It was Loki’s 1 year anniversary of coming to live with us yesterday. May 31, last year, we picked him up in San Francisco and drove him home. How time flies. So much has changed from being a demon dog who wouldn’t allow me to put on a collar or leash to upgrading his label as an “alligator on a leash” to now “decently obedient with a hint nutty flavor.” Loki has taught me so much in the world of patience and teaching him how to be a confident, well-behaved dog. People who meet him today would never guess he was ever a naughty dog. His hint of nutty-naughty flavor is fine by me. I like ‘em naughty.
And yes, I am ONE of “those” people who dote on their dogs and have mini-celebrations for their achievements. But seriously, I think the achievement is all mine. And I’m not ashamed to claim it. There should be an award given to people who make it to one year with anxious alligators like Loki. In fact, I made sure I had my fair share of tri-tip and at least five or six of those mini celebration cup cakes to serve as my under acknowledged award.
In August of last year, I thought it would be a great idea to adopt Juno so she could help relieve some of his pent up energy. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was just like one of those ridiculous people on TV who have difficulty with one dog and think getting a second will solve the problem.
What Loki really needed was stability and a consistent environment. He needed me to learn how to be fair and consistent in how I responded to his naughty behavior. Looking back at the year, I made so many mistakes, but I made a ton of progress. I tried all sorts of training techniques (remember the hamster ball?) and finally settled on training with a combination marker/positive reward training for completely new behaviors he needs to learn and compulsion for aggressive behaviors or blatant disobedience, such as stuff he knows 100% how to do but refuses to do. This has proven to be the best method for him as it’s the most fair. For the most part, Loki needs very little compulsion as he’s able to carry out his commands just as I ask them. But it wasn’t like that in the beginning. He needed compulsion to stop the aggressive behaviors and I needed to learn how much compulsion. It was all trial and error, along with the help of professional trainers (online, published and in-person), but I found out he needs very little compulsion to do his job (low level to remind him to pay attention while working) and he has not warranted any large corrections for aggression since last year. But this is also because I am able to read his body and redirect his anxiety before it ever escalates.
He still barks with anxiety when we go to school but I give him 5 minutes of his own time to do his thing, sniff around, maybe play with the tug, and when he’s done, he’s ready to work. And work he does! He’s proving to be one of the better, calm, relaxed students in school (I can’t even believe I’m writing this), working really well when we’re both in the zone. Usually I can catch anxiety rising in him and I’m able to redirect it fairly quickly giving him a win. But sometimes I miss it and all it takes is one unfair correction and he can lose it. He’ll lose his confidence, stop working and become anxious and eventually naughty. But I learned it’s also pretty easy to bring him back to his zone. A few simple tricks for treats, praise, or maybe a tug toy reward and he’s all that again and ready to rock the training world.
A few weeks ago, a training exercise went poorly in school and I believe Loki received an unfair correction from one of the junior trainers holding his leash. It wasn’t the best exercise to give a dog like Loki anyway (I believe not all dogs should or can be trained the same way), but I followed the instructions and without getting into details, at the end, from where I was standing, I felt he received unfair corrections. His anxiety went through the roof. I couldn’t blame him. I’d be pissed too if I thought I should be doing one thing because my master told me, but then received a correction for it. I thought for sure his training was over for the day. Instead, I took him out of the group, gave him some very simple commands with praise reward, then released his tug and played with him for a few minutes. We went back to the group and finished class with a mild level of anxiousness. There was a police defense dog demo and he remained calm and interested while he watched instead of the expected hyper anxiety he usually displays. The clinic owner called on us to demonstrate Loki’s down at a distance and off leash heel. I was almost convinced he wouldn’t do it given how earlier he wigged out, but he pulled out a beautiful off-leash down during his recall, then trotting to the heel position from 400 feet away. He really showed me he can come back to his confidence and made me proud.
It’s All Going Smooth, Like Buttah, Until…
In August last year, I couldn’t have Loki in class for 5 minutes, because he was loud and aggressive. Today, he is calm and confident on the training field, well, until this past Saturday, when we thought it would be a good idea to bring Juno to school with Loki.
Scott didn’t feel like his morning ride, and since he really needs to bond with Juno, he went to class with us to work with her. And we were kind of sick of her separation anxiety tantrums. Well, we got a reminder of Loki’s good ‘ole days. He whined, barked and was distracted the entire time by Juno and Scott. Like a kid with a temper tantrum, his intense pack drive became tunnel vision for him and he literally would not work. At one point he broke a down-stay (which hasn’t done in months) and bolted straight for Juno who literally got ready to receive a Loki pounce. Sigh. So embarrassing. Still, like the ham that he is, he managed to demonstrate a great off leash heel at the end of class for the new people.
He’s definitely an anxious dog. He’s also quite dominant. The two are not the best ingredients for stability. But his anxiety is disappearing and that’s all that matters.
At home, I train using marker training and prey drive training. The two are a little different but are mostly positive reward based training. Prey drive training can involve a little compulsion, especially involving the “out” of the toy, but for the most part it is positive reward based which he loves. Loki loves to use his noggin to learn new behaviors rather than be pushed into something using compulsion. I had been having trouble getting him to “down” during heel in the right direction (feet facing same direction as mine). Trainers had told me to use compulsion to get him to do it properly. But it only raised his anxiety. He already knew what “down” meant. “Down is down” and if his belly is on the ground, feet facing right, left or backwards, why should he get a correction for it if he’s already doing it? He’d get anxious, “talk back” and sometimes refuse to work if I tried using compulsion to teach him “down” when he already thought he knew it. He didn’t understand that I wanted his feet facing forward. So at home, I used marker training and his frustration only came from not getting the marker word or reward, not from getting a correction for something he didn’t understand how to do in the first place. He had to use his brain in order to figure out where to place his feet and belly during the down command, otherwise he got no reward. It took me one training session to get him to face in the proper direction on the down now and I no longer have any problems with it. The funny thing about marker training and Loki is that it isn’t the food that motivates him. I know this because once he learns a behavior he’ll simply do it because I ask it. The food is just a reinforcer to say “YES! That is exactly what I wanted you to do.” He really thrives on being right and doing the right behavior. When the training tools and toys come out, Loki knows its game time and he’s always ready to train and play.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I agreed to adopt a dog that the rescuer thought wouldn’t be adoptable. He was a “mouther” and “played too roughly.” They weren’t wrong. On top of those things, his anxiety can and did make him aggressive. It did take much more than the average pet owner to understand what he needed. Loki would never have survived with a working couple with kids. He needed someone to spend time learning how to turn his negatives into positives. He also needed someone to read, research and figure out the best methods for teaching him good behavior. He gets to bite a lot, on his own tugs and bite pillows. He gets to play with them when he learns new behaviors as his reward. He also gets to play with them to relieve anxiety. And guess what? His random mouthing behavior is gone.
At this point, people who meet Loki or read this blog may wonder why I still train him given how far he’s come. Most people would stop going to training and call it a success. He’s perfectly behaved in public, quiet and able to go into stores or wait outside patiently for me. He’s fairly well-behaved in the house, with the exception that it takes a few minutes to calm him down when guests arrive. But after that, he’s lovey-dovey with them. The reason I keep working him is because he loves and needs it. And he’s completely capable of being a working dog. I more than sense it. I see it in him when we train. His sharp Formosan brain surprises me every single day. He’s so intuitive and thinks several steps ahead of me. Don’t even get me to tell you the story about how he’d do his down command from a distance before I cued him because he’d read another cue from the trainer to cue me to cue Loki. He was the only dog who had caught onto that game. He’s super alert and he’s always after the win. And for some reason, I believe he is capable of being 100% without fail completely obedient and perfectly behaved without a leash. Because he got a late and rough start in life where people had failed him, it is taking a little longer. And it doesn’t help that I’m learning this training stuff along the way either. I still make mistakes. Thankfully, Loki is huge on the forgiveness factor. One thing’s for sure: Loki has taught me much more than I have ever taught him. Who knew a little Formosan Mountain Dog from Taiwan would teach me so much about giving a dog what he or she really needs?
Happy Anniversary Loki. We’re so proud and lucky to have you in our lives.