Some Initial Thoughts On Training A Special Needs Fur Missile

I would have liked to have composed and posted this earlier in my new relationship with Gia. While it’s not necessarily a need, it is an advantage if I can get into “the flow” before I write and dealing with a reactive puppy with a short attention span is not conducive to those conditions. Be that as it may…

When I made the decision that being without a canine companion was an issue that needed to be rectified I made a mental list of things I did not want in a new dog. Chief among them was not wanting to deal with a puppy and all the extra attention and training that would entail. Unfortunately, the New Dog needed a new home in a timely fashion and I needed a new dog and so many of the criteria I did not want in a new dog were left by the wayside.

So…I am starting with a relatively fresh dog who has separation anxiety and aggression issues:
* Food aggression
* Cat (any other small animal) aggression
* Leash aggression
* Stranger aggression

When I say “aggression” I am specifically using that term to denote what I expect those who experience that energy directed towards them feel as opposed to what I believe Gia is expressing…which is fear of the unknown.

Coming from having a dog that was sweet, friendly but incredibly timid it is a bit of a culture shock to now have (and be financially and legally responsible for) this powerful, relatively untrained and unsocialized creature. It is frankly stressful and I am not a fan of stress. The easy escape would be to simply return her to the person I got her from but I have been informed that will quickly end up with her back into “The System” and dogs with the “Dangerous Dog” designation (and some merely by looking like they have any “Pit Bull” in them) usually end up on the sharp end of a needle. So instead I am choosing to take the long road, be patient (but vigilant) and, like Willow and Nohkuma my last two dogs before her, I expect she will continue to pick up on my expectations, tone and attitude in response to her various less-than-ideal behaviors. Conversely I too am learning her little “issues” and am dealing with them in as calm and consistent manner as I can provide.

A major component of this training regime is a stable environment, especially after having experienced several different home situations during this first year of her life. As a willfully houseless person I cannot yet provide her a stable environment based on an unmoving house with a fence. Instead she gets stability from my presence and demeanor and her growing understanding that, while the camping spot and smells may change, the Tacoma, our setup (and her personal gear) we use while camping remains unchanged.

In the seven weeks or so that she has been mine she has met numerous dogs and people in a variety of situations and I am just now starting to pick up on some of her “tells” of when she is about to “snap.” Her default face is the “sociopathic serial killer” version of a Resting Bitch Face. Even her pretty almond-colored eyes are normally “dead.” I can now assume when I see her tail stop wagging combined with her mouth “smile” closing into that serious, serial killer look that she is posturing up and about to “go postal.” Usually a quick “NO” or “Nope” command and/or stepping in to physically interrupt and redirect her defuses the situation. Essentially break her focus from the triggering target and change her focus onto something benign or even fun. When she acts or reacts in the manner I wish her usual reward is vocal praise and a more physical but still calm wrestle/pet/toy session. If she’s really good or after a productive fetch time I’ll let her keep her little orange and blue Chuckit Ultra Ball so she can chew on it like a pacifier. When she gets overstimulated I can sometimes offer those same balls as the redirect prop. I try to use the correct level of the “interrupt” depending on the situation. Then the right “redirect” as well. I break my cache of interrupts into two basic categories: Regular and “Oh Shit!” My small group of escalating interrupts include a regular verbal cue (usually just a quiet but sharp “Hey”) to get her attention back on me. Then sometimes I only need to use the little plastic squeaker from a dog toy that I always have in a pocket as another first level interrupt. The other relaxed regular interrupt is the tone function. I really only use that as needed for her separation anxiety issues, especially during the first 30 seconds of me leaving her behind and her resultant verbal freak out. From there we escalate interrupts, by what speed depends on the situation. For her I really only use two more and right now, like the tone function, they have to be delivered remotely.

I’m working with her under the assumption that she sometimes needs a reminder that the commands she’s hearing are important. I mention the term “Fur Missile” in this post’s title because she is Faaast. I’ve had several good pitty friends over the years but I don’t have a lot of one-on-one experience with pit bulls. I am surprised how easily she can keep up with some of the dogs she’s played with including Bill the 4 year old Greyhound/Pharaoh Hound mix (my guess) whose breeds are both known as fast dogs. I really have no good pictures of Bill but this is one of him shaking off after a good wrestling session with Gia

And this is in the middle of that session with Gia voluntarily giving up her back and opening up her massive gaping maw to fit as much of Bill’s throat into it as possible.

“Soon-To-Be-Covered-In-Spit” Bill Seeing Where It’s Going To Come From

This need for a remotely delivered “reminder” is especially true when she is running farther away, at top speed, and a vocal command or a little plastic squeaker in my pocket will be ineffective. From my testing the tone function is also useless in those circumstances. For the last two redirects I use the vibrate and the static discharge functions on a remote trainer. The electronic trainer I’ve chosen is a cheap version of something more expensive I have had in the past but, for the price, it works quite well. If she ended up being a “runner” I would have been forced to buy something along the lines of a Garmin or a Dogtra location tracking and training device (especially in many of the expansive wilds we frequent) but thankfully that need has not arisen and she sticks relatively close to me. So far 75% of the time I only need to interrupt with the verbal, squeak or tone function. Of the remaining 25% of incidences needing correction the vibration function (which kinda also resides in my Regular cache) can handle 15-20% of those. It’s truly only about 5% of the time when the one “Oh Shit!” correction is used and I completely expect that number to fall quickly. It breaks her focus long enough that the repeated command gets through to her and the behavior I am trying to stop ceases immediately. The few times I have been forced to use that “Oh Shit!” shock function were in situations, as in this one tense example. She saw a horse and rider on Moonstone Beach and decided to rush towards them TOP SPEED. It might have worked out well. It also could of ended up with her stomped into a quivering paste by the horse’s hooves or the rider could have been reared off and ended up like Christopher Reeve. Neither of those outcomes would have been acceptable. The rider saw her coming and of course spurred the horse to run which only made Gia run faster and so I needed to quickly turn her from that course of action and with a few quick corrections reminded her of her obligations as a good canine citizen and nothing bad happened. Other situations where the shock function might be necessary are when/if she decides to chase, harass or even kill livestock. We spend lots of time on various Federal Lands next to or themselves used for livestock grazing. I know for a fact that many ranchers and farmhands will simply shoot any dog who threatens their livestock which also happens to be completely legal. American common law has long recognized a person’s right to kill dogs in order to protect livestock and other property. Many U.S. states have statutes allowing farmers, ranchers, and others to kill dogs that are chasing, harassing, or attacking their livestock. State laws often allow a farmer or rancher to kill a dog before it has actually done physical harm to the the animal(s). Many laws specifically mention chasing or “worrying” livestock as behaviors that can justify killing a dog. In this context, “worrying” means that the dog is in some way pursuing or harassing the animal. That right there is what worries me about Gia and why I am taking these direct steps to dissuade her from those behaviors.

Another scenario I can imagine a need for that last ditch Oh Shit intervention is her finding a dangerous animal such as a rattlesnake and wanting to interact with it.

Just so you don’t think I am a heartless monster who casually shocks my dog in the throat at the drop of a hat I will say that I have tested the static discharge function on myself, on my hands, an arm and even my throat. The remote trainer has 99 steps of discharge. I started my self-test on level 5 and could easily feel it on all three places. I could get up to 10 before I realized I am not a masochist and stopped. When I started with the girl and her thick neck I started at level 10 and all she did was blink. It took a few more instances with 5 bumps each time (levels 15, 20, 25) before she would always and immediately turn away from the potentially bad situation. Her training collar never sits right on her big neck and always settles with the receiver and prongs to one side. This ends up being a good thing as she turns to the side the receiver sits on when the correction is given and then moves in that different direction. It seems that each correction gets me maybe 45 degrees or so of rotation away from her original heading. I have never needed more than 3 corrections netting around 135 degrees and getting me back in her field of vision which is a help as well.

As with all my interrupts and redirects I am regularly testing and attempting to start at a lower level and see if I get the same, correct behavior. If so that is the new floor. The less I have to do to get her to behave in an appropriate manner means the training is working and she is starting to catch on.

I have great friends in Humboldt County, California who knowingly offered themselves (two adults and a recently turned 18 year old boy) as Gia Training Aids. This amounted to being growled and barked at and bluff charged too many times over a two day period before Gia came to accept them as “not new and scary” and perhaps even as “not my human but pretty okay nonetheless.” She now runs to greet them, tail wagging and they in turn bend down to pet and embrace her and that quick improvement makes me happy. I also should mention my sister and her dog Pumpkin who were the two who brought Gia to my attention and who we stayed with for about two weeks, both before and after Gia getting spayed. Before the surgery she displayed a few of her puppy “issues” and for two solid days Pumpkin was afraid of her. After she had healed enough she and Pumpkin worked through those issues and, while not yet the best of friends, when we drove away they had at least made great strides in understanding each other and had played together, without drama, numerous times.

While I am calling Gia a “Special Needs” animal it should be mentioned that all puppies are special needs and one of the main needs is for them to learn to not put things that are not dog food or dog toys in their mouths. Aside from the damage they might do to said item by chewing I am more worried about what a particular item might do to her health if she eats it or gets involved with it. We have already had a long list of new experiences Gia has had where she needed to be reminded that that behavior needed to stop. Right Now. And hopefully never undertaken again.

I obviously realize that she doesn’t understand the many layered thought process of why I want her to leave “it” alone including: Its an animal living its own life and not hurting you. It’s a creature going about its own business and it is not a food source of yours. It might make you so aromatic you will be bathed in scary liquids and/or banished (Skunk). It can leave a substance on you that doesn’t bother me but will cause the majority of those that physically interact with you undue annoyance and misery (Poison Oak). It has a bad attitude and will lob little, vicious chunks of thorns that will stick in you and cause great pain (Cholla Cactus). It can physically hurt or even kill you (Rattlesnake, Scorpion). The interaction might become expensive or litigious for me (children/dogfight/livestock). You could even be taken away from me, roughly-handled and then legally killed by “the authorities”. So..if I say so…Leave. It. (The F*#k). Alone.

Some other of these “Leave It Alone” experiences have included (or probably will happen at some point):

This is my drone. It can hurt you. It would be expensive to replace. Leave it alone.

That’s an insect killer in the form of a little, yellow electrified tennis racket.

It is in both our interests for me to undertake an extremely localized flying parasitic insect genocide. It can shock the crap out of you. Leave it alone.

That’s a beetle. Leave it alone.

That’s a butterfly that just landed on me. It’s a blessing if you believe in those sorts of things. It’s not hurting me. Leave it alone.

That’s a Tarantula Hawk. Trust me I have dealt with these before. It will fill your entire world with excruciating pain. Leave it alone

That’s a skunk, coyote or any number of other non food sources or play buddies. Leave it/them alone.

That’s a rattlesnake/scorpion. Leave it alone. It can kill you. If it doesn’t kill you it will be painful and will do damage. Your predecessor learned that lesson the hard way. If it bites/stings you it will be an emotional and expensive experience for me. Leave it alone.

No, this is my chair. Especially when you are muddy. It’s only an Amazon Basic Zero gravity chair but it is mine. Your chair is that other, crappier, less stable one. Be good and I’ll upgrade you.

She Needs To Get Her Own Chair

Besides being overly “mouthy” she is a tick magnet. If I see or feel ticks on me or my bedding, we have a problem. Having to consciously deal with more than zero ticks during sleeping hours is less than optimum. For the foreseeable future she’ll get a monthly dose of K9 Advantix II which worked great the first time I used it at Horse Linto.

Even with this long list of issues, I have seen (and others have commented on) her noticeable and quick improvement in many of those areas. Already I am using the training collar less and less on a daily basis. For the most part Willow was “Police Dog” good and did what I wanted right when I wanted it done. Gia is not yet at that point and I am having to consciously chill out and not expect her to have those same high level of behavior as quickly as I want and have been used to. Yes, I am The Boss and she is my little mentoree but the end game is her being tightly bonded to me and having us trust each other and work well together as a team.

While we are not “there” yet we are getting there. And that is the goal.

One thought on “Some Initial Thoughts On Training A Special Needs Fur Missile

  1. Lynn Tao

    Hi! Thank you for this wonderful update! My name is Lynn – my dog Matlock (he is a sheepadoodle) used to play with Gia during the time when she was being fostered by Elijah! She is such a special creature – and she is lucky to have found adventure with you! Happy to see her settle in with you and we are sending her and you all our love! Matlock says hi! (He’s on Instagram as @matlock_esq, there are a few pics of these two goobers together)

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