I Can Help My Clients Progress, But I Cannot Train My Own Dog.

can't train

One of the first lessons my graduate school professor taught the class was that not all BCBAs have “perfectly behaved” children.  In fact, my professor enjoyed telling stories about how he was able to change challenging behaviors of clients and students, but he was not able to leave Target without his own children throwing a tantrum over a doll.  I cannot completely relate to his stories because I do not have children of my own.  However, I am a proud human to a 7-month year old chocolate lab puppy and I would be lying if I said she has trained me more than I have trained her.

Prior to bringing the puppy, Parker, home this past February, I was ready to disseminate my practice upon my new puppy.  I had purchased puppy training books written by the experts and purchased all of the suggested supplies like the infamous “clicker” which are to be paired with specific training treats.  I even put antecedent interventions in place around my house to prepare for the pouch; safety gates were installed around the stairs and bitter apple spray was purchased in order to decrease any potential furniture chewing.  I was ready and I imagined I would be the epitome of BCBA/Dog Mom.  

My first mistake probably occurred after the first night at home.  My boyfriend and I were so exhausted after all of the excitement of the day that when it was finally time for us to go to bed, we decided we would put Parker in her crate for a few hours until it was time for her to go out again.  Parker was exhausted too, so we were fortunate that she wanted some uninterrupted sleep for a few hours.  Then, as soon as we heard her start to stir in her crate at 6am, we ran down the stairs to tend to her.  I am ashamed to say this behavior was reinforced for the first few nights and it is no surprise, that 5 months later Parker still expects us to be up with her at 6am.  Many non-BCBA dog owners see the bags under my eyes and listen to my story about how Parker still is an early riser.  Several friends have mentioned to me that I should consider letting the puppy cry it out for a little in the mornings before I give her attention.  I have become too ashamed to admit to them that extinction is a key principle to ABA and is one of the first terms we learn from Cooper.  I have just accepted the fact that I will never again need to set an alarm and Parker will have me up in time for work for the foreseeable future.

Growing up we had a family dog that I was too young to remember training.  My parents were the primary caretakers of this puppy, so by the time I was old enough to remember him, he had already become a dinner time beggar.  The vet would often suggest to us that we should put him on a diet and control his weight better.  I felt bad that we had put his health at risk so I vowed that any future dog I had would never beg for food.  Fast forward 25 years later and I am not conditioned to give Parker a treat anytime she steps inside from the backyard.  Obviously, clicker training was successful because Parker was house broken quickly.  However, I failed at fading her schedule of reinforcement and she still expects a treat every time she is successful at relieving herself outside.  Even if it is 6 o’clock in the morning and I am too sleep deprived to remember to reinforce the successful “void,” she has been effective by reminding me by barking at the pantry door where her treats are stored.

One thing that is out of my scope of confidence is leash training.  I was under the impression that I was doing a good job at teaching her to “heal” and “sit” if another dog was passing by.  The part of leash training that I did not account for was that the 4-pound puppy I began the training with would grow to become 50 pounds of pure muscle in less than 4 months.  Now I have become oblivious to the comments from neighbors such as “Who’s walking who?” and “Here comes Mike Tyson!”.  Now I just grin a little bit and remember that the more I walk Parker the fewer bicep curls I have to do later.  Hopefully, I get control over the walking situation, otherwise I will have my own personal sled this winter.

Obviously, raising a puppy is a lot more challenging than I could have ever imagined.  I assumed I would have stimulus control over Parker by the time she was 7 weeks old.  Now, 7 months later, she has more control over me.  However, I do not regret any “mistakes” I may have made training Parker because despite the mishaps, she has brought so much love to my life and I now have a new best friend.  Parker was my boyfriend’s congratulatory gift to me for passing my BCBA exam.  So, I guess you can say she was the ultimate positive reinforcement!

By Alicia Marshall MAT, BCBA

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