Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Attachment Training — or how Pip taught me something new (again)

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Rescue Dog TrainingFor the first decade plus of my professional dog training life, I kept company with dogs who either came from loving breeders or rehomes who came to us through clients or friends. Each of these dogs arrived with a rich history of attachment to humans.

Dogs with that history respond very well to grounding protocols (Nothing in Life is Free/Work for a Living/Ruff Love) where withdrawal of human attention whets their emotional/mental selves making them eager to work to get it back.

Deficit dogs – dogs who did not have careful socialization during the critical periods – can have varying degrees of attachment. PJ was my first instructor in creating connection where there was little. Milo was my next, though he wanted badly to attach.

Then there is Pip. Pip arrived in my home independent and poorly attached (to put it graciously) and worse, had no particular desire to change that situation.

I remember the first week I had her, I squatted down in the backyard, clapped my hands and gave her my very best, professionally practiced, “Comeherepuppygoodpuppyattatgirl!” routine. She looked at me blankly then turned away in complete disinterest.

She wasn’t buying what I was selling.

When I applied what had worked so well with the other dogs in my life, keeping her crated and more separate, things got worse. She coveted her crate, happily curled in the back, golluming toys for hours and muttering obscenities at any dog who came near.

Increased isolation just led to increased detachment.
Withdrawal of attention just led to a puppy who looked for it less.

My standard behavior-changing protocol was changing her behavior, but in the wrong direction.

Back to the drawing board.

I started paying attention to what made her softer, sweeter, more attentive and that, it turns out, was exactly what I always recommended people not do.

Pip benefited from lots of hands-on time, lap time, cuddling time. Her attachment was weak – it simply could not handle pressure applied to it. Building her attachment softened her.

I combined this with clear social structure, training taught as games, levels of consistency that I had previously never imagined (and I had imagined a lot) and using whatever floated her boat as rewards.

It took a while but I slowly came on to her radar, then I got the level of mental connection and compliance I was seeking and soon after she started to wag her tail when she looked at me. Now that was a happy day.

I gained more insight into this sort of dog from a little rescue dog I worked with, Bucky was a pug cross brought up from the south. I came into his life after another trainer had been working with him and his family for just about three months. And, despite everyone’s best efforts, he was going downhill behaviorally. He was barking at family members, lifting his leg in the house, fearful and simply did not look relaxed or happy.

When I met him he stayed a bit away, looking at me warily with sidelong glances. He liked petting from his people when he could manage to make it over to them but that was hard for him. He was a major deficit dog.

I took him off the standard grounding program he was on and that I, too, would have recommended just a few years ago and put him on Attachment Training. This entailed couch time, lap time, bed time. I coached them on how to connect to him and then move away before it overwhelmed him. We did handling and placement. We reviewed sensible leadership as well as how to manage his stress.

And they did it (they did a great job) and he improved. He settled. He calmed. He sweetened. He became their dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good grounding program for normally attached dogs. It can be a pretty simple way to reset a dog’s brain and get him in the mood to work. But for dogs who are not normally attached? Well then, you need to build the attachment before you can leverage it. For those dogs, Attachment Training may well be called for.

How do you know which to do? Ask the dog. Try a Grounding type of protocol. If the dog improves, great. But if the dog makes no improvements or, in fact, gets worse? Consider trying this approach.

Connection came more slowly with Pip than any other dog I’ve shared my life with. I had to work hard to create it and I work still to maintain it. The difference is that I now have a dog working hard at her end as well. Thank you, Pip, for all you have taught me so far and for what you no doubt will teach me in the future.

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