Training never stops. Never.

And if it does, the results are bad. Very bad.

That was our lesson of the week. And it arrived much like an out-of-control truck that jumps the curb, comes though your living room wall, and pins you against the sofa.

Thank you Fox5 San Diego for the image

We know we’re responsible. During our nearly four months hiatus from traveling we were busy selling the house, packing our belongings, tackling some big projects on the to-do list, and catching up with family and friends that we wouldn’t be seeing for a while. Add that to my dislike of the cold and the fact that the dogs could run off-leash where we lived … well, you see where this is going.

Boys in Key West
The Boys in Key West

Fast forward to this week when we arrived in the Florida Keys. There were dogs everywhere at the pet friendly campground we chose, and Buster confronted most of them with loud barking. Our daily walks were frustrating as the dogs apparently forgot everything they knew about walking on a loose-leash. And our day trip down to Key West was exhausting as both Ty and Buster refused to heel on the crowded streets. Clearly, we’re not in our best form.

And so it begins … again. We’re loaded with cheese sticks and hotdogs, and we’ve decided on the behaviors to focus on.

1. No more pulling on the leash.

To me this is a matter of common courtesy: I will not use the leash to drag the dogs places they do not want to go, and they will not use it to drag me. To help them understand this I’m simply stopping as soon as I feel any pressure on the leash. I’m not jerking the leash or giving any verbal correction – just stopping and waiting as long as it takes for them to move in a way that releases the pressure. It takes a long time to get anywhere but, to master this, the journey is more important than the destination.

Progress: So far the dogs have figured out that when I stop they need to move back toward me, and they are both pretty consistent at doing that quickly.

2. Avoiding fixation.

Both boys have a tendency to get fixated on other dogs. And once they reach that point their brains shut off – they cannot even hear me.

Teaching the “touch” command (bump my hand with your nose) helps them avoid that state by keeping their focus on me. When I’m training a new skill I think of it as a transaction and try to set it up to be win-win. In this case, I’m asking the dogs to pay attention to me and not focus on something they find captivating. They’re giving up a lot and they expect something equivalent in return. We’re talking loads of really good treats!

Progress: Both dogs like this command – it’s a game we’ve played in the past, so they associate it with good things. (They’re also whores for hotdogs and cheese, so that helps.) So far I’m only using the command in low-distraction situations, and if they don’t do what I ask I’m not correcting them. I give the command once, let them have a few seconds to think about it, and if they don’t do it – bummer! They’ve just missed the opportunity for a treat. We’ll try it again in a bit.

3. Building positive associations.

From the time we found Buster he has been reactive to other dogs when he’s on leash. During our last road trip he improved – I think just because he was seeing so many dogs. However, this time I’d like to speed the process along and hopefully make his progress permanent by training “look.”

Starting out, we’re doing our best to give Buster as much space as we can from other dogs. When we see one in the distance we point and tell him “look.” As soon as he sees the dog I give him treats and tell him what a good boy he is. Eventually I’ll expect the distances from the other dogs to decrease and for him to look where I’m pointing and then back at me for his treat – but in the beginning I want to make it as easy for him as possible.

Progress: This is going much better than even I expected. For the most part he’s getting it – once or twice he’s even looked back at me for his treat. JACKPOT, BUSTER!! Getting this one right on my part is particularly challenging because Buster’s “tolerable distance” from other dogs seems to vary depending on the day, the dog, and the alignment of the stars. When it happens that we’ve gotten too close, Buster tells me with one of his “I’m uncomfortable with this” growls, or even a bark or two. When that happens we move father away and try again.

Once again we’re facing the reality that our dogs are far from perfect. They’re normal dogs with the same behavior issues as many other dogs. It doesn’t mean we can’t travel with them – we just need to choose activities they’re capable of doing. Our day trip to Key West was hard for all of us because they weren’t ready for it yet. A bit of time and a commitment to training them will make all the difference.

What are your biggest behavior challenges when traveling with your dogs?

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