Merlin is a name that I simply couldn't refuse. I have always had some sort of fascination with the character, seeing him as an old druidic priest (or possibly priestess) mastering the crucifer family of plants as well as mans place in the world of magic. When the director of Paws 4 Autism asked me if I could work my special magic with Merlin, of course I was thrilled. He is an exceptional dog. He may even have changed my preference for canine from labrador farm mutt to the large standard poodle. I just had no idea how intelligent and intuitive and wonderuful these dogs are. Merlin listens and looks intently for anything to alert his person to, and will growl and bark at approaching strangers if they are not smiling or have lost that "skip in their step" that signals playfullness and happiness. In order to be the best trained service dog he can be; I am working with him on learning a few key elements of discernment and application for his behaviors.
First, the low growl is a great "alert" and he is appreciated for offering one of those when there is something for us to "watch". Once we look and are watching he needs to "wait", because that is "enough". Any more than one low growl is too much and he gets rewarded and shown the quiet sign (hand under the jaw). Barking once is different than an "alert". Barking once is something I like to call "guard", or "standguard". By marking that behavior it will allow his handler to ask that behavior of him in the furure. First he will be learning that we recognize his different vocalizations as having important meaning, and showing us he cares for our wellbeing. Secondly he will be learning that while we appreciate his voice, we are going to require that he mold how he communicates into one respectable low growl for an "alert", and one short soft bark for when he is asked to "stand guard".
For me, the most rewarding part of this experience is the feedback I am getting from Merlin. Timing and patience are key to training a dog well, as well as keeping it positive and interesting. We have been blessed to have wonderful opportunities to practice his skills literally fall into our lap every day so far. An hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, we are focused and working. He knows that I can tell the difference when he is intimidated and nervous, on the border of fearful of a situation and barking or growling out of uncertainty; and that I can tell when he is really trying to focus on what he has been taught and do things how he has been asked to do them. When a dog is reacting out of fear or uncertainty or insecurity, the only thing that will work is reassurance and associating the stimulus with a positive feeling, good ju-ju.
This is where dog trainers lose most people. Yes, we want you to reward your dog with treats and praise when they are doing an activity you want them to stop doing - like barking. But before you lose your cool with me and stop reading because no way no how are you ever going to reward a dog for barking - please allow me to explain. You aren't rewarding the barking. You are reassuring and creating a positive association with the stimulus producing the unwanted response. You take a mental note of how close you were when the reaction occured and you take responsibility to stay further away than that next time, and slowly work closer while praising and reaffirming the "quiet", "watch", and "good alert" when you are offered the one low growl that you want. Believe it or not, your dog will also know the difference between being rewarded for a positive behavior, and being reassured in an uncomfortable position. Those are not the same thing at all, and timing is essential.
Special thanks to Miss Maddie, who is missing out on time with "my guy" while I work with him. He will be back with you shortly sweetheart, and you have made three new friends. Also special thanks to Isabella and Ambriella for being wonderful assistant trainers and making sure Merlin knows he will be back with Maddie soon.