Without pressure and for as long as he wanted. In the beginning it was incredibly difficult for us and we needed a large distance. Over time, however, things got better and better and Paco was able to turn away from the charm more quickly and go back to his business. Whenever Paco asked for the time to consider and assess situations in peace, I gave them to him. Sometimes we just stood on the sidewalk for 5 minutes because Paco had something in our nose. But that was okay and we could go on relaxed afterwards because the topic for Paco was over. In addition, our rounds always looked the same. Sometimes we ran the same lap all week. That also gave Paco a lot of security.
I like to describe this behavior of Paco with “put a charm on the file”. Every situation, every stimulus gets its own file in the dog brain that determines its behavior. If a dog cannot assess a stimulus, a situation, and reacts with uncertainty or stress, we tend to want to leave this situation quickly. Getting in a distance is basically a good plan. However, if we always leave the situation completely, or keep walking with our dog even though he has not yet processed a stimulus, then this file always remains open. There is no secured action option in the file and it does not get the stamp “uninteresting” or “harmless”. And slowly and gradually the open files pile up in the dog’s brain, like on a messy desk. And on this desk, in this chaos, our dog has to find his way and work out a good strategy from the incomplete information in the files. This is overwhelming before it even starts. Let’s take a distance without leaving the situation completely and give our dog the time to look until he can turn away and until he’s done – Then the files are in order. They are closed one after the other, sorted and quickly removed if necessary, and a good option for action is taken.
Anja: Did you have a “wow, somehow it’s better now” experience, or was it more of a gradual process?
Lea: I think that came rather gradually with many smaller experiences. Starting with “Oh, my dog is not interested in the dog on the other side of the street” to “Wow, we just passed another dog at a short distance without mobbing”.
Anja: How are you today? How do you see Paco? What are you concerned about now?
Lea: Paco is definitely much calmer and more relaxed. Puberty is starting to wear off a bit and I notice that our standard rounds are no longer as stressful for him. We can now walk longer and longer distances and train new commands on the side. I can enjoy our walks again because they no longer resemble a gauntlet run and I do not have to constantly look around to see if there is a pedestrian crossing us. We are currently expanding Paco’s frustration tolerance and introducing new commands that are helpful in everyday city life. I think if he learns how to deal with frustration even better, the dog encounters will become even easier. These are of course still an issue, but not as dramatic as a few months ago
This is also an important aspect: Lowering the basic stress, getting the brain back into thinking also means being able to learn again. At this point, targeted training makes sense as a second step, if this is still necessary. Which is not always the case, but of course it can be. Paco did not have puberty at 1 ½ years of age, but is now able to deal with it better and is becoming a confident companion in all situations.
Thanks to you at this point, Lea! In my and Paco’s name 😍 You are a great team and he played a really good game with you!