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— August 20, 2013 —

Daphne’s Story: Part Four.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

As we have been discussing, Daphne was a dog reactive hound mix who trained with us at Bark Avenue. If you missed the last couple of Tails, we recommend going back and reading them for the background on her behavioral issues (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). This week, we’ll go over the last couple of phases of her training program and explain why the final phase will never end.

I keep getting updates from Daphne’s mom. Daphne keeps improving and is now allowed to play with the family dog off the leash and without the muzzle. You may think that this means that she’s “cured.” That would not be the case. Daphne is in Phase Four of her training program. That training and management phase will last the rest of her life.

We’ve talked about the first two phases of Daphne’s four-phase program. The first two phases revolved around making sure she had good understanding of obedience commands and using those commands to keep her from reacting every time she saw a dog.

This week we’ll discuss the final phases of Daphne’s program. Phase Three is “Desensitization.” This is the phase where we really expose Daphne to as many dogs as possible. The goal is to reduce her initial excitement and allow her to experience dogs in a calm state. This was intended to prevent her from having her initial overstimulated reaction. In this phase, we began to allow Daphne to get close enough to dogs to allow for some social interaction. We took her on long walks with other dogs. She was allowed to walk very close to dogs as long as she ignored them. She seemed to enjoy having other dogs around and as she got calmer, she was even allowed to get some sniffing in. She continued to show more tolerance and improvement, so we decided she could be allowed out in the play groups with the right dogs. In all honesty, I was not originally sure that she would ever be able to go into a large group of dogs. It can’t stressed enough that this should only be attempted under the guidance of someone who is experienced with this type of issue. If we had misread Daphne or put her with the wrong dogs, there could have been a fight which could have resulted in injury to people and dogs.

I mentioned putting Daphne with the right dogs. It was critical to select the right dogs for Daphne’s play group. We had to avoid dogs that might cause her to become overstimulated. Overstimulation could cause Daphne to react badly and basically destroy the progress that we had made. We had spent all this time teaching her to be calm around dogs and a fight in this phase of her training could have set her all the way back to day one. Since we still didn’t fully trust her, Daphne had her play dates in the muzzle. By this time she seemed oblivious to it.

For the play groups, Daphne also wore the electronic training collar that we discussed earlier. By now, she was fully conditioned to respond to the collar, even if she became very excited. The collar allowed us to communicate with her when she was too stimulated or distracted to hear us.

As Daphne got more freedom with the dogs, she actually started to engage in play behaviors with the other dogs. We allowed her to engage and romp a bit, but regularly recalled her from play and had her sit for a short cool-down period. Practicing the recall regularly was important. In watching her body language, we saw a couple of instances where she started to stiffen up. This is a warning that she was possibly becoming aggressive and we used the recall to remove her from the situation. The electronic training collar is invaluable in these instances. As Daphne was going into her aggressive mode, she would be much less likely to even hear us communicating with her. The collar allowed for immediate physical contact. That contact is what allowed us to get through to her and keep her from going further into her aggressive zone.

Phase Four: “Rehearsal” is the final phase of Daphne’s training. It will never end. As I tell everyone who trains with me, “Training is a lifestyle, not an exercise.” Every time Daphne crosses paths with a dog, every time she sees a dog through the window and every time she doesn’t react, she is rehearsing proper, calm behavior. Every time this happens, she becomes more likely to behave properly with the next dog. As I mentioned last week, “Certain terms and conditions do apply” to Daphne’s acceptance of other dogs. If Katie isn’t diligent about keeping Daphne calm, or if she allows her to charge at dogs through a fence, Daphne will regress back to not tolerating dogs. If Katie puts Daphne in a situation with untrained or unstable dogs who attack her, Daphne may regress in her behavior. The bottom line is this. Daphne will be training for the rest of her life to tolerate calm dogs. Training a dog like Daphne is a lot like practicing for any event or sport. If you don’t practice, you loose the training. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player to ever live, still had to practice to stay at the top of his game.

Daphne’s story shows us that even though we don’t always get a perfect well-behaved dog, there are things that can be done to help dogs with serious behavioral issues. Someone once said, “You don’t get the dog you want. You get the dog you need.” I think that Daphne came along to help Katie learn some important lessons. I don’t think she’s finished teaching her mom yet, either. Only time will tell where their story goes.

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