The Clicker Training Center

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Article of the Month   by Corally Burmaster

I had a 13 month old Airedale referred to me by a training facility who felt they had done all they could do for him and that he now needed to go to someone who "knew" Airedales. When I spoke with the owners, it turned out that the problem was a twofold one, and had nothing to do with the fact that they were dealing with an Airedale.


To begin with, the class they had attended had not given them the tools necessary to teach the dog how to control himself. He should have had a head halter put on him to allow his owners to communicate with him more efficiently. They weren't able to show him what they wanted him to do so that they could reinforce it and, therefore, no learning had occurred over the course of the classes.


The second part of the problem turned out to be why they took him to an obedience class to begin with. The owners had four cats and it appeared that the Airedale didn't like them. He had chased them so unmercifully around the house that the owners now kept the cats in the lower section of their split foyer house, and kept the dog in the upper, everyone safely separated by gates. The constant vigilance necessary to maintain this security was no way to live.


Victor was a rescue Airedale, so he came with his own baggage. My discussion with the owners included the possibility that cat chasing might have been encouraged in Victor's previous life, and, if that were the case, they might not be willing to devote the time and energy that would be required to rehabilitate him. It might be necessary to rehome him to a family without cats. It hadn't occurred to the owners that someone might actually encourage a dog to chase cats, but they reluctantly accepted that this might be an unsolvable problem. I could tell, though, they wanted to give it their best shot. Victor arrived with the his entire family in tow. Literally. He was your typical teenage boy, all legs, the attention span of a gnat, energy that could expand instantly to fill the space available, and not a shred of self-control. He was wearing both a choke chain and a flat collar, neither one of which was the least bit effective. He lunged at me in sheer glee and as his owner tried to keep him from hitting his mark I instructed him to please just leave him alone. Victor slammed into me several times, his front feet reaching my shoulders and each time I waited until his feet hit the floor again and then clicked and treated. Within just a few minutes, he had figured out that he could get me to click and treat if he had all four of his feet on the ground, and so he just quite jumping.


I fit him with a Gentle Leader (a head halter similar to those used on horses that allows you to control the dog's head) and walked him around, and after a few histrionics that he discovered didn't work, he quit fighting and altered his strategy. He'd go out as far as he could go on the leash and then stand there leaning his weight against it while I played "tree." When he got tired of leaning in one direction and getting nowhere he would simple head in another direction and lean again. I clicked him each time he took the tension off the leash and pretty soon he was more interested in focusing on me than on his surroundings.

When I had reasonable attention from him and he was beginning to catch on to this clicker thing, I brought my new 10 week old kitten, Kit Kat, out to the garage and put her in a large wire crate. (Lest you think I was abusing the poor dear, you should understand that she is an understudy to Chatty Cat, the Airedale Tamer. She wrestles with the puppies and smacks Jazz in the face when Jazz tries to lick her adoringly. She is full of curiosity but holds no fear where dogs are concerned.)


I kept Victor about 20 away from the crate at first. I didn't want the distraction to be so great that he was incapable of leaning. He had seen me put Kit in there and really wanted to get to her, so keeping some distance allowed at least a few brain cells to continue to function. Each time he lunged, I turned around and walked in the other direction. When he caught up with me, I clicked and treated, and returned to the starting point. When he was standing quietly at 20 feet away, we moved to 18 feet and repeated the walking away until he was again standing quietly at the target distance. I didn't say anything to him. I just kept my mouth shut and stayed out of his way so he could learn what got him the right to move closer to the cat. We proceeded this way until he was standing quietly about ten feet from the crate, trembling in anticipation and wagging his tail but with a loose lead. He had already begun to control himself.


Right then Chatty Cat came around the corner of the garage, lay down in the gravel and rolled over with that nonchalance cats excel at. Victor lunged at her, and we did our about-turn routine several times before he got himself back under control and I allowed him to walk towards Chatty. He really worked on keeping himself in check all the way to her but totally lost his cool as he got just within reach. He leaped at her and she moved herself nimbly out of his reach in the blink of an eye, gave him a pitying look and sauntered away. Chatty doesn't suffer ill mannered dogs at all. So we went back to approaching Kit, and just took it in tiny increments so he could build up his self restraint in manageable increments.

It was perfectly clear to me in the first few minutes of working with Victor that this dog did not have murder in mind. He simply wanted to see what cats were and perhaps play with them a bit if they were so inclined. We spent the next ten minutes approaching the crate and walking away until Victor was finally able to walk quietly all the way to the crate, and touch his nose to the kitten through the wire. He lost his cool again at the contact, so we walked away again and gave him a break. When I walked him back to the crate, he was able to stand quietly for an extraordinary length of time, sniffing Kit as she rub her sides against the wire.


The owners, of course, were awed and amazed at Victor's demonstration of self control and I was quick to warn them that their problem was far from being over. This training session was only a foundation for them to work from. They had a crate at home already, and we spent a few minutes mapping out how they should proceed in their particular situation. I emphasized that it would be the cats, themselves, who were going to be the most difficult to convince of Victor's intentions and each one needed to be thoroughly desensitize to Victor's presence while they were safely in the crate to avoid more cat chasing behavior.


Victor, meanwhile, had finished smelling the cat and had come back to me to see if that would earn him a click and treat (it did). Chatty walked around the side of the garage again and Victor went up on his toes and began gathering himself to lunge, but he didn't. He visibly settled back down off his toes and looked at me. I clicked and treated. He turned back to Chatty and walked slowly and carefully up to her for all the world like he was really, really concentrating on the way he was supposed to do this thing. It was charming to watch him deliberately trying to control himself so that he could actually get all the way to this ultimate cat reinforcement without having someone turn him around and walk him away! Chatty sat and waited for him to approach and when he didn't pounce on her, she stood and rubbed against his front legs. I heard the owners gasp, and, quite frankly, I would have, too, had I not already been holding my breath.

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