In the last entry, I talked about my failed “dog whispering” attempts (and I do hate using the term, as I think it’s very degrading to the dog-friendly trainer who originally coined the phrase, Paul Owens, who owns Raise with Praise – ironic, eh?) as I kinda-sorta progressed through the four stages of competence shared by trainer Stacy Braslau-Schneck.
In this entry, I figured I’d talk about crossing back over to positive training and learning the behavior modification techniques of positive reinforcement and classical conditioning to rehabilitate the behavior of a reactive Saint.
Ironically, I think one of the scariest things about working with Monte initially was that, in my perception, it was like trying to train a lion. He was bigger than me and stronger than me. If he chose to, he could easily overpower me. I could not physically force or coerce him to do anything, nor could I force or coerce him to stop doing something. Little did I know, at the inception of our journey, that the techniques which would bring us success would be the very same techniques a trainer would actually use to train a lion.
I had pretty much already bypassed this stage by the time I began to learn about compassionate yet effective behavior modification techniques for aggression and reactivity. I was very aware of the problem and the need to develop new skills to address the problem, which brings us to step two…
I did not yet understand how to implement positive reinforcement techniques, but recognized the very real and obvious skill deficit needed to attain any sort of training success.
During this stage, I began researching behavior modification techniques intensively. I had learned my lesson from my previous training failure and was well aware that there were real and serious repercussions when it comes to training failure with a reactive dog more powerful than myself.
Reading about positive reinforcement, counter conditioning and desensitization for reactivity and aggression was one thing. Learning to implement the techniques in practice was an entirely different matter altogether.
This part was, and is probably generally, the hardest of all four of the stages. It felt awkward, forced, and a bit like an experience my fellow Maine-Endwell High School alumni remember quite well, what was then known as the “Perricone Leap.” Mr. Perricone, a wonderful high school health teacher, used to ask us to close our eyes and fall back into the waiting arms of a classmate to demonstrate trust.
Potentially, your classmate could be a jerk. He could be someone that cheated off your quiz paper, whispered nasty things about you, made up false rumors, or simply gave you the cold shoulder when you tried to initiate friendly conversation. He could drop you, so that your head crashed on the tiled floor and you ended up being dragged out of your classroom, onto a stretcher, into an ambulance, in a mortifying high school experience which you would cringe upon remembering for decades to come.
Luckily, I don’t believe that any hospitalizations have arisen from the Perricone Leap throughout the now decades of its implementation at MESH.
I’m not afraid to admit that starting to use classical conditioning techniques to modify Monte’s aggression was a bit like taking the Perricone Leap. I felt a lot like the dorky kid in high school being asked to trust his safety into the waiting arms of some untrusted bully. I felt like there was a good chance I’d crack my training skull open, destined for a trip on the stretcher of behavior modification failure to the Aggression E.R.
Much like my fellow Spartan alum have probably discovered, the leap of faith paid off. I muddled my way through, tried even though I was unsure of myself, and tried to shift my focus from what I had to lose to what I had to gain. I made a lot of mistakes. I often had poor timing, struggled to develop the skills of observing and responding promptly and effectively to canine emotional signals, failed in my attempts at careful management, and inadvertently put myself and my dog over our respective thresholds.
While this was the period of greatest challenge, it was also the period of greatest learning. I learned about Thresholds: His, Mine, and Ours. Some days we thrived, some days I fell flat on my face. As all of this happened, our relationship improved so Monte grew increasingly forgiving of my clumsiness as I learned to master these new and often counter intuitive skills. Truly, I had to become a crazy dog lady, which meant developing a lot of personal impulse control and acting skills along with the new mechanical skills of clicking and reinforcement and the mental discipline of concentrated observation.
This stage took longer than all the previous stages, was the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding of my 2nd crossover experience.
I think this category should be called “mastery.”
By the time I lost Monte, working with him was second nature. It was as natural as breathing. We ebbed and flowed together, I was able to respond to his needs in a more appropriate and timely fashion, and thus, we grew in the confidence we had in each other.
But is mastery the end of the story? Is it not something which should be practiced, refined, lest it be lost entirely?
I have been writing text with a pen, pencil, crayon, or other writing implement, for approximately 26 years now. Nonetheless, I find these days I spend more time typing on my laptop than I do taking pen to paper.
Although I feel I have “mastered” the skill of creating letters from pen and ink, because I do it rarely these days, when I sit down to write out three, five, or ten pages of text, my hand cramps. Those muscles are underused now, and are no longer what they were when I did not have a computer to write out my thoughts.
Mastery is a process that lasts for a lifetime. While the skills I have learned from Monte have become a natural part of my dog-handling repertoire, there is always room for improvement. Mastery ends where learning ends.
I will always be thankful to Monte for the lessons I learned in both of my crossover experiences, and for his unfailing patience and forgiveness as I fumbled my way through learning to be a good mom to him. I pray that I have the opportunity to continue striving for mastery through opening my mind to learning from each and every dog, person, cat, goat, sheep, horse, fish, rabbit, or other creature that crosses my path as I travel through life.
It is his spirit at my side that gives me the courage to press onward.