Learning to Listen to Bella

Bella is an amazing and beloved little dachshund. Her Mom had come to us because of Bella's fear and anxiety around strange men and other dogs. And sure enough, our entering their house resulted in whale eye, tongue flicks, hard mouth, barking and lunging, and cowering.

Our initial session with Bella and her Mom ended with showing them how to begin using Counter Conditioning and Desensitization (CC&D) with men and other dogs in the neighborhood.

But the point of this story is not the protocols we used. It's how we stopped a protocol (twice) to listen to what Bella was telling us and the unexpected breakthroughs we started to see as a result.

Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.

It was a rare and sunny spring day when Cara and I returned for our follow-up session with Bella. We were quite impressed with the improvements we were seeing and opted to move onto a simplified BAT protocol.

In a nutshell: Mom takes a step forward and sees if Bella wants to walk with her. If so, they approach a stressor (me) and then Mom stops at a safe distance, allowing Bella to sniff, stare and gather information. The moment Bella turns to look at Mom, her Mom marks the behaviour and they turn and run away from the stressful Sean’ster.

We began with Mom and Bella 30 feet away from Sean, but Bella wasn't having any of it. She didn't want to take a single step closer. Mom couldn’t help herself. She began to tug Bella forward. They had to practice, after all, and the two professionals were watching. But we asked Mom to just turn and walk away. And boom, Bella was MORE than happy to walk away from the strange man.

Bella was asking for more space, not less. Once they were about 50 feet away, Bella happily participated in the simplified BAT protocol, marching forward most confidently to stare at the strange man on the sidewalk (me).

Things were going stellar. Bella and Mom were marching up and down the walkway in front of their house. It was a hot day, but the trees and buildings kept us in the shade and cool. Bella had started at over 50 feet but now was happily trotting up to about ten feet away from me before turning and running away with Mom.

We decided to change locations and show Bella and her Mom how to do the BAT protocol from behind their house where the driveway intersected a somewhat busy street. We walked to the area and Mom set Bella down.

Only, Bella wasn't having any of it. She would only advance and it became quite apparent that she wanted to approach the grassy knoll beside the sidewalk.

So we listened. 

Even though everything we knew said that the grassy knoll was way too close to the sidewalk, we wanted to see what Bella was trying to tell us.. So we waited for a gap in the traffic and let her scramble onto the three feet of sun and grass beside the sidewalk.

At which point, Bella curled up and laid down happily.

Her Mom laughed and said that one of Bella’s favourite things in the world is sitting in the grass in the direct sun. They would often spend part of their walks like this.

And so we trusted our gut. This was Bella’s happy place. And so we switched back to CC&D. Every time Bella turned to look at an approaching dog or man, her Mom made wonderful food happen.

Bella had already surpassed our expectations earlier, but now we could only stare in wonder. This little dog didn't even blink at dogs and men passing just five feet away.

Trust me when I say we were watching carefully and there to step in if Bella showed any signs of stress or increased anxiety. But she didn't. She just sat and did some of the most wonderful CC&D we have yet seen the pair do.

The real Bella in her happy place!

The real Bella in her happy place!

And this is where we had to step away and think about what we had learned.

Cara has been pushing me to re-evaluate everything we do with an eye towards agency. And today was no exception. We had stopped to listen to what Bella was telling us and then adjusted to support what she needed.

The environment plays a significant role in any behaviour modification (or even training) work. From the Establishing Condition to PREPAREDNESS, the other stimuli involved in a session can significantly hinder or (accelerate) the work you are trying to accomplish.

Put more simply, there are things that will make it easier for your dog and there are things that will make it much harder. And it's only by listening to your dog that you can start to determine what these are. And with dogs, listening means watching and paying attention.

Bella had a CC&D session that even amazed her Mom. She happily sat there while men with carts went by and only a fast moving skateboarder on the street caused even a mild glance from her.

Bella was not only in her happy place, she had chosen to sit here. We just decided to listen and give her a chance to make this choice.

Now that’s not to say that we would have continued to sit there and do CC&D if we saw signs of increasing anxiety or stress in her. But it means that we were willing to modify our program to include her wishes. And with some pretty epic results, we might add.

[top image source: Creative Commons Licensed image from rp_photo on Flickr. Bottom image used with permission from her amazing Mom.]