One hundred thirty pounds of lunging, barking Cane Corso is something to behold, but man, oh,man is it ever something else to hold. Jeff struggled mightily to stand fast but with each barking lunge the dog pulled him close and closer to the woman walking by on the other side of the road. Mustering all his strength Jeff strained against the leash, and called “Brutus! C’mon, boy!” The powerful dog just kept lunging, foam flying from his mouth as he snarled at the harmless passerby.Only after the woman passed did Jeff’s efforts seemed to have an effect. At first Brutus barely slid backwards. Then he slowed his lunging, and finally turned to sidle up to an exhausted Jeff. After that he only offered only the occasional backward glance at the calm but wary pedestrian who was now receding into the distance. Pretty soon the dog was trotting along as if nothing at happened.
Jeff said, “Okay, the trip from the car across the parking lot had been a little more intense than expected . . . well, not really. I can pretty much guarantee Brutus will do that every time someone walks by.”
“Let’s get him into the training center and get to work” I said. As my assistant went back to her other duties I motioned for Jeff’s wife Lynn to follow. Moments later she and her daughters, Jaimie and Kyra met us at the center’s main door. Once inside, I had Jeff attach Brutus to a tether ring on the wall between his chair and Lynn’s and I gave him a Kong stuffed with frozen chicken broth and kibble. That kept him occupied as the girls sat beside their mother and listened intently as we discussed Brutus and his impact on the Schmidt family.
Lynn went first. “I can’t do what Jeff just did. I’m just not strong enough. Brutus can just drag me anywhere he wants whenever he wants. I can’t take him for a walk. All I can do is spend time with him in our backyard. He doesn’t like to play fetch so I can’t exercise him. Jeff has to do all that, but his work schedule is so busy that he doesn’t have the time to really work Brutus until he gets tired. I like the dog, but I don’t trust him not to get us into trouble . . . a lot of trouble.”
“But, Mommy, we love Brutus. We know he can be a good boy.” said Jaimie, the older of the two girls. Kyra nodded her endorsement.
Jeff chimed in, “I know, sweetie, but we have to be prudent about these things. That’s why we’re here to see Steve. He’s going to help us make Brutus the best dog he can be.” At that point all eyes turned toward me as if to say, “Well . . .?”
I paused for a moment. My review of the intake history questionnaire flashed through my brain:
Cane Corso; 132 lbs.; 18 months old; intact; only dog in the house; family of four—Mom, dad, and two girls; barks and lunges at other dogs and people, especially in the car or on walks; never been off-leash under those circumstances. Jeff and Lynn were both engineers—with Lynn working half-time so she could participate in homeschooling Jaimie and Kyra. The daughters were 10 and 7 and both were in a homeschool co-op that brought 20 or 30 kids a week into their home. Problems with Brutus’s reactivity had started when he was about five months old and only got worse as he entered adolescence.
The facts were pretty typical, but the stakes were very high because of the size and power of the dog coupled with the sheer number of kids passing through the household. I considered these factors as I decided to get the hard part out of the way first. “Do you remember what your response was to #46 on the intake questionnaire: ‘What kind of time, energy, and resource commitment are you willing to make to address and resolve these issues?’”
“Sure” said Lynn. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes.” Jeff vigorously nodded agreement and Kyra bolstered the sentiment by saying “We love Brutey!”
Seeing that the Schmidts had just opened the door I figured I might as well get the tough part over with right away. “The bulk of my job as an animal behavior consultant is reconciling disparities. For dogs I help reconcile perception and reality, and we’ll go into that in more detail later. But right now the more important work is at the loop end of the leash—helping you reconcile your expectations with the reality of your situation. Brutus’s problem behaviors are now deeply established. They didn’t spring up overnight and they won’t be resolved overnight either. This is going to take substantial adjustments in your lifestyle and behaviors. Working together we can develop a training plan to resolve Brutus’s issues and can fairly well estimate how many hours work it will take for various training schedules. The more work you do every day and the more you change your behaviors the sooner you’ll get satisfactory results. But, because humans are slow to change and groups—especially families—are tough to get on the same page, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll run into setbacks. The reality is also that learning never stops—both good and bad. That’s why I tell all my clients that training is lifelong process. You can never say you’re done. Are you ready for challenging work up front and plenty more to do for the long haul?”
Lynn replied, “I said whatever it takes. But I get the sense that you feel that’s the answer of the uninformed. I’m an engineer. Maybe I should have known better, but I just didn’t think you could quantify things when it comes to dog behavior.”
Jaimie startled me when she jumped in. “So what will it take?”
“First we’ll have to do more baseline tests like the one we did before you came in. Then we’ll teach you a marker system that essentially becomes the way you’ll communicate with Brutus in training and also serves as the basis for successful social etiquette. Next you’ll need to train five Taproot behaviors so they are fluent and well-generalized. That means Brutus will perform the behaviors as soon as you cue them—anytime, anywhere. You’ll also need to practice how to tactically use those behaviors when things go wrong. Next you’ll work on desensitization and counter-conditioning—DS & CC—a program to help reconcile Brutus’s misperception of innocuous stimuli. That can take some time because we may have to try a variety of protocols, and we’ll have to generalize these responses as well. In addition you’ll all have some homework to do. We will also have to develop a common glossary so that we can communicate effectively. and you’ll need to demonstrate that you have internalized the principles (20 of them to be exact) at play. And the girls get in on all this fun as well. Oh, yeah, and one more thing you’ll use positive reinforcement as your tool of choice. Punishing Brutus’s reactivity only serves to strengthen his misperception that whatever the situation is it is worth being worried about.”
Jeff piped up, “Wow! That sounds like a lot of work . . . and a lot of billable hours for you.”
“Well, it is a lot of work. That’s the bad news. The good news is that while I really like you on a personal level, my professional goal is to get me out of your lives as quickly as I can. So the quicker the four of you get the basics down the sooner we can taper off on your visits with me. That way if you come back to work with me it will be because we’re having fun, not because you “need” my expertise. If you actually do the work it can take as little as four to six weeks to get the five Taproot behaviors robust enough that you can use them in controlled circumstances. The less work you do the longer it will take, but that’s up to you. During the period that you’re teaching Brutus the Taproot behaviors you can also do the ‘homework’. After that we just have to lead you through a couple of DS & CC sessions so you can do the distance work on your own. That’s where we help Brutus reconcile his misperceptions with reality by teaching him that scary things aren’t dangerous and that prey-like creatures aren’t available. Once Brutus reliably responds to cues in the presence of the other dogs or people that are out of range you’ll bring me back into the picture.”
Jeff asked, “So what are these Taproot behaviors?”
“Well just as taproots nourish and stabilize developing plants, Taproot behaviors stabilize and sustain your dog’s behavioral repertoire. The five basic things any dog needs to get along in human society are to know its own Name, give Focused Attention, Come when called, Walk on a Loose Leash, and a Stationary behavior like Sit or Down. Many people train both Sit and Down, and you’re certainly free to, but it’s not necessary.”
Lynn wanted to know more about the “etiquette” and the twenty principles. I explained, “Think about it. Etiquette is something very few us of formally study any more but we all of use every day. It’s the lubricant of our daily social interactions—a series of behavioral templates that allow people to reconcile their expectations with those of others’. Essentially once we teach Brutus in “regular school” we’ll put him through “finishing school” to help him move comfortably in human society, which when you think about it is an alien culture to him. The twenty principles are simply eight things you need to know train new behaviors, eight ways to eliminate problem behaviors, and three element of etiquette, and how stimulus control works.”
As I finished my thoughts I noticed Jaimie and Kyra whispering to each other. Before Lynn and Jeff could respond Jaimie spoke for them both. “Mom, Dad, we can do this. Kyra and can help and we can even keep track of what we’re doing as a home school project.”
Jeff and Lynn looked at each other, and in unison they said, “Let’s get started.”
“Let me get you folks a Taproot form. While I explain it Teresa will set up another baseline exercise.