Just when I think we’re making progress in our preparations for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification, something happens that has me reevaluating my process.
From our first days together I knew I couldn’t apply the same training methods I’d used years ago with my spaniel Alix. For one thing, Alix was just six weeks old when she came to me, and she was socialized to people, cats, and other dogs right from the start. She was rarely left alone and regularly engaged in fun activities. Training Alix was a straightforward process, thanks to the expert support of my sister Maureen Kidd, who is a superb dog trainer.
In contrast, there’s nothing straightforward about training Sasha. She was at least a year old when she came to us, and whatever happened to her before that point caused her to be anxious and generally fearful of pretty much everything. Consequently, my focus in our first year together was to reduce her anxiety and build her confidence. That’s worked to some extent, but we have a long way to go. We’ve made good progress in some areas, such as reconditioning her response to the coffee grinder or reducing her tendency to bark at neighbors and dogs on the other side of the fence, but we’ve lost some ground along the way as well. Take the CGC test #8, for example–reaction to another dog. I actually thought this would be an easy one for her because Sasha generally ignores the dogs we see in PetSmart or Lowes. She paid scant attention to the dogs we met in obedience class. We participated in the Dogwood Walk last May with hundreds of people and their dogs, and she was relaxed, confident, and clearly enjoyed herself.
So what changed? Haven’t a clue. She’s still calm around other dogs when we’re in stores but neighborhood walks are a whole different experience. Any distraction (think squirrels, birds, passing vehicles, animals, even lawn decorations blowing in the breeze) can set her off. Sometimes the “look at me, good girl, quiet” followed by treats is effective, but dogs, whether close by or a block away, push her past the point I can reliably capture her attention.
Still, we’ve been making some progress with this. When I see anyone approaching with their dog, I’ll cross the street to put a bit of distance between us. I’ve discovered she’ll willingly go from a sit to a down-stay and remain reasonably quiet while the other dog walks by, even if the dog passes within a few yards of us. That’s been true for leashed dogs, and even a few unleashed dogs as long as they keep their distance. If we’re going to earn the CGC, though, we have to get to the point where she’ll walk calmly past another dog.
Toward that goal, we ventured to Lake Fayetteville yesterday. With bright sunshine and record-high temperatures, I anticipated the crowds and went prepared with extra-special training treats. And crowds we found; cyclists, skateboarders, walkers, joggers, and DOGS. Big dogs, little dogs, dogs who were well behaved and a few who weren’t, and one who reminded me of Stephen King’s Cujo. Fortunately, all but one dog was secured with a 6′ leash held firmly by attentive owners. The sole exception was a happy-go-lucky long-haired, short-legged Dachshund mix on a fully extended flexible leash who wanted to check out everything and everyone. (Sasha paid him no attention.)
We spent an hour out there. During that time I learned that Sasha’s reaction to dogs is neither size- nor breed-specific. She was at times friendly, interested, dismissive, or reactive. She walked calmly but stopped often, usually when a dog approached from the opposite direction. She ignored one Boxer and barked wildly at another and then at a much smaller dog (a Westie, I think) who wasn’t anywhere close to us. Sasha had plenty to say when one BIG dog lunged in our direction but didn’t so much as glance at the pair of German Shepherds sitting beside the trail. She turned around to watch a Corgi as it passed by but never made a sound. Ditto with a Labrador, and with the terrier missing part of his back leg, despite the terrier’s obvious interest in Sasha. She managed to bark at dogs of all sizes and breeds while completely ignoring others, including several who barked at her.
As the down-stay isn’t a viable strategy for parks and trails (and obviously not a long-term solution, period), I worked on focusing her attention on me and praising her when she was quiet. When we called a halt and claimed a bench at the side of the trail, she sat quietly and watched the crowds go by. By that point, she’d probably had all the stimulation she could handle. Next time we’ll hit the section of the trail adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, where there’s a big field to run through and plenty of space between trail users. And we’ll keep working on the CGC test items. It may take a while, but we’ll get there!
While working with Sasha, it pays to remember the words of dog trainer and writer Nancy Tanner in her excellent post The Misunderstanding of Time: “You cannot rush the teaching or learning process, on either end of the leash.”