A.J. Goes to Boot Camp

April 9, 2014

Yesterday we started with a new trainer. I told our current trainer, Mary, that while A.J. had made great improvements in focus and basic obedience, we’d made no progress on being able to walk down the street. It was time to try something different. So Mary referred us to Jerry at Northwest K9. Jerry trains police dogs. That sounded great to me, I would expect that that anyone who can train those crazy police dogs can teach my sweet little guy how to walk without turning into a monster.

When we arrived at Jerry’s house he had me take A.J. into the backyard and just let him do what he does. This being a new place, A.J. was at the end of the leash, nose to the ground exploring. Jerry put the prong collar on him and asked if he could take him. I handed over the leash, and the retraining started.

So first, let me explain how prong collars work. They basically act as a bite around the dog’s neck. You give the leash a good hard pop, the collar tightens and the prongs bite the dog. They don’t break the skin or do any kind of damage, they just don’t feel very good.

I have admit, watching Jerry was a little tough. He popped A.J. a couple of times to get him to walk next to him. (“Pop” is how I think of the sharp tug on the leash.) Then A.J. saw a bird. He tried to lunge forward, and Jerry gave him a serious pop. They didn’t go very far before turning around and coming back, and A.J. was walking beautifully next to Jerry. We talked for a while about what needed to be done and how to go about it, then Jerry handed me the leash: my turn.

We spent most of the rest of the session walking around Jerry’s back pasture. We walked fast, slowed down, sped up, stopped…fast, slow, fast, slow, stop…and so it went. It only took one or two laps before we got around without my having to give A.J. a pop. So Jerry upped the ante and brought out his dog. A.J. ignored the other dog until Jerry came up next to me, then A.J. lunged. I popped him, and he stayed with me from then on. Jerry walked his dog in front, behind, and next to us and it wasn’t a problem again.

Then the horses came over. There are horses on the other side of the fence, and I had no idea what A.J. would do when they came over. They came right up to the fence and Jerry had me walk A.J. past them. A.J. had an all-out explosion. Pop POp POP POP. That didn’t go so well.

“Come right back and do it again.”

We tried again. POP POP.

“Better. Turn around and do it again.”

After maybe three passes we got past without a problem. On the fourth pass Jerry had me stop right in front of the horses and have A.J. sit. A.J. sat nicely while Jerry and I talked some more. He finally even just lied down. He wouldn’t look at the horses, he was in total avoidance, but Jerry was okay with that. Horses? What horses? That works.

The session was supposed to last an hour, but at the hour mark Jerry said we would walk back, stopping and making sure A.J. stops with me. Well, he didn’t stop. I stop, A.J. walks, POP POP. We did this a few times and it wasn’t working. So Jerry had me try something different. We’d walk, and then I’d start backing up, popping him a few times as he came towards me. On the third time, A.J. came up to me and buried his head between my legs. Jerry told me to just step over him, he didn’t want him to think the answer is to hide, but it was so adorable I had started laughing and couldn’t stop. A little sad, but really cute.

I pulled myself together and after that when I stopped, A.J. stopped.

Jerry suggested I take A.J. for a walk that evening so everything was still fresh in his mind and he didn’t think that he only had to walk nicely in Jerry’s backyard.

A.J. and I were both pretty tired after that session, but that evening we went out as Jerry had suggested. I had to pop him now and again, but I was speeding up, slowing down, stopping, and he was doing pretty well. Then we saw a bike. He flipped out and I popped him a few times. Unfortunately I don’t think I popped him hard enough, it didn’t have as much of an impact as it should have. But other than that, he did really well.

Flash forward to this morning. Today was a volunteer day so I had to get up early. I took A.J. out and we immediately went to work. He started out really well, just an occasional pop now and again to let him know he had moved too far forward. Then we saw a dog off-leash. A.J. started tensing up. As we got closer and he was ready to explode I popped him. No effect. I popped him again. Nothing. I took hold of the leash with both hands, and when he erupted I pulled as hard as I could. POP POP POP POP POP. A.J. screamed, he even yelped a little. He twisted around. Finally, he stopped and looked at me. I didn’t look at him, I just kept walking. We went past the dog and continued along.

We passed the same dog later. It was a little farther away, but A.J. behaved. We passed right by a kid on a skateboard. A.J. barked once, then (after more pops) came along nicely with me. We saw another skateboard – a little farther away this time – and A.J. kept his cool. He was watching and excited, but he didn’t react. Just before we got home a bicycle rode by. A.J. got a few pops when he tried to twist around and move towards it, but he didn’t try to pull and didn’t even come close to erupting.

This just might be working.

After riding my bike into town, doing my volunteer shift, riding home again, and everything I’ve been having to do with A.J., I decided we (or at least I) really needed a break tonight. I’ll make myself be strong again tomorrow and we’ll continue our training. I don’t have anything planned for tomorrow, so maybe I’ll get him out on a couple of shorter walks later in the day after our morning walk. I can do this.

Another nice benefit from this: after our walk this morning we came back and played tug in the backyard. This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed playing tug with him. I think when we’ve both worked that hard, but haven’t been struggling with tugging at each other for an entire walk, coming home and tugging on a toy is a lot more fun.

This just might be working. I can do this, and A.J. definitely can do this. Tomorrow we go again.