Beginning with Behavioral Down

The first Obedience 101 class at Tecla’s K9 Academy was people only, but with lots of homework. So we thought we did pretty good with the homework, but with no context of how far along we should be, it seems we hadn’t done enough. The most important part of this week was to learn “Behavioral Down.” This is a really simple technique that helps the dog learn to control their own behavior and understand that they can get quiet and settled — and that it is a pleasant feeling. Just the ticket for Miss Ziva.

But Miss Ziva was not so enamored of the technique at first.

Ziva riding in the car

Ziva in a moment of calm, when she was not barking in my ear while I was driving home from obedience class.

So, the actual technique is just to put the leash on the dog, and then step on the leash towards the dog’s end, so that it pulls them down slightly. That is, it’s just taut enough that the dog decides it would be more comfortable to lie down than to continue standing. So this is where we start to move away from purely positive training. And let me say, if purely positive training works for your dog, that is awesome. But I believe some dogs — and Ziva is one — benefit from a gentle nudge. I mean, if you watch actual dog moms and their pups, they will give more than a “gentle” nudge when a pup is misbehaving. This technique is in no way painful to the dog, it is simply less comfortable standing like this than to lie down. The dog makes the choice.

The class was warned that the first few times we tried Behavioral Down it might take up tor 90 minutes for a dog to lie down and become completely settled. The goal is to reach 0: lying on her side, eyes closed, calm breathing. The good news was that it never took a full 90 minutes for her to cut her energy in half. The bad news was that we never got below about 3 or 4. I realize typing that,  it sounds like we just needed to persevere. But she would get to 3 or 4 after about 30 minutes and never get below that.  And the first 10-15 minutes was pretty wild: she would stand for long time, leaning forward. The she would start barking. Then she would finally lie down and start trying to roll around.

Ziva and Laura in the park practicing leash work

Some early leash work in the park.

We practiced this in the house, several times a day for a week. She got better, but couldn’t seem to get below 3/4. By the time Saturday morning rolled around, we felt nervously ready. We tried to wear her out a little by throwing the ball in the back yard, and then loaded her into the back seat for the half hour ride. During which she barked the entire time. Somehow we managed to survive that first class — she was pretty bad at her Behavioral Down, constantly trying to get up, barking, and being in general, very wound up. But other dogs were also doing some of that as well.

We practiced our next homework for the week (some basic leash work), and then on Saturday I took Ziva on my own because my wife couldn’t make it that week. “No problem,” I said. And 30 minutes later — after Ziva had stepped on the seatbelt release and ended up in the front passenger seat, and I had gotten her back in the back again, and she stood with her head behind my right ear and barked for the rest of the trip — we pulled into the parking lot. That’s when Ziva saw the other dogs also waiting in the parking lot, and basically went out of her mind. She barked and spun and barked and spun — all in the back seat. I tried redirecting and then distracting with treats, and finally I carefully put the leash on her, and let her out of the car, both hands holding tight on the leash. My biggest fear was that she would get loose and run away.

She didn’t get loose, and she didn’t run away. But she did bark and pull and lunge. Tecla and her assistant came over to talk to me, and I realize now that she knew immediately what was going on with Ziva at that moment. She led us into the building in a quiet room apart from the other dogs, and said that she believed that Ziva is a dog that is addicted to adrenaline. That Ziva had learned to deal with stressful situations — such as being around dogs, being in a new place, meeting new people, etc. — by ramping up the adrenaline, because that feels good. She said she could help us with a plan of training for Ziva to address the adrenaline, by teaching her how to be calm, and helping her see that calm feels good, too.

She also said: Ziva is only a year old, and this is completely fixable. “Or, you can wait a couple of years until she has gotten into a dog fight, or has run away — which is when most people come to me.” I remembered Ziva’s foster mom telling me over the phone, before we met, “The sky’s the limit with this one. She can do any activity you want to try.” And I felt we owed it to her to help her learn to be a better dog. The awesome dog she could be.

So, doggie IEP in hand, we left the building that day with a new outlook and a new future. And we haven’t looked back since!

Next up: Just what was in that doggie IEP, anyway?

EDIT:

So, I tried to to a video of Behavioral Down tonight, which we do now every time we go out the door. She had been alone in the house for 8 hours today, and we had taken a trip out back but we usually also go for a walk in the neighborhood.  Excuse the mess in the hallway and the crazy camera work.  I’m new at this. The key is at the end of the second video, when she lets out a big sigh.

I thought I could film the entire process with one hand, but I had to stop to get the leash on her and then stat filming again:

2 thoughts on “Beginning with Behavioral Down

    • You know, looking back on all the dogs I have known in my life, I think I’ve known a few that were addicted to adrenaline. Unfortunately I think many are just labeled “unmanageable,” and end up in shelters.

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