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Don't forget to laugh with your dog

My dog Regis is the reason I got into dog behavior and became a trainer. I've always loved dogs, I've always been around dogs, but every dog I grew up with was the stereotypical "good dog". Very easy going, not prone to finding trouble when left to their own devices, and free from behavior problems. Regis is definitely not that.

Regis is dog reactive with unfamiliar dogs and very difficult to introduce to another dog. He has also been nervous about guests entering his home, which manifests as pilo-erection (hackles up) and howling if he isn't reassured. He hasn't always tolerated body handling, and would violently shake and try to throw himself off of the groomer's table when he was taken in for nail trims before we worked on it. He sometimes resource guards high value items. He dismantled a crate from the inside when he was younger, so he can't be crated for management purposes. He hates car rides, and pants heavily and drools on my shoulder the entire ride to any location, regardless of how much fun that place will be.

It goes without saying that we spend a lot of time on behavior modification, primarily counter-conditioning and desensitization, or in layman's terms, pairing scary stimuli with things your dog loves beginning at a low intensity and intensifying the stimulus gradually. Counter-conditioning to dogs, counter-conditioning to body handling, counter-conditioning to visitors, counter-conditioning to a crate. Who knew one method could be so versatile?

And while I consider myself a pretty huge dog and learning theory nerd, sometimes it just gets exhausting. I find myself taking ourselves too seriously, pushing further and faster, to try to get to some ever elusive end result. And this thinking always manages to lead to stress and conflict for both of us.

This is not what training and your relationship with your dog needs to become. Life with dogs is not meant to be taken so seriously.

So, the other day, after a particularly frustrating walk (yes, trainers have frustrating walks too. Hang in there! You're only human), I grabbed my clicker and a bunch of treats, and decided to shape a new trick with Regis. I thought "wave" might be cute, and we got to work. He stared at me for a few seconds, wondering what cue I was going to ask him to perform, and when I didn't ask, he grumbled a little bit under his breath and shifted his weight.

Paw lift. Click. Treat. Repeat. Higher paw lift. Click. Treat. Higher paw lift. Click. Treat.

He then lifted his entire body up into a "sit pretty" and wave both of his paws at me, ears forward, eyes bright, mouth open in a sloppy, happy grin. And I belly laughed harder than I have in a long time. Seeing the goofy look on his face, and him happily offering new behaviors, made my heart soar.

This is what training and your relationship with your dog should be. Don't forget that. It is so, so, so easy to lose the sense of fun in your relationship when you're working on "problem" behaviors based in fear, anxiety, or aggression. To constantly push and work toward that end goal and forget that journey matters just as much, if not more, than the destination. It's easy to forget to laugh with your dog.

If you have a dog that you're currently working on behavior modification with, pick a new, easy trick, and start training. Find the thing about your relationship that you love most. Laugh with your dog. You won't regret it.

P.S. For those of you who read my description of Regis' flaws and thought "Jeez, this dog has a lot of issues!", please also know that: He loves snuggling with his family, he plays fetch like a pro, and he loves going with me to new places like forest preserves and parks. He now self-files his front nails on a scratch board, and lays on his side while I do his rear nails. He also understands that he's safe on leash when other dogs are around and instead of barking and lunging gives me his attention while the dog passes. His howling episodes with visitors are also decreasing in intensity. He loves learning new tricks. He's a pretty great dog, even if he's not your typical "good dog".

What do you do with your dog that makes you laugh and smile? Have you ever found yourself having a tough time working on a behavior and taking yourself too seriously?


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