When you first start working with a dog, one of the first things to start noticing are their triggers. The things that cause that cause an emotional reaction - be it excitement at one end of the spectrum, or anxiety at the other.
This is important for a few reasons. One is that forewarned is forearmed. For example if you know your dog is going to react unfavourably to people in fluorescent jackets, when you see someone dressed like this you can choose to avoid them and take another path. Knowing this about your dog means you're less likely to be taken by surprise.
Equally if there's something that your dog simply LOVES such as playing in the river, you might choose to avoid it when you're in a hurry if you know it's going to be sometime before you can get them to come back to you. Not a dog walk for when you're late for work ;)
But the most important reason for me with Vodka, is that being aware of her triggers means that I can assess her behaviour for what it is in relation to them rather than assuming she's developing bad habits and making poor choices.
So this morning when she made a move to react to a car travelling along the road in a chase orientated type way, I went back over what had happened earlier in our walk.
You see most Border Collies are susceptible to movement which makes sense when you consider what they were originally bred to do. So common problems with herding breeds like this will be about getting that excitement for everything that moves under some sort of control.
But here's the important thing. Just because they have than in their DNA, doesn't mean I have to accept that Vodka or any of my other collies will chase cars/ people/ livestock etc. I just need to explain to her when chasing is acceptable, and perhaps more importantly, when it is not acceptable.
And for the most part, her self-control is pretty amazing for a 13 month old dog - not that I'm biased at all you understand ;)
So here's where my knowledge about what triggers an emotional response in her helps us in our relationship and my understanding of her behaviour. Here's a list of triggers which led up to the moment where she considered chasing that car:
- She has been on lead exercise for the past week because of an injury (nothing too serious), so is being exercised by herself without the company of her siblings
- Lead walking only for a young dog doesn't tend to relieve them of their energy quite so much as a good run off the lead, so she is very fresh and energetic at the moment!
- When we saw another dog coming towards us, she indicated to me that she'd like to say hello, and despite my misgivings about the dog's expression and it being on a tight lead out in front of it's owner I allowed the greeting with the intention of asking her to leave early. The dog growled at her and I was left thinking how stupid I was for not going with my gut instinct!
- As we approached the main road, a HUGE lorry pulled up in front of us which made us both step back a bit.
- As the traffic speeded up again and the lorry went by, she demonstrated a very small reaction to the car passing us (a quick head turn and sharp step forward)
The reaction was slight and will not be anything that I need to worry about in the future I'm sure. She displayed more of a reaction than this on a recent evening walk where we'd been out for a while and came back via the main road where fast cars with bright lights were zooming past. My response to that was to exponentially increase the rate of reinforcement for what I wanted (focused, fast pace loose lead walking), which I'm sure was the reason that after the brief glance she gave the car this morning she immediately refocused her attention back to me.
The triggers help me understand her behaviour, but don't necessarily change my response to them unless she's past the point of coping in which case I might exit the situation instead of looking to train within it.
With this reaction in mind I was quicker throughout the rest of our short walk (which included some off-lead time too) to take control of situations we encountered rather than relying on her ability to act appropriately. Simple things like asking her to move off the path to allow dogs to pass us, and not allowing her to rehearse the natural collie stalking behaviour when meeting other dogs who approached us when off the lead.
Stalking behaviour is intimidating for the other dog and can cause a reaction in them which could confirm Vodka's decision to look to control the situation rather than simply say hello nicely. All it took was asking for her attention on me before giving her the cue to 'Go say hi' under permission.
Realistically I can't control everything that happens out on a walk. Only the other day a child stroked Vodka's back without asking permission, and this morning a well-meaning postman took it upon himself to drop down to her face-level to say hello to her. Both startled her, but caused no more reaction than a look back at me to check all was well.
These things are going to happen - they are outside my control. Complaining about it isn't going to change that!
My responsibility is to continue to build my awareness of her triggers and to communicate to her that I register them and I will take care of things for her. To continue to train her to have better and better self-control in situations which excite or alarm her. This will give her the confidence to deal with situations in an appropriate way.
Today I'm grateful for Vodka's faith in me. I love that she turns to me for advice on how to deal with a situation rather than looking to react in a defensive or anxious way. It wasn't always like that which is what makes it all the more special now :)