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Clumsy Girl on Skis - Its Just Like Dog Training

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Happy New Year!

As some of my friends will know, after Christmas I embarked on my first ever skiing holiday!  When I initially booked I decided (against just about everyone I know's better judgement) that I was not going to learn to ski, I was going to snowboard.  Unfortunately 2 dry slope snowboarding lessons later, I realised that the chances of me spending anything less than 100% of my holiday on my bum if I snowboarded were slim to none, so I thankfully managed to swap to ski lessons.  

The Magnificent French AlpsWe flew to Meribel in the beautiful French Alps, luckily having the first snow fall of the season the weekend of our arrival (which caused a little bit of chaos for our travels!) and I started my lessons bright and early on Monday.  Sadly, things did not go well.  

Anyone that knows me will know 4 things:

  1. I am not particularly well co-ordinated and tend to fall over, a lot.  It takes a lot of time and patience for me to get good at 'sporty' things.
  2. This means I'm really nervous and get really embarassed when learning new skills in front of people as I think they will get impatient with me and think I'm stupid.
  3. I do not get up early in the morning - breakfast is often skipped as I go straight to lunch.
  4. I get shakey and really cranky when my blood sugar levels drop - my partner has been known to shove chocolate straight in my mouth when noticing the warning signs. 

So, with this in mind, I started my first lesson at 11.30, having missed breakfast (served at 8-9am, on holiday?!) trudged down the hill holding my skis, helmet and poles, in those awkward ski boots (a masochist invented them I'm sure).  Things started well enough, I was quite excited when I started gliding over the snow.  We did a lot of trudging up hill in skis and snow (not easy!) on that first lesson and unsurprisingly, 1.5 hours in, my legs started to shake as my glucose levels nosedived.  It was at this point I did a spectacular fall (NOTE: do NOT fall backwards onto your bum when trying to abort an out of control skid... you'll keep going with skis, back and head flat on the floor!) and then twice after that panicked and threw myself sideways to stop when I felt I was going too fast.  Thankfully the lesson ended, and a tired, hungry, but generally quite giggley me caught the bus up to a restaurant to meet my lovely man and his friends to regale them with my epic fall.  True to form, my partner had a burger waiting to shove in my mouth on arrival...

View from the Panoramique

The next day, I felt prepared, I had 2 red bulls and a 4 pack of snickers in my back pack.  I missed breakfast but snacked on those after a short and productive practice session with my other learner friends.  But for some reason I couldn't shake off the trembling in my legs.  Bizarrely, my falls on the course on the day before, had gone from amusing after the class, to a little bit nerve shaking.  And that lesson went from bad to worse as I fell every single time I panicked (there were some awesome falls!) which was quite a lot.  I did make some progress, but as we pushed down a green run with our instructor (who did an admirable job) I realised my nerves were only getting worse, and that this wasn't for me.  As the lesson ended and I took a beautiful stair lift to the Panoramique restaurant at the top of the mountain I started ponderingparalells with dog training...

1.  We all need energy to move and learn.  Food deprived animals have impaired cognition and physical capabilities and the need for food begins to override all other reasoning skills as your primary 'SEEKING' skills engage - your only focus is to find food.  So doing any training without the fuel in your system to complete it, is risky and setting yourself up to fail.  For this reason I don't recommend you starve your dog before a training session, instead get some extra tasty treats to tempt your dog - how many of you are stuffed after dinner but have a 'pudding stomach'?!

2.  Pushing on beyond your endurance levels and for a long period of time for a learner is likely to result in failure - in some situations this may simply be disappointing, but in learning new physical skills, this could be quite scary, frustrating or upsetting.  In hindsight, 2 hours of any physical exercise is not likely to end well for me.  I walk a lot, but this is interspersed with driving and coffees!  As I was so slow, I was forever catching up with the rest of the group (and feeling bad about delaying them) so I didn't get a breather for almost the whole 2 hours.  Dogs and humans need breaks in training.  In scientific terms, we call this latent learning, a little pause which enables the brain to assimilate and process the information it's just received.  Breaks are essential, as is knowing when to call it a day - before your subject has been put off of the exercise completely and finds it an unpleasant experience!

Dog Trainer on Skis - Looking the Part at Least!3.  Getting someone to attempt something they are not ready for, especially in a situation they find a little scary, is likely to result in failure.  Several (well meaning!) people tried to tell me that the problem was 'all in my head' hoping that this would help me get over it, unfortunately, it doesn't work this way.  My fear of loss of control on skis, sent my brain into panic mode, enter the function of the amygdala, the 'primitive' non-reasoning side of the brain that kept firing off a response to fall over.  My amygdala had worked with the hippocampus to learn that falling backwards on bum is not safe and didn't stop my slide, but falling sideways was a strategy that worked and used this technique every time I pushed too far and panic took over.  At this point the quick and autonomic response of my nervous system took over and my higher powers of cognition were powerless.  Which brings me to the next point...

4.  Constantly working at a level above the one you are capable of, leads to practicing mistakes.  It doesn't matter how wrong the mistake is, the more you do it, the more likely you are to do it in future, as the action becomes automatic.  This is frustrating for the student and teacher and really stalls progress.

You may think, this is obvious and does it actually apply to dog training or is this a tenuous link?!  Actually this has a much bigger cross over when you start to consider canine (and feline) behaviour problems.  Many aggressive dogs are actually fearful dogs.  You might not think it when you look at this dog lunging, snapping and growling at something, convinced it would kill it, but very often these dogs are terrified.  They have learned that flight isn't an option (maybe they're onlead and being forced to confront something they wanted to avoid) and that appeasement signals, such as rolling over and turning away aren't working and so they are left with fighting.  As soon as they hit the point where fear takes over their brain, logic is gone and they use the strategy that works automatically.  Shouting, begging and telling them to 'get over it' won't help, they are not capable of anything other than that response if you keep pushing them into a situation where they keep practicing it.  

So how do you work on a dog who's primitive brain is taking over it's brain every time it sees something it's scared of?  And how do you teach a clumsy (and rather scared girl) not to keep falling over on her skis?

1.  Set yourself up to succeed.  Dog and girl need to be the epitome of health and ready to go.  This means a well balanced meal for sustained mental and physical energy, a good night's sleep and making sure any health issues are resolved!  Thankfully for me, my snacks and the mountain air took care of the first two options and I was well enough (although constant ear issues means my balance is problematic, often contributing to me falling over!) but for a dog, this is why we always need you to see a vet before we start behaviour work, to ensure your dog is fit and healthy and there are no medical causes for the behaviour.  Sometimes these medical issues, as with my balance, are just something you have to deal with, but being aware or it can be useful as you find ways to work around it, or take it a little slower.

2.  Ask if the learning environment is right.  For the clumsy girl, who gets easily embarassed, being surrounded by a class of other learners wasn't best for her fledgling confidence.  I dropped out of my classes and went off to practice on nursery slopes alone.  I felt much better!  I could focus much better without my embarassment and worry that I was holding everyone up!  For the dog, work with someone to minimise other distractions and worries for him, if he's scared of strange men and other dogs, chose a female behaviourist to help work on this, if he hates rain, wait for a dry day to practice, or find a shelter or indoor training room.

3.  Work at your own pace.  For me, practicing over and over again on the nursery slopes was perfect, I let my confidence grow as I practiced techniques until I perfected them at that level and enjoyed it - I now want to ski again.  Being scared when you are pushed beyond your limits is not a pleasant experience - you risk giving up completely.  Pushing a dog over it's limits as part of a behaviour modification programme will result in him practicing the same old mistakes and may even send him backwards or cause new problems as he begins to associate other things with his fear, such as a certain location, or even a certain treat which he is only ever offered when he is close to something that scares him.

4.  Rewards and praise are important.  I may have looked silly, but I gave myself little compliments and 'good girls' as I practiced.  After a little while I had a break with some chips and vin chaud as my reward and then set back off again - the break gave me time to work out my next goal.  We can underestimate the importance of rewards and praise in training, but our dogs need to know they've done the right thing and it can make the process so much more enjoyable all round!

5.  Back chaining is king!  As I moved from an easy nursery slope to a longer, steeper and harder one, I felt my nerves start to jangle again.  I knew I had mastered the easy one, but I didn't know how to tackle the next one up.  So I kicked off my skis and trampled 2/3rds of the way down the slope, clipped my skis back on and just practiced that last 1/3 section, again and again (between this and the verbal self-praise I must have looked like a fruit loop!) until I felt comfortable.  I then began to start to ski down from a higher and higher place.  Each time, after having just a little bit of nerves at the start of the run, I would soon hit a familiar section and feel my relief and confidence grow - I knew I could do that bit!  Back chaining is used in complicated training exercises often for disability dogs, but the logic that underpins the relief in familiarity can be seen in rehab work.  You practice the end part of the routine a dozen times.  Your dog knows if he looks at you, you will turn and walk away.  You practice in different areas so that the Look, Turn and Walk Away is second nature.  Then one day, your dog is faced with another dog 100 yards away (he notices him, but doesn't normally kick off until the dog is 80 yards away) and looks at you, almost out of default.  You turn and walk away.  That mild anxiety is replaced with relief as he knows that this Look, Turn and Walk Away strategy works with other dogs too.  And so you gradually decrease the distance between him and the other dog this way, bringing me to my final point...

6.  The only way you can stop the primitive part of the brain from taking over, is to work at a level where reason can function over fear - at a level which doesn't stimulate the amygdala into action.  This requires practice and building up slowly - trying to do too much too soon in a stressful environment will just result in the amygdala taking control - and the more this happens in a short period the more 'trigger happy' the amygdala becomes, as stress levels increase, worsening the problem.  On the nursery slopes I was able to practice just one aspect (snow plough!) again and again.  Once I had this on a fairly shallow slope, I could start to add in some turns and begin to speed up and slow down more and more rapidly.  Only then could I consider going to a steeper slope.  For a dog, he must master an action (turning and walking away) at one distance, before you can push on.  If you push on and the action is a bit 'hit and miss', it will only worsen as his anxiety and fear levels increase, until you eventually push him 'over the limit' and his primitive brain and aggression kicks in.  

Apres Ski FunSo how did I finish?  I didn't do as much skiing as I feel I *should* have done, but I must say, I enjoyed my little practice sessions alone, MUCH more and am so pleased I used my dog training approach on myself to rebuild my confidence.  Next time, I will book private lessons and make sure I have an instructor who is happy with my 'baby steps' approach.  I'm also glad I didn't let those first few days affect how much I enjoyed our beautiful holiday!  We had some fab lunches out and I really had some time to relax and enjoy myself, much needed after a busy year!

***

This year I'm offering behaviour services to clients.  These services include dealing with behaviour problems such as aggression and anxiety in dogs and inappropriate urination and aggression in cats and using step by step modification therapy to address this.  I use COAPE's EMRA (Emotional, Mood and Reinforcement Asessment) approach to look at each animal holistically and identify a treatment plan aimed at meeting their very individual needs. If any of the points raised in my blog have you wondering whether you are using the best approach with your pet, do get in touch to discuss this with me, I'd love to help!

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