Tag Archives: happy post

An extraordinary encounter

Coming home from our walk yesterday morning, Spencer and I passed in front of the municipal pool which is about 100 metres from our house. A women leaving the pool was on a diagonal path to intersect our path, in front of us. I stopped Spencer and gave him the command to wait. The woman stopped just in front of us, and made a kissy noise to get his attention. She saw his muzzle, and this is where people normally ask me, “Is he mean” But she didn’t. She asked, “Is he fearful? ”

I was surprised, but delighted. “Yes, ” I replied. “Very.”

She immediately dropped into a squat, slightly held her hand out in front of her, and called him again. Timidly, her moved forward and started to sniff her hard and her face. Worried that he would suddenly decide she was scary, I kept the leash too tight and kept reassuring him in a calm voice that she was nice, and he should be stay calm. He did. and I called him away fairly quickly. Always better that a shy dog’s first contact with someone new be too short than too long.

I told the woman that I couldn’t believe it. She must have a gift. Normally, he reacted very easily to strangers. “Reward him!” she said. (I was already giving him chicken.)

I wanted to hug her. It’s so rare to bump into people who truly understand our special needs puppy. I hope we see her again soon.

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A new chapter for Spencer

Not too long ago, we took a decision to change trainers. The reasons are largely pragmatic. We are still connected to Irène and would recommend her to anyone, but seeing her meant driving to the edges of Paris, which always involved traffic and parking headaches. Plus we wondered if being in such an urban environment complicated training sessions for Spencer by surrounding him with too much ambient stress. Finally, we are interested in diversifying the kennels where we can leave him, and our new trainer Anaïs is associated with one of those kennels.

We like the idea that he can stay in a kennel where we know they use positive methods, but when we visited he didn’t do so well. The first time, he settled when we left him in a pen near other dogs, but when he was left in an isolated pen the second time, he wasn’t able to settle after 30 minutes. They won’t take him until they are sure he’ll be happy there.

That’s when we hatched the idea of doing his training at the new kennel. It allows him to get used to the place while we’re there and to let him form positive associations with the people and the place.

At our first session, Anaïs explained how his training is going to change now, but careful not to criticize what we had done before. On the contrary, she congratulated us on the progress Spencer had made since she had last seen him about nine months earlier. The changes being made now are because Spencer is capable of things now that he wasn’t before. Notably, he can manage stress much better, which allows us to challenge his limits gradually. Nonetheless, she said it is important to continue to monitor his emotional state and to know when to revert to giving a wide berth to scary things or even walking away.

Since Spencer has more emotional maturity now, we are finally able to start working on giving him less headway and teaching him that we’re in charge. This isn’t about outdated notions of dominance. It’s the same mentality as how parents lay down limits for kids and gradually transmit the rules for living in society.

The first lesson was simply walking around with Spencer and countering him whenever he tried to pull or lunge in one direction, directing him in the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. He sniped at Anaïs several times, but she said, “It’s no big deal. He’s just upset about not getting his own way. He’s throwing a tantrum.” And gradually he stopped.

At the second lesson, he was much calmer in her presence and more focused on where we were telling him to go. So we left the main compound, walked along the road to the other side of a field and entered a fenced in area under the trees that also belongs to the kennel. Anaïs suggested letting Spencer off leash and seeing how he did. He didn’t charge her once. We walked forward and backwards, calling him to come to use when we changed direction. He did great.

The third lesson involved Anaïs’ dog. The point was to see how Spencer did with another dog. We consistently blocked him when he tried to run up to the other dog in an uncontrolled fashion. He did pretty well, but just as he got really close, his excitement boiled over, he ran forward and mounted the other dog, which is very rude in canine behavior. The dog was very tolerant, but Anaïs was not happy since her dog is elderly. SHe suggested our seeing another trainer who has “coach” dogs, who will help Spencer learn how to be more polite.

In the meantime, the fourth lesson went great. Anaïs suggested we meet in the neighboring village to see how Spencer does in a more urban environment. We were there early, waiting for her at the parking lot. When she pulled in, I told Spencer, “Look! Anaïs is here!” As she got out of her car, Spencer went forward, tail wagging. and gave her a cuddle. She was as happy and surprised as we were that he recognized her “out of context” and was so happy to see her. We did a walk with Anaïs coaching us, and everyone thought it was a very good lesson. And that’s as far as we’ve gotten with Anaïs so far.

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)

10/10 on a difficult course!

This morning was one of those we-have-come-so-far walks.

Whenever we have to go around a blind corner, I call Spencer to my side, prepare a treat just in case, try to peer through fences and bushes and prepare to react if we are surprised by someone. This morning, I thought I had a good view around the first corner we encountered, but when we turned it, there was a young boy, too short to be seen through the break in the fence and bushes. I calmly asked Spencer to do a u-turn and cross, which he executed without hesitation while the boy called a friendly “Bonjour!” after us. Continue reading

Spencer tries Nina Ottosson's Tornado

Spencer the Tornado

One of the challenges with a Cane Corso is to keep him occupied. This working breed used to have four jobs on the farm, so he needs lots of activity. Plus, each of his skills has its “dark side” when not properly channelled:

  1. Herding — This contributes to stress when the family is not together and separation anxiety.
  2. Guarding — This entails distrust of strangers and plays a role in the genetic aspect of fear aggression.
  3. Traction — You think your dog pulls on leash? Try walking a 44 kg (~100 lb) dog designed to pull carts loaded with heavy stuff.
  4. Hunting — A strong prey drive that makes fleeing cats irresistible.

Spencer has loads of toys to keep him busy, but most of them don’t seem to be very satisfying unless we are trying to get them out of his mouth or at least sitting nearby watching him play.  Other toys are supposed to occupy him, but he’s very smart and has figured them out. He can empty a Kong in under five minutes through a clever technique that entails picking it up in his mouth and dropping it to dislodge what’s inside. Freezing Kongs to slow him down was effective in the beginning, but then he realized that the easiest thing was just to let it sit there a few hours until it melts.

So I’ve been looking for new toys to provide mental stimulation. He likes his Kong Wobbler, but he knows exactly how it works and likes chewing on it too much. So I got him a new ball that distributes food and makes a funny noise when it’s turned a certain way.

But what I’ve wanted for a really long time was a Nina Ottosson toy. My mom offered to buy him one for his 2013 Christmas present, but I couldn’t decide which to get. I wondered which level of difficulty to get — he’s smart, but he’s never had one before. Plus, it wasn’t very clear from the descriptions which ones might be well suited for a very large dog. Finally, I decided to get a hard one simply because there was a picture of a German Shepherd using it, so I figured it would be size-appropriate.

It’s the Tornado game. It consists of three bone-shaped trays stacked on a central axis around which they spin. There’s a bone-shaped cover that also spins. Each tray has fours compartments where you can put treats or food (or a little bone-shaped cover that is meant to make the game harder because it keeps the level from spinning until the dog dislodges it).

There are really detailed explanations of how to teach the dog to use it. So I started going through them one by one. At about instruction three of fifteen, Spencer pushed me aside and took over. Here’s the video proof. This is about five minutes after he saw the game for the first time.

Spencer’s critique? Super fun! To understand just how much he likes this, you need to realize that the cleaning lady is vacuuming in the room next door, and this is usually a very stressful event for him. He kept asking me to refill it and was all smiley and happy, even when I re-opened the door and he was reminded the cleaning lady was there.

Treats that make Spencer go boing

One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities. Continue reading