Cura and I have been together since 2009. We want to thank all of you who followed the early days as well as those who popped back on occasion during the long hiatus. Training was done, the days passed, and we were settling into our life together.
Fast forward: Cura is slowing down and a new member of the family is in training. On top of that, we are all busy with our new calling . . . Running the Training Department for Paws and Stripes. Join us on our journey!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't laugh -- even if it IS funny

There are some things about training a service dog that can be rather amusing. I was reminded of this over the weekend when we went to the Herb and Lavender Festival that was held in Santa Fe. The reaction is not unique to Cura, apparently it is one that many dogs have -- and when you think about it, understandably so.

Imagine if you will, being a dog and walking along, doing y0ur job and minding your own (and your charge's) business -- suddenly you encounter a life sized statue of a person or -- as happened this weekend -- of a mule! In both cases, here is a figure that looks like a living creature but does not smell or move like one! Figure out how to process THAT! Now -- think about the mannequins that are popular in the shops. Since working with Cura, I have noticed that many of them are the size of a normal adult or child human being, but they lack important body parts -- like heads, hands, and/or feet. Combine that with the fact that they don't SMELL like the humans that they look like and you can be dealing with anything from a slightly wary to a completely FREAKED OUT dog!

While this is not a new challenge in our training, it is one that took on a new dimension this weekend since, prior to this, it was primarily humanoid shapes that bothered Cura. I find the whole situation very funny. Not just because Cura is spooked by a statue (though that is rather humorous in a baffling kind of way) but because it frequently takes me at least 30-60 seconds for me to figure out WHY Cura is all of a sudden unwilling to walk at her place beside me -- and there have been a few times where it has taken someone else pointing out the trigger to me for me to 'get it'. I am sure that my utter confusion during these moments is hilarious! They certainly are to me once I solve the mystery, work the trigger, and then have a chance to reflect on it -- so I can only imagine an observer's take on the whole thing!

Let me explain . . .

For the most part, when we are out and about, Cura behaves in certain ways. Either she is doing just what she is supposed to be doing -- kind of 'floating' at my side -- 0r she is slightly out of place, just ahead of where she should be, putting a little bit of pressure on the lead. But, when she notices a life-like, non-live statue/mannequin she moves as far away from the trigger as she can get, given the slack in the lead. Most of the time, this means shifting to my right side, behind me. This is because Cura usually walks on my left side and she rarely reacts strongly to 'strange' things on my right. Instead, it is the things on the left that she reacts to -- it is almost as if she doesn't notice things on the right, but I know this is not accurate because, frequently if there is something or someone on the right, she will either turn her head or prick her ears briefly in that direction (not the ideal reaction -- but she IS still in training). But, her reaction to things on the left is VERY different.

Rick and Heather have provided insight into why this is the case . . . if you are between your dog and the item in question, the dog's reaction is more subdued or nonexistent . . . if the dog is between you and the item in question, the dog's reaction is enhanced. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to pass another dog or person that your dog (pet or service) will not be comfortable with -- put yourself between your dog and the trigger, your dog's reaction will be much less fussy. (I have seen and experienced this so it is not something that magically only trainers can do -- though it may seem that way at times -- it really works!)

So, back to this weekend . . .

Here we are at this festival and we have been near this particular mule statue several times throughout the day, but we have either walked by it so that I was between Cura and the mule OR we were near the statue but not directly passing it -- focused on another destination. Up to this particular point, Cura didn't react in any way to the statue -- it was like she didn't notice it -- and (I am sorry to say) I didn't even register its presence.

In an effort to gather our party together, Cura and I were on a mission to track down members of our group that were in the museum and, to get there, we had to pass this particular mule statue on my left hand side (translate: Cura was between me and the statue). There I was, walking toward the museum door and, all of a sudden, Cura was no longer floating by my left side, but had swung back and to the right and balked against moving forward. I was baffled because I just had not registered the mule statue. Both the person who pointed out the trigger to me and myself found Cura's reaction humorous -- it was all I could do to keep from laughing! But, that does not provide Cura with the assurance to deal with such encounters, so it is a less than productive response to these kinds of situations. Instead, Cura has to be 'worked through' the trigger. This means that she has to be passed by the statue and asked to perform her service skills near it until she performs them without a severe reaction to the statue. This does not necessarily mean NO reaction, although that is the ultimate goal. Instead, this has to be seen as a process where improvements are seen as successes -- ultimately, continued improvements will result in the ideal reaction to the situation. Perfection is not usually the first success so it is not realistic to expect it. (This is related to Cura's 'storm triggers' which, I am sure, will be discussed in other posts.) Instead, the key is to diminish the reaction each time. Eventually, the result will be no initial reaction at all. Challenge met and overcome!

I wish I had some footage of Cura's reaction -- but it was quite hot so I limited what she was carrying to her cooling coat (to keep her from getting overheated) and vest with my absolute essentials in it rather than her pack -- which, admittedly does not usually include my camera (though maybe a rethink on the 'essentials' required in her pack). So, no humorous pictures or video (sigh).

I was able to work Cura through the more severe reaction to the mule -- with a combination of obedience commands and a few passes, she was walking by the statue with0ut balking. She may not have been happy about it and would still glance warily in the direction of the statue, but she walked by it staying in place by my side. Whooohoooo! (remember -- celebrate the little successes!) So, while the challenge has not yet been overcome completely, we are meeting the challenge and managing to improve our results.

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