Rebuilding the Confidence of a Ex-Dog Show Border Terrier Named Solo

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 17, 2015

Solo 1

Solo is a three year old Border Terrier who was recently rescued. His previous owner was a Dog Show person and they showed him for a while. But after he got into a minor fracas with another dog that left him with a slightly damaged lip that evidently was counted against him at dog show so they decided to give Solo up. This “give the dog up when it no longer helps us win trivial ribbons” mentality is why I’m not a fan of dog shows and many of the people to participate in them. When I bring a dog into my home, its mine for life unless its a fostering situation. I can’t understand or respect anyone who gives a dog up for such a trivial reason.

And after meeting and working with Solo, its clear the “people” (and I use that word loosely) who were his previous owners did a horrendous job of raising him (They were his breeder). He had very low self esteem and didnt even know how to “sit” on command. Any dog guardian who has a dog for three years and fails to teach something as basic as “sit” has no place adopting a dog, let alone breeding them in my opinion.

Ok enough of my ranting. Let’s get on with the session as it was one of my more interesting visits lately.

When I first arrived, Solo did not bark when I knocked on the door. Instead he remained clear across the room watching from under the kitchen work island. I sat down with his new family (I should call them Saviors because they absolutely are for this dog) and discussed what they wanted to achieve in the session.

I didn’t try to look at, speak to or interact with Solo for the first 10 minutes I was there. Instead I positioned myself so that when I was sitting down, Solo was on my fart left. To dogs, head on (facing) greetings can be interpreted as confrontational or authoritative. I wanted to do ever tying I could to help the dog not see me as any sort of threat or challenge so I only peeked at him out of the corner of my eye while keeping my head facing forward. Solo remained in his location under the work island watching but not participating. After a couple of minutes, I took out a bag of the high value meat treats I use and tossed one in his direction without looking at him.

The treat landed halfway between Solo and where we wee sitting. Solo saw it, but didnt get up. After waiting a moment, I tossed another treat so that it landed a few feet in front of him. This treat was close enough to pique his curiosity. He got up and cautiously approached it on the floor while keeping an eye on me so I remained totally still. Once he gobbled it up off the floor, he headed over to the other treat I had tossed in between us.  While he was walking that way, I dug out another treat and tossed it in-between that treat and where I was sitting. That proved to be too close to me as Solo stood in place and looked at it.

To help him feel more comfortable, I took a seat on the floor with the dog and treat still on my left side. Once I was sitting on the floor (height can convey authority, so I sat on the floor to become more approachable) with the dog on my  left, Solo was comfortable enough to come over and take the treat on the floor. From there was able to feed them to him by hand. However when he went to get the treat, he kept his hind legs back and leaned forward. This is a pretty classic sign of a dog that is uncertain.

Once I could see that Solo was relaxing a bit, I invited the family to join me on the floor in a big circle. I passed out a bunch of treats to them and showed them how to call the dog over. I like to use a hand motion to put the dog into a sit once it come to me, but because Solo’s dog show owners had trained him to stand with his back legs farther back that normal, I wasn’t able to get him to sit down. This was perplexing for me for a moment as I hadn’t noticed his hind legs were that far back. But his new family explained to me that Solo did not know how to sit on command.

Because the hand motion wouldn’t work, I advised them to immediately start petting Solo while repeating the “sit” command over and over the second they see him sit down on his own.  By repeating the command word within 10 seconds of a dog assuming a position or movement, you can teach the dog to associate the command word with the action. Petting him or introducing a treat is a great way to harness the power of positive reinforcement to get the dog to put it all together. This is a passive training technique that is slower than other methods, but still very effective. The more the dog is rewarded for the desired behavior or action (sit) when engaging in it, the quicker they put it all together.

Solo 2

A moment later Solo sat down next to the family’s oldest and she reacted perfectly petting Solo while repeating the command word in a calm and consistent tone of voice. It was a awkward sitting position, but it was a start. It will take practice and repetition, but in time Solo will learn that the word sit translates into a reward when he sits down.

We continued the recall exercise for another few moments and that was when it happened. Solo had been slowly raising up his head from a downward facing orientation when we started the exercise, but he was still moving slow, almost cautiously.  I had been monitoring his head orientation to gage his reaction and our progress. A proud confident dog has his nose parallel to the floor or elevated upward. Insecure dogs or those with low self esteem typically orientate their face in a downward facing position.

I knew we were making progress as his head was gradually slightly tilting upward with each recall. But about 12 minutes in, Solo started moving faster and with a bounce in his step. You could see that he was carrying his body higher as he gained confidence by mastering the recall exercise. Dogs are like people in that they feel a sense of pride when they master a new skill.

After we finished the exercise, I suggested that the family members use the passive training technique to teach Solo to sit and lay down. Once he was the “sit,” “lay down,” and “recall” commands down, I suggested they the family pick one new trick or command to teach Solo every week.

Simply put, the more engaging his family is, the more the dog will come out of his shell. When you combine that with mastering a number of tricks or commands, Solo will gradually gain confidence and self esteem. I also stressed how important it is to support the dog’s playing.

His family mentioned that while he isn’t usually a very play centric dog, there are times that he wants to play fetch. I recommended that they try to play with him anytime that he lets them know he wants to play. Dogs should be happy playful animals and its clear his original owner did him a big disservice by not allowing or possibly reprimanding him for playing. This is hardly uncommon for some dog show owners.

To help engage his dog play mode, I had one of the children fill up a Kong with peanut butter and roll it on the floor. As soon as Solo saw it, he trotted over and gave it a good sniff. Liking what he smelled, he gave it a lick. This caused the kong to roll away from him which got him moving forward. Because of how reserved and passive he was earlier in the session, I wanted to come up with activities that got him moving in a forward manner. Dogs sometimes shut down when fearful or insecure and sometimes they get caught in a shutdown mode. But in order to get over a fear or insecurity, dogs need to literally move forward. Thats why I started out with a kong as that is part of the reason for its shape.

What many people don’t know is that the kong is also a problem solving exercise in itself. When a dog licks it, it rolls away. Some dogs solve this by placing a paw on it to keep it in place. It took Solo about 2 minutes but eventually he propped his right front paw on top of the kong to hold it in place while he licked.

Solo 3

This was a pretty different session for me. Usually Im teaching a dog’s guardians how to get their dog to behave. But in this case, I was showing them how they could help the dog live. His spirit clearly took a beating from his original owners and how they treated him. But now that he has some guardians who truly love him, he will be able to come out of his shell and learn to be a dog again.

By the end of the session, he was recalling on command, carrying himself with some confidence and using his nose like a dog should do to explore things. His family will need to be patient and let Solo come along on his own time, while gently pushing him along by teaching new commands and tricks. Such a gentile soul certainly deserved a second chance. Thank goodness his new family is there to give him just that!

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This post was written by: David Codr

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