The Scary Bag Incident
This is a silly story from Azul's puppy days and it's a great example of working with the dog in front of you!
Azul has always been an overly confident puppy loving everything life could throw at him. We did a ton of socialization to new objects and environmental changes from a very young age. The Scary Bag Incident took place when Azul was almost 5 months old. And if you haven't guessed, this was one of my first indications that Azul was entering a fear stage.
Let me set the scene! I had been out having some fun with another team with some playing at the park, walking on a trail, and general puppy socialization and enrichment activities. The last stop of our session with these clients was a walk thru a pet friendly hardware store. This was a store Azul had visited multiple times already at his young age and was very comfortable going here.
So here we are walking thru the parking lot when I spot a plastic store bag blowing across the parking lot and my desire to keep mother earth clean while having some fun with my puppy kicks in. I had just been talking about making training sessions fun so I'm thinking we are going to be giving a real life example of having fun in the moment!
Azul spots the bag and perks up with his traditional puppy interest. I decide to set off in hunt mode running toward the tumbling bag blowing across the parking lot and Azul is in "Game On" mode! As the bag draws near, I decide to step on it to increase Azul's chance of capturing the bag before it blows passed us. And this is when the fun game became not so fun for Azul!
I don't know if he thought that bag was attacking my foot or what but the moment I made contact with the bag, Azul switched from play attack mode into the natural instinctive fear response of Flight Mode! So here I stand with Azul on a short leash for shopping, running circles around me trying to get away but the leash only allowing short circles. And I get dizzy very easily so circles are not my friend.
Eventually I'm able to process what is happening and step off and away from the bag which shows Azul that I'm not under attack from the scary bag. And instead of setting an example of how to have fun with your dog in the environment, I set an example of how to always be on the look out for a fear stage when you are working with a dog that is under 2 yrs old.
Now this parking lot adventure could have ruined our training session by setting us up to fail before we even made it in the door. I had to make a choice as to whether to continue with the session going into the store knowing Azul has just been scared or to continue with the training session as if nothing happened.
Since Azul had previously loved socializing with the staff inside the store and I could be relatively certain a bag was not going to blow in front of us while we were inside the store, I chose to continue the session. But I also watched Azul closely for any signs of stress while we were inside and made sure to use lots of high value treats to ensure the outing was positive.
Over the next few days, I noticed a few other minor fears that were out of the norm for Azul. So we took about a week off from doing any training in new or challenging environments and only socialized with our great friends. This gave Azul a chance to move thru the fear period without allowing for additional experiences to set off that fear reaction.
Once I knew he was passed the fear stage, I set up a few training sessions at home with a fan and a plastic bag or two. This allowed me to adjust the speed of the wind blowing so Azul could watch the bag move more slowly at first. Eventually we worked up to the rapidly blowing bag and again my stepping on it to recreate the scene in the parking lot. Only this time it was not as fearful to Azul since his fear stage had passed. I was still able to pair this with amazing treats just to ensure that we ended positively.
I wish I had captured the Scary Bag Incident on video as it was quite the sight and had my training team rolling in laughter at our escapades in the parking lot. But since Azul's reaction took me totally off guard this was not possible.
Lesson: When the unexpected happens, be prepared to change your plans to allow your dog time to grow and develop naturally at their speed, not ours!