The gift of attention, love, and trimming Milo the AwesomeDog’s nails

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his faceThe gift of your undivided attention is one of the simplest, although not one of the easiest, ways to show that someone you care about them. We’ve all had those conversations, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, during which we’re 100% engaged with another person. These conversations build relationships. Two people become one. Time stops. Or flies. Attention can be an expression of respect and an expression of love.

Marilyn Frye is one of my favorite philosophers. In her book, The Politics of Reality, she cautions us to take responsibility for what we pay attention to and what we ignore. She reminds us that “attend,” and its opposite, “ignore,” are verbs. They’re action words. We are responsible for our actions.

I’m grateful to Frye for reminding me that I need to be responsible for what I pay attention to because it is easy to switch over to automatic pilot, let myself get distracted, and only attend to things that get right up in my face.

Milo the AwesomeDog does not like manicures. I used to deal with this by grabbing his paw, telling him not to be a baby, and trimming his nails as quickly as I could. This is less than ideal, and so I’m working on a counter-conditioning regime where I break the nail trim process down into baby steps and use rewards to help Milo build a positive association with each step.

He has to be OK with one step before I move onto the next, and this forced me to pay attention to him in a new way. Instead of zeroing in on his paw, I had to back up and look at all of his body language to gauge how he was feeling.

I learned something that made my heart swell. I thought I had maximal love for him, and it turned out I was wrong. You see, Milo doesn’t dislike manicures. He hates them. He presents a classic picture of a stressed dog—probably the same level of stress that I feel looking forward to and enduring a long and painful dental procedure. But even so, he submitted to those nail trims because I asked him to. It was something very difficult that he did for me, every week. And it never even occurred to me to be grateful.

I would not have noticed this if I didn’t back up and give his whole self my undivided attention.

Milo is the epitome of a fine hound.

Training Tuesdays: April 24, 2018, Milo needs a challenge

Hi fans! This is a short post because it’s grading season, and I’m up to my eyebrows with student work from my Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives and Philosophy 458/673: Feminism, Bodies and Biology classes. I had the pleasure of working with two groups of fabulous students and so the grading is not that bad. But, holy smokes, is there ever a lot of it.

I had an epiphany this week—I’ve been treating Milo like a baby and he’s bored. I was so focused on splitting his training tasks into tiny pieces that I was slowing him down and frustrating him.

I had this epiphany because my friend Liz said, “Carla, you need to give him more difficult things to do.” Does it count as an epiphany if someone straight out tells you something? Probably not technically, but this week had an ‘epiphany-feel’ about it.

After that fateful conversation with Liz, I gave Milo long tracks with multiple articles—he did a great job. No more waiting for him to find an exact heel position. I simply demanded it and he stepped right up and met my higher expectations. And in Rally class, which we just started, I demanded serious attention, which he gave me.

Note to self: “Do what Liz says more often.”

So, this week the plan is to do more of those things: long tracks, precision in heeling, and focused attention even in a distracting Rally class. I am feeling hopeful.

You might remember that I’ve also been working on getting Milo to tolerate a manicure. In the last couple of weeks I’ve come to see that Milo deeply despises have his nails trimmed. So, I’m keeping us on a baby steps schedule for this counter-conditioning procedure–tiny steps and lots of hotdogs.

Next week I’ll fill you in on our progress. Cheers!

Black and tan German Shepherd sniffing brown grass

Milo has what you call a “deep nose” when he tracks and that is a good thing.


 

Training Tuesdays

On the Road with Milo documents my sometimes-literal journey to understand how people and dogs can live well together. I’m learning from philosophical and scientific research on human-canine relationships; expert dog trainers, breeders, and handlers; and my own relationship with Milo the AwesomeDog.

Milo and I are companions. We train and compete in obedience and some dog sports. And we spend as much of our summers as we can camping in Canada’s national and provincial parks. My posts on this blog range from critiques of scientific papers to reviews of campgrounds, but in one way or another, they’re all about the relationship that Milo and I share, and hence about the relationship between humans and dogs.

Training is all about relationship—attention, communication, friendship, and teamwork. This spring and summer, my goal is to train with Milo more systematically. To document our progress, hold myself accountable, and regularly remind myself that the point of the training is to develop my relationship with Milo, I’ll post weekly updates about what I’m planning and how we’re doing. These will be my “Training Tuesdays” posts.

On Training Tuesdays, I’ll report what we did during the previous week, plan what we’ll do the next week, and muse about things that went well or poorly.

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraMilo’s puppy kindergarten graduation photo


 

This week’s plan

I’ve already decided that this summer we’ll work on Rally Obedience, and train for Schutzhund obedience and tracking titles. I’m adding a “Living well” category for things Milo and I can learn that will make our lives easier and more fun. This could include tricks, house manners, and things like handing for grooming and veterinary procedures.

Rally

  • Nothing formal yet
  • We’ll just practice a sign or two on our walks

Tracking

  • Article indication off the track (2 minutes a day)

Obedience

  • Between 2 and 15 steps of focused heeling with giant rewards (5 minutes a day)

Living well

  • Paw handling with very high reward rates (2 minutes a day)

Glossary

Article indication. Milo and I will be doing Schutzhund-style tracking. In these tests, he needs to tell me when he finds articles dropped along the track by laying down with his front paws on either side of an article. I’ll teach him this in the living room. When he’s got it, we’ll take it outdoors onto a track.

Paw handling. Milo does not like getting his nails trimmed. I can wrestle him through a manicure, but I would rather not. It stresses us both out and is detrimental to our relationship. So, we’ll do some counter-conditioning to teach him that it is a good thing when I grind down his nails. All I’m going to do this week is call him to his paw trimming spot and ask him to give me a paw (he already is happy to do these two things). Then, I’ll hold his paw in the same way I would when grinding down his nails and give him a treat. That’s all. Easy-peasy. The trick is yummy treats and tiny little baby steps.

Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part two

Note: This is part two of a two-part post. Click here to read part one.

Now.

A couple of months ago I signed Milo and me up for a research project investigating canine fear and aggression in veterinary settings. I jumped into this survey eagerly, sure that Milo’s jackassery would provide them with some interesting data. They wanted to know about dogs acting out, and boy could tell them about a dog acting out.

I don’t think I was ever so pleased to be so disappointed about an experiment.  You see, the survey questions all had a time index.


What sorts of fear behaviour did Milo exhibit at his last vet visit? None.

During that visit did he show any aggressive behaviours when:

  • Getting weighed? No.
  • Touched? No.
  • Vaccinated? No.
  • Having his ears examined? No.
  • Having blood drawn? No.
  • Having his temperature taken? OK, Yes. He growled at the vet tech when she tried to stick a thermometer up his bum. Fair enough. We didn’t get a temperature that day.

If those questions were about my worst vet visit or any vet visit three years ago, the answers would have been different. When I sat down to take this survey, I was ready to give those three-year-old answers. But, in the last three years Milo, and I, have changed. He’s a more confident dog. I’m a calmer person. And we’re a stronger team.

I caught myself living in the past again when Milo and I were camping at Killbear Provincial Park. Our campsite was beside what must have been an intergenerational, extended family camping trip. There were at least seven children under the age of five, they yelled a lot, and all of them, except the newborn, seemed to think that running while yelling was the thing to do.

Screaming creatures darting around—the kind of game that Milo was always keen to join, except that he weighed more than any three of those kids combined. I steeled myself for a couple of days of barking and a complaint from the Park Office.

Would you like to know what happened?

Nothing.

Milo started staring at one of the kids, and I told him to knock it off and that we don’t bark at silly things. He knocked it off and did not bark at the silly things. There were a bunch of people with dogs at that campground. And every single dog that walked by reacted to those children more than Milo did, every single one.

People came by my site and complimented Milo on being such a good boy.

One person even told me that I was “lucky” to have such a good dog. I let that one slide on by.

I will always be careful and respect the fact that Milo is a formidable animal. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work together over the years, developed a fantastic relationship, and things got better.

I love him to distraction. I just have to remember to love the dog he is right now.

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Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part one

Note: This is the first half of a two-part post.

Then.

The damn snow was dragging at my feet, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to my car before I started to cry. Milo and I were not at our finest on that winter day more than three years ago. Fifteen dog-handler teams had arranged themselves in a big circle on a snowy country field, and we were taking turns walking our dogs around the group. The idea was to keep your dog paying attention to you, and not to the other dogs or people or bunnies in attendance. The accomplished teams heeled with quiet precision around the field. But most of us newbies kept our dog’s focus with a steady stream of happy chatter. We could have used food treats for this, but it is hard to hand out treats when wearing mittens and it was cold enough that mittens were mandatory.

Milo and I were doing fine until another male gave him a glance that asked: “Wanna dance?” Milo looked back: “Sure, let’s go.” And off came the gloves. The other dog snarled. Milo lunged. My feet broke through the crust on the snow, and I was stuck.

It all took a very long heartbeat. Friends swooped in to take care of Milo, and I clambered out of my hole. Everything was OK, except for my blood pressure and my pride. This was life with a reactive dog. It just took a wrong look. He didn’t fight. I saw to it that Milo never got into a fight. But both of us were bundles of stress.

Milo and I retreated to an adjacent field where we could cool down. We played a bit, did some obedience, and practised calmly watching those other dogs from a distance. I’d been working on Milo’s reactivity for a while already, but this exercise was a bit too much and a bit too soon.

What put me in tears that afternoon wasn’t just Milo’s reaction, it was the supportive kindness of the people around us. We were training with the Kitchener-Waterloo German Shepherd Club. These people know GSDs, and many of them went through similar challenges with their pups.

After a few minutes on our own, the club president came over to check on Milo and me.

“We’re going to work on recalls now, do you and Milo want to join us?”

“Really? Seriously?”

“Sure, we’re all paying attention. It will be fine.”

It was more than fine. Milo was perfect. I left him with another handler at one end of the field, ran about 30 metres away, and called him. They released him, and he was in flight, skidding into a beautiful sit in front of me. Folks cheered.

As we were packing up for the afternoon, one by one, people came up to me. They said things like:

  • “It gets better.”
  • “He’s a beautiful dog.”
  • “I’ve been there, and I know it’s hard.”
  • “Good for you for working so hard with him.”
  • “Half a dozen dogs here used to react like that, and look at them now.”

I needed this support and encouragement, but darn it, I was at the end of my rope, and I knew this kindness was going to make me cry. I just wanted to get to my car before I lost it.

IMG_0126I was in an all-positive obedience class at the time, and someone there asked me if Milo was abused as a pup. That question took the wind right out of my sails. I adopted him at eight weeks, and his ‘abuse’ was patience, loving-kindness, and outrageously expensive grain-free food.

When Milo and I went on walks, I took to telling people that I was rehabilitating him. The phrase turned many frowns to smiles. After all, rehabilitating rescue dogs was god’s work. It was not a lie. I was rehabilitating him. I didn’t tell them he was a rescue; I just didn’t tell them he wasn’t.

Milo and I worked hard to get his reactivity under control. We went on weekly pack walks with the German Shepherd Club, I learned about counter-conditioning and desensitisation, and I worked on keeping control of my own emotions. I had to be calm to help him be calm–this it turned out, was the most difficult part of the whole procedure. I started working on obedience and scent detection with him. These sports taught him self-control and were something positive, fun that we could excel at together. Both of our confidence soared. He is a smart and biddable dog and was always a joy to work with, in isolation.

Things were slowly getting better, but they weren’t where I needed them to be until a fellow German Shepherd Club member and friend recommended that I take Milo to the trainer who helped her reactive dog. Finally, I found a trainer who understood Milo. It sounds simple, but she taught me not to permit Milo to be, what I have come to call, a jackass. We didn’t do anything dramatic or mean; I just learned to hold him to a set of high standards and how to properly handle such a big, strong, and strong-willed dog.

This whole process took about two years. Milo is a different dog now, but sometimes I forget how far we’ve come.

IMG_5095

Click here for the rest of our story and to see where we are at now.