Today I took the dogs to the farm again. We are supposed to have wicked afternoon storms for the next few days so exercise must be done in the morning and the farm is one of the ways the pups get knocked out for a long time on not too much exercise (only two hours at the farm in the heat can buy me an afternoon of relaxed dogs!).
Now, this is probably the 5th trip for Dexter. It’s really become a favorite because there are only two places on our hike where he can see a road/cars in the distance and they are pretty easy to avoid. Dex hikes on a 50ft long line so he has quite a bit of freedom to explore, he even gets to drag the long line when we play ball in the fields. When we are in the areas where he can see cars, Dexter can be a little unpredictable. I learned the hard way that even though the cars (in one corner of the property) are probably 1/4 mile away, that he will make an attempt to chase them (I ended up with some rope burn on my hands). The other part of the property has quite a long view of the road from about 250yd away–during our first trip on the farm, Dexter absolutely lost it here. He was lunging on the long line to chase the cars, barking/whining, and circling me like a mad man. Even at that distance it was WAY too much (lesson learned on my part, we got out of there ASAP).
Today was nothing like that first day–today gave me some hope (LOL!). Today on our walk Dexter was brilliant. He’s really learned to stick with me and now rarely hits the end of his long line. During part of our walk today, I even dropped the long line and let him drag it. Perhaps the most prolific and most exciting moment happened in the orchard. The orchard is the part of the property that has the long road view. Today Dexter just wowed me with his behavior. We were walking through the orchard and Dex got significantly more alert and was obviously seeking out cars to chase (since he knows that he can see them from here). In the distance he heard a car and he froze, very upright/forward position, stared at the road, and just waited to see the car to explode. I was about 20 feet back and gave him the smallest amount of slack giving him the chance to make a good choice but making sure I could safely control him if he didn’t. What do you know, he saw the car and made 1/2 a bounce toward it then turned on a dime and ran, full speed, back to me. I threw him a huge party and was so excited!! Was this just a fluke? Had I put just enough pressure on the line a second before the car was in sight (so he was cued to come back to me)? It didn’t take long to find out, Dex alerted to hearing a car and became tense scanning the road, staring… and again when he saw the car, instead of exploding to the car he exploded and ran to me. He repeated this 4 or 5 times and I began to reward his coming to me by running away and letting him play chase.
That seems amazing right? So how could that have anything to do with handler frustration!? Today I saw the absolute best Dex has to offer me at this point… I mean this was amazing for him. Since I’ve seen this type of behavior, I know he is capable of this type of behavior, it’s hard to accept that he may not always be this good. It’s a lot easier to become frustrated with a dog when you know they are capable of being better. If I’m not having the best training session with Dexter, I’m okay with that.. he’s still learning, it’s a lot for him…but if I’m having a bad training session with Shayne (working a behavior that she does know) I do get frustrated more quickly and have to take a break sometimes. Since I know Dex can, in these circumstances, act in a highly desirable manner… if next time it doesn’t go so well, there is a good chance I’ll be a little frustrated.
I cannot take this one instance of phenomenal behavioral response as being the norm… I can’t hold him to that behavior in all instances because I also know he will still probably have melt downs in similar situations in the future. If I hold him to the behavior he displayed today I will be frustrated and upset because I’m sure he will have challenges in this process. It’s hard to not hold him to the behavior I know he’s capable of but I know that would be setting him up to fail and me to be frustrated since he may not be capable of that behavior on a regular basis.
I think we, as handlers, need to be realistic in our expectations and in doing so, we can reduce the level of frustration we feel. It’s excellent to reward and reinforce like crazy when your dog does an amazing job with something, but that one response (or one day) isn’t necessarily representative of the overall capabilities of the dog… yet. When you have one of those amazing performances or amazing days… love it, lavish it, but don’t instantly raise your expectations to that level… keeping it in perspective should help you reduce frustrations.