Category Archives: Dobby

Listening to Your Heart

I recently adopted a puppy.

I wasn’t looking for a third dog. I have my hands full with Layla and Dobby, who both have behavioral issues that require a large amount of training and management. In fact, there were a lot of really great reasons why I shouldn’t have adopted this dog, and I argued with myself about them for weeks. And yet, somehow, she ended up staying.

That’s right. Not only is this puppy nothing like my other dogs in personality or appearance, she’s also a female. Layla doesn’t have a problem with female puppies, but often dislikes adult female dogs. And yet, somehow, I kept this puppy anyway. Where many, many foster puppies have come and gone, she came and stayed.

I’m not generally an impulsive person. I have a life plan, a careful budget, and definite “rules” about when I felt I would be ready to bring a third dog home (hint: it wasn’t for another five years or so). Mischief came home and turned all of this upside-down within a few short weeks. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She smoothed into our household as if she’d always been here.

Was keeping her the right choice? I don’t know. Only time will tell. However, I do know that I haven’t felt this depth of connection since I met Layla. I felt the same instant, inexplicable tug with baby Layla, and couldn’t imagine my life without her. Layla’s brought me on an incredible journey. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and there have been times where I’ve felt like I was in over my head. I cared for Dobby from the start, but it took nearly a year to develop that deeper connection with him that happened instantly with both girls. I can remember looking at Dobby as he snuggled in my arms one morning months after I’d adopted him and thinking, “You’re my dog now.”

So’s Mischief. She’s my dog now, and so far the four of us are getting along splendidly. Here’s hoping that my heart was as smart as my head. I’m not used to listening to it, but when it spoke up so strongly I could do nothing else.

Welcome home, puppy.


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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Dog Selection, Layla, Mischief, Rescue

The Best Teachers

I failed my dog this weekend.

That’s not a very cheerful way to start a blog post, and I’m afraid this post doesn’t paint me in a very positive light. However, I think the topic is important enough to write about even if I do find the situation quite embarrassing. So without further comment, here’s what happened.

Dobby at a rally trial. Pure joy! This is the attitude I train for. (Photo by Ryan Windfeldt.)

This weekend, I attended a seminar by a well-known clicker trainer. I pick which seminars to go to quite carefully, and was so excited about this one. This particular author was one of the first to write clearly about such important concepts as shaping and the Premack principle, and her explanations were timely in my personal development as a professional trainer. I was so pumped that I managed to secure a working spot for Dobby on Sunday.

You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I began to realize that this trainer’s shaping style differed significantly from mine. It was interesting to watch this person work. She has impeccable mechanical skill, and is clearly incredibly talented. Many of her approaches parallel my own, and the initial working slots in the seminar were a joy to watch. She introduced the cardboard box game to teach dogs to offer behavior, and the working dogs all dived into this game with enthusiasm.

Things started to break down later in the morning, when those working dogs were put into problem solving spots. This seminar presenter uses free shaping to deal with problem behaviors, which I also sometimes do (although for the sake of transparency I’m much more likely to use a Control Unleashed game, such as Give Me a Break, at this point). My comfort level plummeted, however, when I watched the amount of pressure that was put on the dogs during these exercises. It was clear that our tipping point for when to “push the envelope” was quite different.

I watched as the working dogs were put in situations where the message was, “if you succeed, I will make you more uncomfortable.” It’s absolutely important to raise criteria as a dog is successful, but after one successful trial (with success defined, not by the dog’s expression or emotional state, but rather by their ability to offer an acceptable behavior or respond to a known cue), these dogs would be asked to go back into the same situation as one of the criterion was bumped up a notch. The author spoke at length about negative reinforcement, but despite the great opportunities available to make use of this principle by taking pressure off the working dog as a reward for an acceptable response, this technique was not utilized. Dogs responded slowly. Dogs disengaged and zoomed. Dogs stress-sniffed. I had to leave the room at one point, as a little Papillon was so uncomfortable about being asked to slam a teeter board that every line of her body communicated uncertainty and hesitation.

Understand here, this trainer does not force dogs to do anything. She free shapes, which means the dog is always allowed to say “no” with no consequence other than the lack of a click and treat. These dogs were in no way corrected for disengaging. However, the amount of pressure put on them was phenomenal. In each case, the dog clearly understood what was expected of him or her. Dogs who left the working space were recalled or put on leash (not to use the leash to coerce the dog into responding, simply to prevent the dog from leaving again). However, just because the dogs weren’t forced to respond does not make the amount of pressure placed on them okay. These dogs were not happy, and they were not having a good time. They were learning that when they felt uncomfortable they could not depend on their owners to help them feel better about the situation.

With all of this to consider, I spoke to the presenter on Saturday afternoon. I introduced myself and told her that I had a working spot the next day and that I was hesitant about the amount of pressure being placed on the working dogs, as I felt it would be harmful for my working dog to be placed in such a situation. She told me she would be happy to work with me on adjusting criteria for my individual dog, and that I could just let her know if I felt we needed to change anything for him. I was reassured and decided to keep Dobby’s working spot.

I skipped the lecture on Sunday morning, as I had found it so aversive to watch the working dogs on Saturday that I couldn’t face the idea of watching another full day of stressed dogs. Sunday afternoon was our working spot, and I approached it with mixed feelings. I was reassured that the presenter would be willing to adjust criteria for him, but worried that I would be put into the tough spot of disagreeing with a so-called expert in front of my friends and colleagues. In retrospect, I should have listened to my gut feeling and given up my working spot, as there was a waiting list of dogs whose owners would have been thrilled to be given the opportunity to work.

When asked what my goal for Dobby was, I told the presenter that I wanted him to find joy in working in this situation. I knew that this goal was attainable for him, as he’s been in higher-criteria settings (such as rally trials) where he had a wonderful time and looked confident and happy. I explained that he could be neophobic and was sometimes fearful of unfamiliar people, especially men or people in hats.

The presenter’s goal for Dobby was the same as mine: she wanted unfamiliar or scary things or people to become a cue for Dobby to pay attention to me. Our paths for reaching that goal, however, differed significantly, and this is where the first big issue appeared. Up until now, I have treated these situations as “Look at That” opportunities, using the Control Unleashed game. If Dobby was unable at any point to quickly turn back to me and instead began staring, I would use the Whiplash Turn to break his stare and would back further away from the trigger until he was comfortable enough to quickly turn back to me.

The presenter wanted me to shape his attention instead, and I expressed concerns about changing the rule structure for him at this point in his training. This is where this post becomes somewhat embarrassing to share. In spite of my attempts to be nonconfrontational and respectful, I clearly did a poor job of explaining our current training protocol. At one point, the presenter sarcastically told me, “well, since you clearly know everything…” when I asked that we tweak her training plan, and I could feel my skin flush as I thought of everyone watching this uncomfortable exchange. She asked me why I signed up if I didn’t want to follow her recommendations, and I again did a poor job of explaining that while I was very interested in her suggestions (why else would I have spent the extra money for a working spot?), I was concerned that they would put too much pressure on my dog and wanted to make sure that he felt happy and comfortable during his working sessions rather than concerned.

I wanted Dobby to know that I would keep him safe, not just physically, but emotionally as well. My dogs are my friends and companions first and foremost, and while I do compete with them I refuse to put competitive goals before our friendship. I want my dogs to know that they can trust me to not just keep them safe, but to only ask them to do things that make them happy. If they do not find joy in a chosen sport, I will not ask them to continue going into that situation. When I’m holding that same dog in my arms ten or fifteen years from now as the vet inserts the needle to end their life, I’m not going to be looking back and thinking of all the titles or awards that dog has won, but rather of the quality of the time we spent together. I don’t ever want to look back with regrets.

Anyway, back to the seminar. Dobby was asked to heel in a circle around a man, and I was to reward him for focusing on me. I clicked him for quick glances at the man, playing the Look at That game, but agreed to wait him out if he began to stare, then click when he reoriented to me on his own. In retrospect, this was a poor idea. On several different occasions, Dobby began to stare at people who concerned him, getting locked into a negative spiral. The longer he stared, the more uncomfortable he felt, and the more uncomfortable he felt, the more he needed to stare. To add fuel to the fire, I felt myself torn between trying to talk with the presenter or other auditors who had questions and trying to support my dog. I was unable to give him 100% of my attention, and I know he felt the disconnect. It was a poor setup.

Dobby this weekend. (Photo by Crystal Thompson.)

The pictures from the seminar tell the true story of what happened. Dobby is nothing if not willing, and he tried his best for me. He has not always been like this, but with the deep relationship we’ve built up over the past year his desire to follow my lead has blossomed. It’s a lot of responsibility to have a dog who will try his heart out like this, and I feel like I failed him this weekend by taking advantage of his willingness. My little dog did absolutely everything I asked of him, and had I done a better job of listening I would not have asked so much. Pictures show him trotting in heel position, his face a picture of concern. There was no joy in his performance.

After our second of three working sessions, I felt like crying. Dobby’s behavior was deteriorating, and he was doing more and more staring as his discomfort increased. I also felt like I was being put on the spot and made to look stupid, and was very uncomfortable with the thought of having to go up in front of the crowd of auditors in such a socially uncomfortable setup again.

I decided to change our plan, and during our last working session I instead asked the presenter about a different issue, Dobby’s overarousal during tug sessions. To be honest, this issue is already well on its way to being resolved. Using the Premack principle, I’ve been able to shape Dobby to eat in the presence of a tug toy, and then later to “out” the toy on cue. We’ve done a large amount of zen work with the toy, and Dobby is able to heel over and around multiple toys and treats on the ground with confidence. However, I was very interested in the presenter’s approach to this issue, and also wanted to give Dobby the chance to play tug in this setting as I knew that he felt more confident and less concerned when he was playing than when he was asked to work solely for food treats.

The last session went much more smoothly, and I was happy to find that the presenter’s approach to this issue was very much in line with what I had already done. Her suggestions of when to click and when to raise criteria were very helpful. More importantly, Dobby did not feel the need to scan or stare and was engaged in the game.

This weekend was a huge learning experience for me, and I value it for the important lessons I learned. After I left the seminar, I parked my car and cried for five minutes, a result of the embarrassment and stress of the day. People have thresholds too, and I was well past mine. Several days later, I still have a negative reaction to the thought of the seminar. I learned some important lessons, most especially to listen to my instincts and to protect my dog’s trust in me at all costs, but the lesson came with its own fallout. It may be a long time before I consider working my dog with an unknown seminar presenter again.

What about Dobby? He went home and slept hard, and woke up the next day none the worse for wear. I haven’t seen any residual signs of stress with him like I would with Layla, who typically takes three days to recover from stressful situations. It amazes me how much heart and courage this little dog has, and I’ve resolved to respect and honor that in the future. It’s not easy to face one’s fears, and Dobby never stopped trying for me last weekend. He slept on my lap for awhile today, curled up with his head on my shoulder, and I couldn’t help but think of the terrified little “pancake” dog of just over a year ago, who would have hit the ground and peed all over himself had I asked him for even 1/10 of what I asked him for this weekend. He’s by no means “cured” (or even, to be honest, safe to put in many situations), and honestly never may be. But he keeps trying, and he keeps getting better, and the journey together only serves to make me love him more. We’re both okay, and I appreciate everything that makes this earnest, silly, amazing little dog so unique.

Training seminars and working with experts can be great, but they’re not everything. My best teachers have always been my dogs, and if I can only keep listening to them, they’ll continue to teach me. May I always be as devoted a student as they are.


Filed under Anxiety, Dobby, Training

The Joy of the Adolescent Dog

Ah, adolescence. Dobby haz it, and some days I feel like it may be easier to just bang my head against the wall rather than take him out to train.

Don’t misunderstand me. Dobby is a phenomenal dog. He’s actually the perfect house pet, which is so much more important to me than any competition. My dogs are, first and foremost, companions, and Dobby excels at companionship. He’s quiet, house- and crate-trained, snuggly, and well-behaved inside. He listens when it counts (such as respecting the open doorway threshold while I’m bringing the 15-year-old Lab compassion case inside and not dashing out). He gets along with the other two dogs. He really is a very, very good dog.

Dobby's enthusiasm is great, but can be exhausting! Photo by Ryan Windfeldt.

All this perfection doesn’t do anything for his focus when we go places, though. Training Dobby is exhausting. Half an hour with him feels like a day with Layla. Trying to keep his focus can be like trying to teach a class of kindergartners who’ve been fed Mountain Dew and Pixie Sticks to sit still, and heeling with him is like heeling with a hummingbird. I love his enthusiasm, but good god! – there’s enough enthusiasm for 10 regular dogs in there. The difference in his confidence level is unbelievable, and sometimes I need to remind myself that less than a year ago he was pancaked to the floor and would pee all over himself in fear if I even looked at him. This is not the same dog, and I’m proud of his accomplishments.

So, what’s the game plan? At this point, quite honestly, it’s to wait. I know that many of Dobby’s focus problems are just normal adolescence, and I really believe that once he matures a little bit they’re not going to be an issue any more. He just needs more time to grow up. We’re not going to start on agility, or even work all that seriously on obedience, until I have more than 10% of his attention devoted to me. It’s not that he could’t do it – he could. But I have limited time and energy, and there’s no reason to work so hard at these sports now when I can do about half the work in a year for the same results. Much as I want to get in the ring with him, I know I’ll have years and years to compete once he’s no longer distracted by every falling leaf in a five-mile radius.

That doesn’t mean he’ll get a free pass while we’re waiting for his brain to come back. In the meantime, we’ll work on weight pull and keeping playing around with Level 1 rally. We’ve also got plenty of foundation skills to master, such as a reliable “out” and targeting at a distance. I’ll start a few very simple agility skills, like a 2on-2off contact at the bottom of my steps and on a ramp, and we’ll continue to work on his dog-dog skills. Dobby’s already somewhat dog selective at a little over a year of age, and he’s plenty “gamey,” so I’ve established that his job around other dogs is to focus on me and ignore the dogs. I can see him becoming somewhat dog aggressive as he matures, which isn’t unusual for a terrier, but don’t think this will be an issue since it will be quite manageable. He’s got a very, very strong desire to “be good” and is quite soft, so he’s very easy to redirect if he does something I dislike.

The difference between Dobby and Layla is fascinating, and I love watching the two of them interact. Layla still adores him, and it’s amazing how much she enjoys spending time with her dog: snuggling on the couch, walking together, even lying next to him to eat a bully stick!

Lure coursing Layla is pure predator.

Layla is the polar opposite of Dobby in many ways. Layla is NOT the perfect house pet. Much as I adore her, I understand that most people would hate living with her. Living with Layla is like living with a wild animal. She doesn’t particularly like to be touched, so petting and snuggling are things she tolerates rather than enjoys. She does like to snuggle up on occasion (about 5 minutes a day), but it needs to be on her terms and she prefers to lie on top of me without me petting her. Besides not wanting to spend close time with me, Layla is also incredibly tricky and smart. She can open the refrigerator and the gate in the backyard. She jumps baby gates and kills (and consumes) small animals on a regular basis. If she gets out of the house or yard she doesn’t come back, and instead searches for a squirrel or other little critter to kill and eat. She barks, she steals food if the opportunity presents itself, and she views house rules more as guidelines.

On the other hand, Layla’s a dream to train. She learns new things quickly and has amazing focus. She tries her heart out for me and being in the rally ring with her is the best high I know. She loves it, and I love that she loves it. She’s been a phenomenal teacher and I wouldn’t trade her for the world.

If I could choose the perfect dog, I would blend Dobby’s wonderful companionship with Layla’s amazing focus and trainability. Since I can’t choose though, I’m glad I have the dogs I do. Both give me so much, and I could certainly have much worse. And who knows? Maybe in a year, once Dobby’s matured, I’ll have everything I want in him. If you notice a large flat area on the top of my head in the meantime, know that it’s just from banging my head against the wall. Ah, adolescence.

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Filed under Dobby, Layla, Training

What the Dog Heard: On Discovering Words of Power & the Power of Words

“He’s so stubborn. He knows how to sit; he just won’t do it unless I show him a treat.” My client glares at his bulldog puppy. The puppy gazes back at him softly, waiting for him to produce a treat. The second the owner pulls out a cookie, the puppy plops into a sit, grinning and wiggling.

Keeping my amusement to myself (what a clever pup!), I demonstrate to his owner how to reverse expectations. Showing the puppy a piece of chicken, I ask him to sit.He immediately plops down and I praise him exuberantly, but withhold the treat. Very ostentatiously, I set the chicken chunk on a nearby counter, then ask the puppy once again to sit. He stares at me, at the chicken, back at me. He remains standing. “Told you so!” the owner crows. “Bulldogs just aren’t very smart.” Ten long seconds later, the puppy’s rear end starts to lower. Before he’s fully in a sit, I click his downward movement and hand him the chicken, telling him what an intelligent pup he is. After a couple of minutes the puppy is slamming his rear enthusiastically on the ground on either a hand signal or verbal cue with no food lure. Stubborn? No, just confused about the rules.

I can understand my client’s need to label his puppy as stubborn and stupid. Last winter, I adopted a broken dog. I had been looking for a dog for a while. However, I hadn’t been looking for this particular dog.

Shortly after adoption, Dobby was a study in stress signals.

Dobby started off as one of a long line of foster dogs. A neophobic bull breed mix from the local pound, he was adorable but was most certainly not the future competition prospect I had in mind. He was hand shy, terrified of doorways, and so overwhelmed with his change in circumstances that he skipped every other meal. Trying to use a food lure or hand target resulted in him hitting the ground and trying to become one with the floor. Guests to my home caused him to growl and back up quickly, eyes wide and tail glued to his belly button.

Layla had different ideas about him. She fell in love, sleeping curled up around this dog and spontaneously inviting him to play on a daily basis. For a highly dog-selective bitch who typically barely tolerates fosters, this was so out of character that I sat up and took notice. After two months of
her embarrassing love affair, I gave in. The adoption paperwork was signed, and I found myself the proud owner of a dog who flattened to the floor and peed all over himself if I so much as looked at him cross-eyed.

I joked with my friends that I was just attracted to “broken” dogs. My other dogs have also been less-than-perfect when they came to live with me. I tried not to feel resentful that my plans for a competitive sports dog were being pushed back several years. It was worth it to see Layla so blissfully happy.

That’s when it hit me. I may not be calling my new dog stubborn or stupid, but labeling him as a “broken” dog was just as damning.

Words have power. It’s easy to forget this. In fact, our culture refutes this truth on a daily basis. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie that we tell ourselves from the time we’re little. It feels good to think that we’re immune to the power of suggestion. We’re stronger than that. We know how to look at facts and think rationally. How well we fool ourselves.

The real truth is that labels are incredibly powerful. One need look no further than the “Pit Bull problem” to see how this plays out. Two similar bite incidents happen on the same day. Both involve damage to a young child’s face by the resident dog. One involves a Labrador Retriever, one an American Pit Bull Terrier. The incident with the Lab is reported in two local papers. The incident with the Pit Bull is picked up by the Associated Press and winds up sparking debate on multiple national news shows about the need for Breed Specific Legislation. Label the biting dog with a different breed, and the headlines become so much less sexy. Pit Bulls are not Labradors, and Labs are not Pits. However, the “Pit Bull” label has come to mean something entirely different to the general public and the media than it does to those of us who work with these dogs on a regular basis. Dogs are profiled based on the size of their head and the mass of their muscles rather than being approached as individuals.

By calling my dog broken, even jokingly, I was damaging our prospects before we even started. Any time we label something, we create mental associations. When I think of the word broken, I think of having to repair something, of possibly not being able to fix it. Word associations pop up in my mind: discarded, unusable, neglected, thrown out, useless. These mental images were being attached, however unconsciously, to my new dog. Realizing this, I decided to try an experiment. I had already begun a desensitization and counter-conditioning program with Dobby, taking him to quiet places and rewarding him lavishly for brave behavior. I was working within his comfort zone and patiently encouraging him to explore the world. I changed absolutely nothing about this training plan. The only detail I altered was how I described him. Instead of speaking about Dobby as broken, rescued, neophobic, or terrified, I invented new labels. Clicking and feeding him a food reward for walking through a doorway without crouching, I cooed to him about what a “big, brave boy” he was. When he finally started to offer sits, I praised him as “SUCH a clever boy!” Over and over, the little dog heard, “Dobby’s clever.” “Dobby’s brave.” “Dobby’s a good dog.”

I expected results. I’d been seeing progress already, and I figured this small change could only improve things. After four months, if my little dog was still so terrified that it impacted his quality of life, I would talk to my veterinarian about a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to get him further help.

Layla and her dog curl up together.

This proved unnecessary. Suddenly, my “neophobic pound puppy” was playing tug like a Schutzhund dog and jumping up on strangers in friendly greeting. He would go into the backyard with a ball in his mouth to run and run, tail up and eyes sparkling. He bounced around me as I worked in the garden, and pranced past the bikes, joggers, and baseball players in the park as if they were only so much scenery. He passed the “appearance and grooming” test in the Canine Good Citizen exam, sitting calmly by my side as a complete stranger handled his ears and paws, then ran a brush down his back.

Each day he became braver, and suddenly I had my competition prospect. Here was a dog with a great work ethic, drive to spare, and the intense desire to work cooperatively with me. Here was a dog who, while still unsure about new things, was willing to trust that I would keep him safe and to try his very best each time I asked it. The only difference? A few small words. The power of suggestion.

This can be a powerful tool for our clients. I believe this small shift in thinking spells the difference between those teams who succeed with behavior modification and those who never get things figured out.

How often do trainers hear that a pushy, anxious dog is “dominant?” The dominance myth has such incredible power that one can see the change in a client in an instant. As my clients describe their “dominant” dog to me, I watch as their faces change. Their eyes harden, the muscles around their lips tighten up, and they become tense. They glare at their dog. Their bodies unconsciously prepare for battle. If the dog is on a leash, the owner tightens up on it. Other labels cause similar observable results: dogs are stubborn, stupid, manipulative, guilty, aggressive, reactive. Owners excuse poor behavior by saying that the dog was abused, neglected, or rescued, or that the breed is “always like this.”

It’s amazing what words can do. When an owner labels their dog, we need to focus first on changing their perceptions. Problems can crop up here. The first thing that springs from most trainers’ lips when trying to advise an owner who’s doing something wrong is a phrase beginning with a negative (“Don’t….”).

This negativity affects our clients. The majority of people will try very hard to take a trainer’s advice. They will remind themselves over and over, “don’t say no” or “don’t pop the leash.” And what’s happening each time they issue an internal reminder? They’re mentally practicing that forbidden behavior, getting better and better at it. The more they remind themselves to stop, the more they picture the prohibited behavior in their minds. That mental imagery becomes reality. They can’t stop themselves from popping the leash or telling their dog no because they’ve practiced that negative behavior so many times in their mind. It’s firmly entrenched in their behavioral repertoire. We need to reframe the situation for them if we want to help them succeed.

As positive trainers, most of us find it easy to be kind to the dog. Unfortunately, not every positive trainer is as patient and reinforcing to the
other end of the leash. Try this simple experiment. Next time a client tells you that their dog is stubborn; prove to that person that their dog is
willing. Say it just as many times as the person repeats their assertion. Each time the client tells me, “He’s just so stubborn!” I counter with “he’s so eager to learn” or “he’s trying so hard to figure out what you want.” Sincerity is important here. If the rate of reinforcement is too low and the dog could care less about the person holding onto his leash handle, fix that first. Telling your client that his dog is cooperative while Fido lunges and barks at the cute Poodle across the room is a great way to drive business away. Give a concrete suggestion: “I want you to click and treat eight times in the next minute.” Shape success in your student just as you do with the other end of the leash. The laws of learning apply to all organisms, and humans are no exception.

It’s true that dogs couldn’t care less about words. Words are as foreign a concept to your dog as scent is to you. However, dogs live in a human world. In our world, words have incredible power. Mental imagery allows us to practice dealing successfully (or not!) with a given situation repeatedly before that situation ever arises. Labels create subconscious associations that influence our behavior, which in turn shapes our dogs’ behavior.

Simple changes can produce big results. My new dog is brave, clever, and willing. He recently started foundation agility classes, where he’s excelling, and qualified twice at his very first APDT Rally Obedience show. My client’s Bulldog puppy is stubborn no more. On graduation night of Beginning Obedience class, he proudly showed off his dog’s new trick repertoire: shake, wave, high five, and yes, sit on cue with no cookie in sight. As his classmates applauded, a fellow student expressed doubt that her dog would ever become so well behaved. My client’s answer? “My dog made it easy: he’s really smart.”

Dogs are incredibly gifted at reading intent in our tone, posture, and movement. Just because they don’t know the literal meaning of each word doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by language. Stop for a minute and consider this: what have you been saying to yourself… and
what has your dog heard?


Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Rescue, Training

Introducing Layla’s dog, Dobby

A couple posts ago, I wrote about the possibility of adopting my current foster dog because Layla loved him. It’s official – Dobby (formerly Boots) is now a member of the family! I wanted to share how I went about the decision-making process, and what’s in store for the future with my expanded canine family.
This certainly wasn’t an easy decision, and I really agonized over what to do. My biggest two concerns were whether Layla would continue to love this dog so much as he matured, and whether he would really be happy living with us.


Whether the dogs will continue to get along is still a concern of mine, and I believe it’s a valid one. This is almost entirely due to Dobby’s age – somewhere between 12-18 months. In other words, not completely mature. It’s not uncommon for dogs, especially Terrier-type dogs, to become more dog selective as they age. This is a possibility I have to face with adopting a younger dog. However, my other option (a puppy from a breeder) was no more likely to continue to get along with Layla than Dobby was. Actually, since Layla has never liked another dog this way, I would say that the possibility of a great match was actually worse with a puppy than with Dobby. At least with Dobby, we had a solid foundation to start with. If Layla’s past behavior with foster puppies is any indication, she would absolutely hate a puppy to begin with. She would likely grow to accept the puppy and even begin playing with him on occasion, but her default would be bare tolerance. Here at least, the two dogs have a history of affiliative behavior to build from.

Whether Dobby will be happy living with us was another concern of mine. Frankly, I’m not the best home for a fearful dog. I foster other dogs. I take my dogs everywhere with me. I’m a complete clutz, and frequently trip on things, stub my toes, cut myself, fall over, and sometimes yell or swear while doing it all. My dogs don’t have the luxury of hiding in my house and yard and never leaving – they’re exposed to multiple environments through dog classes, hikes, friend’s houses, seminars, and trials.

However, I think Dobby can handle this. He has come out of his shell during his time with Layla and I. He’s still fearful, and is actually becoming more reactive as he becomes less shut down. But he’s trying. He tries so hard that my heart hurts for him sometimes. Unlike Layla, who’s completely out for #1, I feel like Dobby actually does want to please me. He desperately craves praise and is easily crushed if he feels I’m displeased with him. He’s butter-soft, but he’s also willing to try over and over again if I ask him to. This is both good and bad. It’s oh-so-easy to reward him, because even a smile has reinforcement value for him. On the flip side, I have to be careful not to allow petty disappointments or frustration to travel down the leash when things don’t go as planned, or he becomes frantically obsequious.

I’ve been surprised at how very attached I’ve become to this little dog in such a short time. His relationship with Layla has something to do with it. I will never get tired of watching the two of them play or curl up and nap together. Layla has never had a dog friend like this, and I love to see her so joyful and content. She’s like the cat who got into the cream – self-satisfied to the point of gloating. Dobby can do things to her that no other dog would get away with, and the two of them have a wonderful relationship. There are the usual hiccups of any relationship – some mild guarding, the occasional snark when play gets too rough – but for the most part, these two dogs are pals.

Not all of my relationship with this little dog comes from his ties to Layla, though. I’ve discovered that Dobby is earnest, soulful, and affectionate. He snuggles himself into an impossibly small little ball on the bed, as if afraid if he takes up too much room he’ll get in trouble. (Layla, on the other paw, takes up as much space as possible, and is not afraid to use her sharp toenails as “incentive” to push her bedmates aside if she feels she’s not getting her fair share of the space.) In the mornings, he looks at me with the softest, happiest eyes and snuggles in closer, sighing in contentment.

Photo by Megan Nelson

When we train, he tries so, so hard to figure out what I want. He’s thoughtful and careful during shaping, in total contrast to Layla’s wild gyrations. He still flinches sometimes when I move too quickly or speak too loudly, but is learning to enjoy touch. He no longer flattens to the floor or urinates in fear, and can move through doorways without crawling. He’s still terrified of new men, but has made friends with my father and a guy friend of mine and desperately wants to connect. His initial contact with new people is often done crawling on his stomach, tail tucked, but he initiates the contact in spite of his fear.

So, where to next?

I’ve decided not to have any expectations of Dobby, beyond being a good pet. I want him to be happy with Layla and I, and I want him to be well-trained enough that he is a pleasure to be around. Beyond that, it’s his call. We’ll dabble in dog sports to see what he likes – weight pulling, disc, agility, CFF freestyle, and rally are all available to him if he so chooses – but whether we ever compete is his call. I’ll keep insisting (gently) that he expand his horizons by taking him to new places and introducing him to new people, but if he never becomes a social butterfly that’s also okay by me. We’ll work on his reactivity issues, so that hopefully someday I can walk him and Layla together (I think they’d both really enjoy that). I haven’t discounted the possibility of anxiety meds for him, and if we hit a wall we’ll discuss the possibility with our vet. For now though, he’s making progress and doing okay.

Welcome home, little Dobby. I think you’re going to like it here.

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dobby, Dog Selection, Layla, Other Dogs, Rescue