The next day was Sunday, and it was beautiful and sunny out. Leaving Cricket in her crate, I went out to the garage and found the ramp I’d bought for Ray when his hip dysplasia made it too hard to jump in and out of the car. Next, I secured Cricket’s car crate in the hatchback with bungee cords so it couldn’t roll around turns. With the back seat up, it was perfectly positioned to not slide either to the front or back. Hurray for smaller dogs!
I placed the ramp so it led up to the crate, and left the garage door open. In the house, I’d already gotten together a bag of treats, the ever-present roll of poop bags, and a squeaky toy I’d just bought for her that she seemed to like. My intent was to drive Cricket to the park and see if walking her there provoked less anxiety. The treats and the toy were coming along to help me train her to deal with whatever anxiety did arise. Indeed, I anticipated the ramp might worry her a bit, and I’d have to lure her up it using treats.
We didn’t make it to the park that day.
As soon as I came out the side door with Cricket, she freaked. It turns out her fear of open garage doors included mine. She squared off with the door, barking at it, then retreated towards the street while peering over her shoulder. Once she felt she was far enough away, she squared off again and kept barking.
“Silly dog,” I said. “It’s just an open garage door. You’re fine.”
I tried walking toward the garage like it was no big deal, thinking that if I projected confidence and calm, that would help. Nope. She tried to bolt. I even tried a couple of treats to get her moving. No dice.
At that point, I saw two options. One, I could return her to her crate in the house, get the car out of the garage, close the garage door, get her up the ramp into the crate, and we’d go to the park. Two, we could work on her fear of open garage doors.
If I’ve learned one thing in my many years of teaching animals and people, it’s to let go of pre-conceived notions of what I’ve planned to teach in a particular lesson. You’ve likely worked out in your mind what material you’ll cover and how you’ll teach it. But if your student isn’t grasping what you’re teaching, then your plan is meaningless, and the responsibility for fixing that does not lie with the student. You as the teacher need to figure out how to adjust things so it makes sense to them. If you pay attention to your student’s hesitation, and create an environment where they feel safe asking questions and fumbling about, you can learn what’s confusing them and address that point of confusion first. Their points of confusion and the questions they ask will guide you in how to tailor your teaching to their learning style.
The above, of course, is much harder to implement when teaching a group of students. So while I fully intended to get Cricket and myself into training classes, I knew that my work with her had to start with me. I couldn’t rely on a group class to do it all for me, and my plan for formal classes had more to do with me wanting to learn a variety of training techniques, as well as expose Cricket to other people and dogs. Rehab itself, though, is very much a one-on-one endeavor. If you find you need help with it, then adding some private instruction might be needed.
So it was just me and Cricket facing that open garage door. I had to let go of what I wanted from her, and pay attention to what she needed. What she needed in this moment wasn’t a trip to the park. It was to learn that my open garage door was not a threat to dogs. And she needed to feel safe with me in order to learn this. And this is where lots of people find it challenging to teach. It’s easy to succumb to your own (understandable) frustration that the goal you were intending to reach is suddenly a lot harder than you imagined. Especially when attaining the original goal already appeared overwhelming. And especially when the student is flipping out over something that seems like it should be no big deal.
But that’s where Cricket was at. And you can only teach the dog you have in front of you at this moment. Not the one you wish you had. So yeah, no park. Today’s training session would be desensitizing her to an open garage door. And how far we got with that depended entirely on her level of comfort, and not on my desire to take her to the park. So if it took one session or one hundred, my training goal was for her anxiety to reduce to where she could reach the ramp into the car. If we got that far, I’d save getting up the ramp and into the crate for another day, because I was sure that ramp would be its own challenge.
That’s the other thing I’ve learned as a teacher. Break training sessions into manageable pieces, and don’t spend too much time in any one session. I’d have given us twenty minutes max to work on the garage door problem, making sure I ended with success. Even if the success was only to stand calmly at the end of the driveway. By lowering the goal, you not only help the student succeed, you also reframe your expectations so you can keep your own frustration in check and feel success as a teacher.
Human students often comment on how patient I am as a teacher. I never tell them that actually, I feel enormous frustration at times. It’s just that I see that as my problem, and sharing it with them would be counter-productive. So I find ways to manage my own frustration, and project patience and calm with the student.
(Don’t worry…there will be future posts about the times I came really dang close to drop kicking the dog, and the times I did lose my cool with her.)
What I try to remember in situations like this is that I wasn’t just teaching Cricket that open garage doors were not a threat. I was establishing our relationship with one another, and I was making a choice here. I could either teach her that I was reliable and safe, or I could teach her that I was scary and difficult and prone to forcing her to do things that already scared her. Which is more effective in the long run?
Set yourself up right at the start as the patient teacher the student can trust, and I guarantee that you will soon find that an anxious student lets go of their anxiety about future boogey men a thousand times faster than the first few boogey men you encounter.
In the next post, I’ll talk about how I helped Cricket overcome her fear of the garage door.