In the fall, I blogged about Tala's crazy behaviour on-leash and in the car.
When we walk on-leash, Tala goes wild for passing cars and bicycles. The bigger and louder the vehicle, the crazier she goes. It's clear that if she weren't on the leash, she'd be a car chaser - among the most dangerous habits a dog can have.
If we can anticipate the coming car and put her into a sit-stay, she can hold steady as the car goes past. But how many times on a walk can you do that? And you can't always anticipate the cars.
The other area is her in-car behaviour. In a word: insane. We have her in the hatchback, behind a dog barrier. She barks at every passing car - three times at each car - ruff-ruff-ruff, ruff-ruff-ruff, ruff-ruff-ruff - while running back and forth between the side windows, turning in circles, clawing at the windows...
We can't talk, we can't listen to music, we can't do anything. Telling her "no" or "leave it" doesn't make any difference. We might as well not be in the car.
We tried applying the general principles of positive dog training that we've learned so well over the years. I sat in the back seat with treats, rewarding her for sitting quietly. It worked while sitting on the driveway. Once we drove off, it's like I wasn't there. I'm dangling roast beef - roast beef! - through the barrier and she's ignoring it. Amazing.
We had a session with a trainer, and some time later, I posted this update:
We were on the right track, but we were asking too much of Tala, not breaking down the training into small enough steps. The trainer gave us a game plan and some new ideas.
The early stages went beautifully. Tala learns fast, and she does great in the house or in the backyard. And that's where it ends. So far we've made no progress either on the leash or in the car.
The trainer also told us something I hadn't thought of before: barking at cars and bicycles is "self-reinforcing". Dog barks, car drives by, dog thinks, I did it, I chased it away!
If Tala was just barking once or twice at passing cars, I wouldn't mind. But flying into a frenzy, running in circles, pulling wildly on the leash trying to get the car - while I'm walking two dogs, often while I'm trying to clean up after them - not good. The behaviour is pretty extreme. If Tala wasn't on-leash, she'd definitely be chasing the car. That is, until she was killed.
Shortly after this, we got lazy or busy or frustrated (or all three), and gave up on the training for a while. Then we took a deep breath and started again. We re-committed to working with Tala every day we're available - four days a week - and to generally being more strict.
Every on-leash walk is a training opportunity - and also an opportunity to go wild and bark, i.e., for negative training. It was too difficult for me to walk both dogs and do training, especially in the winter. So every morning, Tala had her negative behaviour reinforced. So after 20+ years of morning dog-walks, I stopped walking them in the morning. Now they have morning backyard outdoor play time instead. And from now, any walk on the leash will be done correctly, with training.
We also decided to be stricter in the house. Like most dogs and cats, Tala loves to stare out the window, and she has great views both up- and downstairs. But when a cat or a squirrel would get too close, she would go wild - not just barking, but throwing herself at the window. After she pulled down the curtains, we realized we had become a bit too lax.
The trainer very rightly pointed out that this wild window behaviour was contributing to all her other wildness, on the leash and in the car. Now Allan and I each keep a small container of training treats on our desks. When we hear Tala flipping out, we call out the command - "Good Quiet!" - and (usually) she runs over to get a treat, at which point we can refocus her and calm her down.
But the biggest problem is definitely the car, and we decided to really focus on that.
The principle is simple: reward calm behaviour. Tala earns praise and treats when she pays attention to mommy, instead of to passing cars. Allan drives, and I get in the hatchback with Tala, and give commands, and praise her, and give rewards. She's wearing her harness and lead, which helps keep her still. At least theoretically.
We started out super slowly, just sitting on the driveway, giving her the feel for being in the car and being calm. Then we drove slowly down the street. Then around the block. Tiny, gradual steps. And slowly, slowly, she progressed. We got up to the point where we could drive around our neighbourhood - quiet streets, with a few passing cars, also moving slowly - and she could mostly pay attention to me, listen to commands, get rewards, and be relaxed. This took weeks, but we could really see progress.
Before each training session, we have some backyard play, throwing the ball for Tala to get her to run, to help get some energy out. Then it's back in the hatch with my container of treats. I end up covered in white fur, and often smelling like whatever treats we're using. Note to self: never use sardines again.
We did this religiously, four days a week.
Then one day we went to the dog park - which involves driving on major roads with lots of traffic. She went wild in the car, and the whole thing came undone. Three weeks' worth of work gone in one morning. It took four training sessions to get back to where we were before the trip to the dog park.
But we can't stop going to the dog park until Tala's training is complete. She needs the socialization with other dogs. Plus it's just so much fun for both dogs. And will her training ever be complete? We don't know.
It was very discouraging.
I had another phone consult with the trainer, got some extra pointers, and we started again.
Now we're trying to make a bigger leap, drive at least a short way on a major road with more traffic. She did all right once, then had a big backslide. And when she loses it - once she's barking and going wild at every passing car - she can't calm down and get back under control. (That's very typical for all animal training.) But at that point, we're out in traffic, and even the shortest route home gives her way too much reinforcement for her negative behaviour.
We were talking about this on Friday with James and Lori, and they suggested making an audio tape of passing traffic. We might be able to use the noise to desensitize Tala to the sound, or possibly for more controlled training, since we would be able to switch the sound off at will. It's certainly worth a try.
Meanwhile, I am discouraged. Looking back, I see we have made a lot of progress. But looking ahead, it's hard to imagine a time when I'll be able to sit in the back seat and do the training, never mind sit in the front and Tala will just be quiet in the back.
I know I have to follow the advice I recently posted about emigrating to Canada: one step at a time. Don't look too far ahead, just keep plugging away. But a big part of me just wants to say, this is how she is, we'll just put up with it. One day she'll outgrow it.