Shyla, who started out as a very fearful dog when I met her 2 years ago, has gained tremendous confidence in our "home environment" so that she seems happy and comfortable most of the time.
back when our trainer began helping me and Shyla to cope with her fears,
the trainer warned me that, when Shyla's confidence blossomed, she
might also go through a less-reliable phase, kind of like a teenager.
good news is that, except in bustling towns, Shyla has become much more
confident. The bad news is that my trainer was right, and Shyla has
become more difficult to control on the trails than she was
when I first met her.
In particular, there is one
trail where I really want her to be reliable because there's lots of
wildlife activity. And - just my luck - that's the primary place where
Shyla's teenage behavior is incredibly obvious.
This trail has the
remains of many dead animals cached in the woods within scenting distance.
Some are fresh kills by predators and others are very old. Shyla is
fascinated by all of them.
When she was still a wary and worried dog out on the trails, Shyla listened to me, pretty much no matter what. If I said "come", she ran to me. If I said "sit", she sat whereever she was. If I said "leave it", she turned away from the scent or object that she was focused on.
In about June, that began to change. At first, she blew me off in small ways that were no big deal. For example, I'd say "look", which means to look me in the eyes, and she'd do this.
Over the course of the summer, Shyla started ignoring more important commands and sometimes straying on that "wildlife trail" that I talked about at the beginning. That really scared me, and my reaction was to get cranky with her. I tried using "no" when she was moving away from me after I called her. That was a royal failure - all that did was make her look scared when she came back to me.
I realized that I was making my fearful dog afraid of *me*! That's the last thing I wanted.
So, I finally called our trainer and said that we had a problem. I told her the story that I just told you, with special emphasis on Shyla's bad behavior on the wildlife trail. Her advice was that I had to make myself much more interesting than anything else in the world when we're on that trail. The trainer suggested making the length of that trail our primary training area, doing tons of recalls, tricks, and games.
On Day 1, we played one of Shyla's favorite games on that trail - Waving at me!
By adding this fun training to our lives, you would NOT believe how rapidly Shyla's behavior improved. Within a day, she was turning away from those enticing dead animal body parts to return to me. I was carrying extra-special treats and a favorite toy as rewards. I lavished her with praise every time she had a success. We are only a week into this new program but I can already tell that it's working.
I know this post is getting long but there was one other thing that I started doing a week ago. If Shyla would bring me whatever treasure she'd found next to the trail, I gave her a jackpot of treats. Then, I returned the "treasure" to her to play with (or gnaw on) for a little while. So, I was rewarding her for bringing me the icky treasure by letting her have it back for a little while. It's counterintuitive but it's an established animal training technique (called the Premack Principle).
On Day 1, she was too afraid to take the icky treasure back from me. By Day 3, she was more than happy to! In this case, it was an elk lower leg and hoof.