Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Hard Realistic Expectations

 Last year I wrote on blog on how to set you and your dog up for success creating a plan that had realistic expectations.  Jump over here to read it, before reading this post! This post will continue on from there.

Having Realistic Expectations is HARD

If you read the post linked above, you'll know just how important it is to set realistic expectations based on what your starting point is now. You'll also know that there is no exact timeline that works for every dog so it's impossible to say that a 6 month old dog should be able to do XYZ behaviors in all environments with unlimited distractions. 

If you've followed any of my posts either in this blog or on social media, you know I always talk about Crazy Canine Adolescents and how unpredictable this age is for the dog and their owners. That 6 month old dog, is just entering adolescence and about to start developing rapidly physically, emotionally, and socially. Plus that adolescent dog is going to go through several periods where impulse control and self regulation seem to fly out the window.

This is where it becomes really challenging to have realistic expectations! 

Belle is currently 7 months old when I write this. In many ways she is excelling in my plans for training, often seeming to be way ahead of the game and smashing goal, after goal, after goal. In most ways she is doing so well that when she begins to struggle it throws me for a loop!

Last week was a particularly barky week. I'm not sure if there was something going on brain development wise, or my work schedule didn't fit her needs schedule, or I was simply expecting too much of her in certain situations. Needless to say she barked often and for long periods at some points and I was increasingly frustrated. Barking is one of those behaviors that triggers me emotionally. I'm fine with the bark when it happens due to a distraction entering the environment. 

Belle likes to bark as soon as she sees a person outside, then I she rushes to my side and watch calmly together. That's a 1-2 bark and done situation and I can handle that. But if that distraction is a friend of hers, or a dog she wants to make into a friend that barking doesn't stop. This is more of a high arousal barking that is begging for play time. This barking drives me insane!

Belle sometimes helps with clients in the training room and sometimes she hangs out in the office. And if she's in the office she was getting really good at barking a moment when a client first came in the door, then quieting down and relaxing in the office. But last week she couldn't do that! Every time a client came in she barked non-stop. It didn't matter if I let her out to see the client or kept her in the office, Belle just kept barking. I couldn't talk or even hear myself think. One time another client that lives nearby and has a dog that Belle loves stopped by while I was with a client and I begged him to take Belle to his house for a bit just to stop the barking. Thankfully he did!

So at some point I need to determine is the barking due to me having unrealistic expectations or is there something we need to add to our training plan to modify the behavior or do I need to do a better job of making sure Belle's needs are met before a client appointment.

This is where realistic expectations become hard!

Depending on the trainer you talk to and their ethical philosophy, some trainers will say that most dogs grow out of "IT" (name the crazy adolescent behavior) while many others will state that dogs will not grow out of IT! That is the kind of black and white thinking that I try really hard to avoid. No one can say for sure if a challenging behavior is going to be a lifelong issue or something that is temporary due to the ever changing adolescent brain.

I know that barking is Belle's default behavior. She does this behavior whenever she doesn't know what else to do. It doesn't matter if she's nervous, excited, frustrated, in high arousal, etc.  Whenever she escalates emotionally, barking happens. I'm pretty sure that's not something she is going to grow out of. 

That is where it's important to set up of for success with training plans that help Belle learn about her ever changing world through environmental processing and help her learn to control her arousal with self regulation. And that is exactly where it is important for me as Belle's human to set up training to support her, management to prevent rehearsal of the behavior I want to go away, avoid putting her in situations she can't yet handle, and making sure her needs are met before we do any type of separation activity as that is where the barking is happening most frequently.

Taking a look at what has changed recently that could be causing the more frequent behavior.

Sometimes we forget that there might be underlining causes related to the challenging behavior we are struggling with. Often there is more to the behavior that just what is happening in that moment. A few weeks ago Belle could easily stay in the office while I ran an errand or worked with a client with some but not alot of barking. And now she can't!  So what has happened during that time?

Well, to start, Azul hasn't been feeling well so I've been working a bit harder to meet his needs by taking solo walks, ATV rides, and other fun outings. Belle has stayed in the office a more than normal, stayed home with Dad (a whole different challenge) a bit more than normal. And we've been working to get Belle comfortable staying with my friend and his dogs so that she can stay with them during an upcoming medical appt for Azul. Before this she would stay in the office fine, but adding in staying home with Daddy and staying at my friend's house with and without me has increased the amount of time she is away from me.

Also during this time, Belle has been learning to pay attention to the medical needs that I often ignore. She is doing both morning and evening medicine reminders now and has even done 3 migraine alerts despite the fact that I haven't started training that scent yet. This increased attention to my medical needs is likely impacting her desire to be with me more and dislike separation more. This is something that many Service Dogs and Service Dogs in Training Struggle with as they often spend so much time with their person and so little time away from their person. This is something that I help other people train around, but it's not something in Belle's current training plan because I didn't expect it to be a probably. We worked on as a puppy, but I didn't expect it to come back. That's a huge oversight on my part!

Figuring out what is causing the change in behavior or the increase in the frequency of the behavior is the first step in coming up with successful solutions to the problem. Often the process of figuring out the cause helps us to become more understanding of the emotional struggles of our dog. And that often leads to our understanding of what is a realistic expectation for our dog in this point in life.

Penelope V. Yorke — 'Knowledge is the key to understanding, understanding is the key to achieving, and achieving is the key to becoming.'

This quote also applies to challenging behaviors that we are struggling with. When we know the cause of the behavior, we understand the dog's needs that are being missed, and when we focus on taking care of that need we can see the behavior changing more rapidly.

BUT! When is the behavior setting in and becoming a challenge that is going to be an ongoing struggle?

At some point if the behavior is ignored too long, the management is not being used, the dog is able to rehearse the behavior often, and the training that leads to change is not being done...the behavior becomes a habit or a way of getting something accomplished.

Dogs don't do any behavior simply because they know we like it or hate it. Dogs do what works! Every behavior has a purpose behind the behavior. In animal science terms behaviors are described in an ABC pattern. Antecedent is the thing that happens before the behavior. Behavior is what the animal does. And Consequence is what happens after the animal does the behavior. 

Many force free trainers are unhappy with the wording of "consequence" because to many people that implies something negative. But in this situation, it could be negative or positive.

For example, a scared dog barks at the human or dog approaching them. That human or dog then backs off, not wanting to experience conflict with the dog. The scared dog then learns that barking and acting like a jerk keeps threats away so they repeat it whenever that scared emotion hits them. Barking in this situation becomes a learned survival mechanism.

Belle's barking is communication begging me to come be closer to her. Often she barks and I go to her...she learns that persistent barking gets my attention.

Is that what I want her to learn? NO But at the same time, I don't want her to be practicing the behavior of barking and I don't want her to live in that heighten state of emotional chaos for long either. So what is the solution?

Look at my management and how I can set up Belle for success to prevent her from feeling the need to be near me non-stop. Responding to Belle sooner vs later at least prevents the rehearsal of repetitive barking, which also lowers her emotional state much faster as well. I'm not going to let her just cry it out and learn that I won't respond to her needs. So I'm going to keep going to her or reassuring her through the door if and when the barking is occurring. But I'm also going to do my best to prevent that barking in the first place with better management.

Step 1: Make sure Belle's physical, emotional, and social needs are met before she needs to stay alone in the office or with another person.

Step 2: Make sure I have enrichment she loves set up in the area she will need to stay without me. And make sure I have a calming sound playing during this time as that seems to help her as well. She loves listening to Andy Hale videos on YouTube while I'm with a client! I think it sounds much like a Zoom meeting that I often do and she lays calmly at my side. And Andy Hale has the calmest of voices while talking!

Step 3: Schedule more playdates with friends right before I have clients or visits to friends houses during my client sessions so that Belle spends less time in the office during this challenging time in her life.

And most importantly! I need to remind myself to have realistic expectations for a 7 month old Crazy Canine Adolescent who is doing their very best to be successful in the world that I place them in.

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