Discovering persistence in an impatient, reactive canine
In select prisons in the United States (and other countries as well), inmates can enroll for dog training, a privilege they must earn. Depending on the specific collaboration between institution and organization, some train dogs to be assistance or service animals, while others, as this story shows, work with guard dogs so that they can be adopted and find their home forever. For dogs (and inmates), the programs can be a path to a better life.
Of all the dogs I have trained, none have challenged or changed me more than Reba. I am currently incarcerated in Maine State Prison (MSP) and part of a dog training program called K9 Corrections. We work with a local animal shelter that sends us dogs of all ages, from puppies to adults. Our duties include not only basic obedience training, house training and getting a dog used to a crate over long periods of time, but also working with dogs like Reba.
Reba was an 18 month old red heeler. When our program manager Marie Finnegan showed her into our living area, I was immediately impressed by the young dog's beauty. Her milky-white coat was strewn with swirls and amber stains, and her eyes showed an unmistakable intelligence. At the same time she was frantic in the heat and clearly overwhelmed by the screaming voices, the slamming doors, and the everyday excitement of prison life.
When Marie laid Reba on my lap, I tried to calm her down, but she got none of it. Since I didn't want to disturb the puppy class, I got up and led Reba through the lounge. She gave her copious goodies, which she eagerly took to help her associate the common room with a positive experience.
As her primary handler, I kept Reba with me for the first two days. Although she wasn't sure, she was comfortable enough to lie on the bed with me. While I was on the bed, I gave her treats and occasionally petted her. For the most part, I just let it be.
I've worked with reactive dogs for a while. In my journey so far, I've found that the easiest way to gain the confidence of reactive dogs is to isolate them in a quiet room and go about my business without imposing myself on them. To Reba, I was a stranger, someone who may have reminded her of a time when she received a hard correction, a merciless blow, or an unforgiving scream.
Her first two days were the most important. Like the reactive dogs that came before her, Reba studied my every move. I was aware of how fast I was moving or how loudly I was speaking, and I spent those days making her feel as comfortable as possible.
Towards the end of the second day while I was watching TV, she suddenly got up and poked me and licked my face. A little surprised, I started to play with her and rolled over on my bed while she playfully pounced on me. About half an hour passed before she sat down and snuggled under my arm. Within minutes she fell asleep. It was clear that I had won their trust, but I was completely unprepared for what was to come.
Heels are shepherds by nature. Like many other hat breeds, they can also be spirited and territorial. They expertly collect sheep, cattle and even horses by running in and out of the herd, sometimes nibbling on the animals' hind legs, or standing in front of a herd to divert them. The downside is that heelers often find ways to get into trouble when they are unable to exercise their herding instinct. When this happens, they tend to become reactive or worse, aggressive.
Like any other intelligent shepherd, Heelers need consistent mental stimulation, exercise, and / or training to release the pent-up energy that results from being inactive for too long. Often times, people seeking a dog tend to herd breeds because of their intelligence and protective instincts. What many fail to realize, however, is that shepherds often end up in shelters and are saved due to problems caused by too little exercise. Owners become increasingly frustrated when they cannot control their dog's behavior, especially if that behavior leads to reactivity or aggression. While this is not the case with every dog, it is with Reba.
Some say that shepherds are a one-handed dog that has a tendency to attach to a single person. In the case of Reba, her argument is correct. Within a few days, Reba began biting other prisoners and staff. She sometimes jumped off the floor to investigate what she perceived to be a threat.
Sometimes we are the source of a dog's reactivity. The more fearful we are of a certain situation, the more fearful our dogs become. In turn, dogs act in accordance with our emotional clues and strike at the threats encoded in those clues. The other dealers I've worked with struggled to control them. They would nervously lead her down the hall and expect her to break out. Dogs feed on the emotions of their people, and Reba could sense the concern of these dog handlers.
When she was with me she was worse. If someone were a foot away from me, she would come towards them. Some trainers say that dogs do not protect their people, but rather consider these people a resource to protect – a source of food, treats, and shelter for them. But it felt different with Reba. She really seemed to be protecting me and didn't like the days the other handlers were working with her.
Since I didn't want her to return to the shelter, I decided to do a rigorous version of behavioral and adaptation training. I knew it would take hard work and dedication to accomplish this task. Although Reba could be a threat when she was out, she was so cute in my room. She was very attached to me and was really happy to see me every time I entered.
When I left, she would jump on the box and watch my every move through the cell window. I purposely moved out of sight and looked back to see how she covered her head as much as possible to keep me in sight. It was both cute and weird. No matter how many times I left the room or how quickly I came back, she jumped off the box onto the bed and back on the box, knocking everything over in her uncontrolled excitement. Determined to make sure she became adoptable, I had to put my affection aside for a while to become a disciplinary officer.
All of my methods are based on positive reinforcement, but other humane methods were required here: time-outs, denied attention, and verbal corrections, combined with counter-conditioning and desensitization to erase their aggressive behavior. As much as I wanted to enjoy her as a dog, I owed her a life and wanted to make sure she could keep hers when she left prison.
Reba and I became a team. I wrapped an orange scarf around her neck to let others know that she was unavailable. I had a gentle leader with her for most of the day, and she had to work for every single piece of food she got. I did this to keep her motivated. A hungry dog quickly learns that there are certain behaviors to eat in order to eat.
I spent almost every day with her, showing her around the prison, treating her when groups of people passed by, and giving her time off when she faltered and tried to attack someone. Those time offs consisted of instructing her to "get down" on her and then turn her back on her. After that, I took her straight back to the vent to make sure her threshold wasn't crossed and flooded her with treats to desensitize her to the stimulus.
Sometimes this could be done from a distance where she could see what would normally trigger her without being too close. In other cases it was impossible because the movement takes place in narrow, crowded rooms throughout the prison. In scenarios like this, I had to get her attention by holding her in a stern paragraph so that she could not focus on her surroundings. While she was heeling, I quickly delivered goodies and amplified them to keep a laser-like focus on myself. It was a hectic but beautiful dance and we often found ourselves at it.
Reba was my constant companion for four months. I took her to college classes, and we used to go to the infirmary to see sick and dying men and to the mental health intensive care unit to see patients. I did all of this knowing that people in those places wouldn't be able to interact with her like they would with a "normal" dog. But that was not the goal.
My goal was for them to get used to being with people in different environments and with different levels of stimulation without being triggered. Achieving this goal not only required vigilance and patience, but I also had to learn how to accept the constant failure and start over when I came up short. Sometimes when Reba got reactive, so did I. Like her, I occasionally forgot my training, yelled at her or corrected her leash, which I vehemently reject.
Reba loved to work and in a matter of weeks she knew more than 50 behaviors. She was the first bitch to do some of the more complicated tricks in our program, such as: B. Backweaving, controlled sending, jumping off the back on cue to catch toys, and completing an obstacle course on sending out that were purely verbal cues. She needed this suggestion; she thought it was funny.
During our weekly classroom training, Reba shone. She could be on a leash as she walked through her steps because I was in complete control of her. Even if she strayed a little and tensed up with someone who got too close, she would always come back in the heel position by my side when she was called back.
At the end of the day when I was utterly exhausted, Reba made the tedious, often frustrating, workout worthwhile. We went through the same counter conditioning routine every day. Every day was full of mishaps, time outs and my frustration. But I loved Reba and I wanted her to succeed. When I lay down at night, it was hard not to feel like my efforts were worth it when Reba loved me.
She jumped on the bed, stood between the wall and my pillow, and sank into dog-dreams after putting her snout on my head. I have often wondered how such a reactive dog can be so loving. When I was feeling depressed or just having a bad day, she could feel it. She would spend the day idly with me, lying around in the world without worry and reacting to nothing. On those days, Reba didn't even respond to my cellmate when he entered the room. She usually barked and growled at him and nibbled at his heels as he climbed onto his bunk. But when life let me down, she just leaned her head against mine, knowing that I needed her love, patience and care as much as mine.
When the day came for Reba, I was worried, and those worries sparked my insecurities: was I a good coach? Had I done enough to rid her of her reactivity and herding? Will she end up in the shelter again? Will she find them at home forever? Reba was one of the smartest dogs to get through our program, and she deserves a good home and needs to be loved. I knew I could find a thousand reasons why she should stay. All of this would have been a false excuse to keep her with me as long as possible.
When she graduated, I probably needed her more than she needed me. We'd been a team for four months. I had taken her from a reactive, somewhat aggressive dog to one that was off a leash and reasonably trustworthy.
I had put love into her that I didn't know I had inside of me. In return, Reba showed me forgiveness and a willingness to start over every time I lost my cool with her. She was more than just a dog to me; She was a friend who revealed aspects of me that I never knew existed. Some of these revelations included my preference for working with aggressive and reactive dogs, as well as the often forgotten fact that people, like dogs, tend to react to the mood and energy exuded by others.
I was always excited, but I became even more aware of how excited I was as I watched the effects on Reba's behavior. I discovered that part of Reaa's reactivity was based in part on my own attitudes and feelings about my surroundings. And as any competent trainer knows, those feelings travel to the other end of the leash. Some of her behaviors were intrinsically tied to her, and I may not have fixed all of her problems, but I know she has found a home where she is loved. I know she was never brought back to the shelter.
My success with Reba was not based on implementing a successful, technical, regulated training plan. Rather, my success with Reba was based on my ability to learn how my actions and attitudes affected others. Sure, I might have been able to help Reba deal with her surroundings and other people in a positive way, but she left me with a greater gift: knowing how much we can change the way we approach a difficult situation by changing our attitudes and perceptions about it.
When Marie walked out the door with Reba in championship style heel, I cried. I cried knowing that it wasn't my methods that made Reba so perfect for Marie. Instead, it was the love I gave her along with the changes that had taken place in me.
Find out more about one of these programs here.