Raising Phoenix Rising: dog training a young Belgian Shepherd Groenendael (2)

Here is Part 2 of dog training Phoenix the Belgian Shepherd – I hope you enjoy it!  (You can read the first part here.)
Many of you know I am a rewards based dog trainer, but I also believe in using all resources available to train dogs – whatever the dog wants in the moment can be used to train her/him – it is a ‘learn to earn’  or ‘nothing in life is free’ approach. So using food is just one of the many ways we can train dogs. When WolfCub was a puppy I didn’t have the knowledge or experience I have today, still I believe he turned out well. 😀 Phoenix was far more of a challenge though – he was initially more reactive than WolfCub. If he was uncertain in a situation he would respond with some aggression; he could not handle traffic or other loud noises and would wig out at the sight of certain things. There was an early timidity around other dogs and even some toileting issues in the car. Despite being able to go on cue after 3 days as an 8 week old puppy, he would get over excited sometimes and wee and poo in the car (and yes, he was toileted before every journey). I have to laugh now at one time when I took him to a new park to get some photos – as we arrived he let go of everything in the back seat: a huge poo and a flood of wee! I had a hammock arrangement, so I moved Phoenix into the very back of the car and promptly threw the hammock and its contents into the nearest bin (grateful that there was one close by).

Many of these issues are just normal for puppies growing up, although the aggression did disturb me. I embarked on a serious program of counter conditioning, giving Phoenix high value rewards when he was reactive – but as importantly as this, I believe, was that I started talking to Phoenix, giving him feedback about the sights that were upsetting him. I would explain what he was seeing and even though I knew he could not understand what I was saying, he could understand the tone of my voice and my body language. I was essentially interpreting the world for him. At the same time Phoenix was also learning all the other obedience basics – sit, drop, wait, off, meal time manners, walk nicely on a loose lead etc AND especially ‘look’ – an important ‘stay connected and pay attention to me’ behaviour. I would initially prompt the behaviour with a lure and word (finger to my lips and say ‘Phoenix look’). Once he was doing this reliably and whenever he would look at me WITHOUT being prompted, I would jackpot this behaviour. So over time if he was ever unsure of anything, he would check in with me to see what I thought about it. I had a perfect test of this a couple of weeks ago: while out walking we were approached by two men. Phoenix gave them a look then immediately turned back to me. I rewarded and praised the heck out of him and we continued walking – ‘proud mum’ moment, I can tell you!

American author and trainer Suzanne Clothier,  focuses specifically on the relationship we have with our dogs, and her view is, that if you have a ‘soul to soul’ connection, the rest of the training will follow. It was from her that I really learned the value of good leadership and unprompted behaviour, when the dog chooses to check in with us, when the dog looks to us for guidance. Paradoxically this unprompted behaviour can be trained, through giving the dog initial cues. Once a foundation has been laid via training or if the dog ever offers the behaviour naturally, you can reward that. Pretty soon you will find that your dog starts to check in with you without you having to ask. And when that happens JACKPOT that behaviour – feed steadily for about 15 seconds. Train first in a non-distracting environment, then slowly build the number and kind of distractions, and when your overly social dog, or your anxious dog starts checking in with you after having observed the distraction – without carrying on like a pork chop – you will feel the power and potential of this relationship based system! 😀

I had also started using a clicker with Phoenix soon after I got him – to accurately bridge his behaviour rather than using a verbal term such as ‘ yes’, when he did what I asked, or when I was training something new.  In dog training, when we bridge a dog’s behaviour we provide clarity for the dog i.e. ask dog to ‘sit’, say yes’ or click when dog has performed desired behaviour, then reward. Any behaviour that is rewarded increases the chances of that behaviour happening again. I had first learned clicker training  a couple of years earlier and loved its preciseness – sometimes it is a good thing when the human voice is taken out of the equation.  The reason I started using the clicker with Phoenix was because he responded better to it than my voice alone. The clicker seemed to calm him down and make him more focused, and boy did he need to learn focus! I still use it now, although not all of the time – many people who use a clicker know that the click is reinforcing in itself after the dog has been taught that a reward follows its sound. I know Phoenix loves to work for that click! The food reward is now far less important: instead I immediately release him to go back to play.

Phoenix was in many ways the ‘perfect puppy’. He was fairly easily toilet trained (I used a crate and a pen so there were few opportunities for him to have accidents  and when the odd one did happen, it was clearly my fault as I wasn’t paying enough attention). He learned different things very quickly and his off-lead recall at the park was 100%. Ah, that was soon all about to change. When Phoenix turned 6 months of age and became an adolescent, he decided to run off to meet some people waaaaaaaaaay off in the distance AND across a road. And when he chose to come back,  there was a female runner close by, so he thought ‘oooh must go and jump all over her’! Thankfully the street that he crossed twice was fairly quiet, but it was a watershed moment for me (with a mild heart attack). From that day forward, I knew for his safety and my sanity, he was going to have to be worked on a long lead. Can you believe it, I felt my dog was way too social – just HAD to meet every dog and person – and of course not everybody was thrilled to meet him with his exuberant ways.

So when we went out Phoenix was on a 15 meter lead. I trained a game called ‘find the treat’ – I would throw a treat and he would race off to find it when I gave him the word. He quickly learned to love this game because he got to zoom around as a Belgian loves to do. 😄  I trained him to sit and drop at distance, or to perform his tricks when he was up to 15 meters away. Initially he was so slow (of course) but as we laid down the repetitions day after day, and he fully understood what I was asking of him, he would do what I asked instantly! Phoenix was so willing to work he would just make me laugh with his enthusiasm at times. Sit like a rocket, sure he could do that! Drop to the ground as if he was shot after running around like a crazy thing – yep he could do that! My heart was zinging with joy at the progress he was making and at how much fun he was having.

Along with the ‘find the treat’ game, I was also testing Phoenix’s recall with ever increasing distractions. I have to laugh at how I named him after a mythical bird, because  he loves to chase birds! But the highest motivator for him was to meet and play with other dogs. I allowed him access to other dogs, but he had to come when I called. And when he did not,  sometimes we went straight home or I would increase distance from the thing he wanted until he listened to me and we walked there calmly. With the long lead I had physical control of Phoenix so he never got to practice the ‘bad’ behaviour too many times. I have to admit sometimes I wondered if we would ever get there (i.e. off lead, with a reliable recall whatever the distraction), but I knew I had to teach him that he didn’t get the wonderful gift of the park and other dogs unless he listened to what I asked of him. Slowly, slowly I could see improvements in his behaviour: he would see another dog and instead of going into over arousal he would have a look and then check back in with me! Yay! Of course some days he was better than others. One step forward, two steps back. There were plenty of times when he made me mad and frustrated, and I lacked the necessary patience with him. But I would just reset myself, knowing I had to do better and try try again. And again. 😄 This process reminded me of the 2 day workshop with Suzanne Clothier – the title of the second day’s presentation was “From maddening to maturity: living with the adolescent dog.”

I also needed to have faith in the method I was using with Phoenix – a mixture of rewards based dog training, but also teaching him consequences for his actions. Using all the resources available to train him, if he came when called I would immediately release him into play again. When there were dogs around he was not interested in food, so I used access to the other dogs to teach him to come. I can now happily report that as of the past 4 weeks, with Phoenix 11 months old, I have put away the long lead permanently! Of course he still ‘fails’ sometimes to come when I first call, but withdrawing freedom from him for a couple of minutes by putting him back on lead does the trick. It is like his adolescent brain needs a reminder – ‘oh yeah, I have to check in with Mum in order to keep playing’. I am absolutely thrilled with his progress and his capacity to learn, and what an absolute joy he is to work with! And I am so looking forward to the continuation of this dance between us, a movement of freedom within constraint as we learn and grow together.


“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

~Khalil Gibran