Whistling Past The Graveyard

“Look at that!”

In the many months I’ve been working to help Sasha overcome anxiety after having been attacked by off-leash dogs, we’ve tried just about every strategy and training technique that’s been published on the subject. Like most things in life, some days we make more progress than others. Sasha is doing her best to be brave in scary situations, and I make sure  she knows she’s loved and safe with me.

If we’re in a trigger-stacked environment, Sasha defaults to what I consider her “stress bark.” She’ll lock eyes on the target, lunge, and generally appear to warn off the other dog with fierce “Don’t come over here!” barking. This happens most often when unleashed dogs approach. If I spot the danger before she panics–and before the dog gets too close–I can persuade her to turn away and move on with me. I’m glad to report we’ve had fewer interactions with unleashed dogs recently, and the dogs we see on our walkabouts have been far enough away that we’ve avoided major distress.

I looked back through the training log this morning and noticed a definite pattern of improvement emerging. While experts might shake their heads over our methods, I’ve seen the best results when I let Sasha choose how to react. Sometimes she’ll park herself next to me when we see someone on the opposite side of the street walking our way with a leashed dog. She won’t make much eye contact with me, preferring instead to focus on the treats in my hand. In between nibbles she’ll toss occasional glances at the dog and a short bark or two.

We’ve made progress when passing dogs behind fences, too. Wherever possible I will cross the street to put more distance between Sasha and the other dogs, but until recently that didn’t reduce the stress reaction. Lately, though, I’ve seen different behavior. I can tell from her tone, and the brevity of her response, that it’s a “Hello there!” sort of bark. Initial greetings completed, Sasha then hurries along, muttering softly while looking anywhere but back at the dogs. The mutters stop when we get past the yard, and her pace slows as well. It’s almost as though she’s determined to ignore the distraction and convince herself all is well. The online dictionary Wiktionary describes this sort of behavior as “whistling past the graveyard” in an attempt to seem calm in the face of something frightening.

Every day I see her inching past her fear as she explores the world around us. Yesterday we saw two dogs–a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix (her owner says she’s a “chiweenie”) and a 12-year-old Cocker Spaniel. I confess to an “oh no” moment when I saw them, as the chiweenie has charged off-leash in our direction once before. This time, the dogs were leashed and moving away from where we stood diagonally across the intersection. Sasha saw them, barked once and then just stood there, watching them. (Cue the trumpets!) We followed a block back and Sasha was calm and interested the whole time. She barked just twice, and was rewarded for stopping and looking. From there, it was an easy step to “Let’s Go!”

Of all the strategies we’ve tried, the “Look At That” counter-conditioning approach yields the most consistent results. Here’s a video explaining the LAT approach:

For those of you who prefer in-depth articles instead of videos, check out the excellent article Using Control Unleashed for Dog-Dog Aggression: Look At That authored by Marisa Scully, CBDT-KA. And for a shorter take on the same subject, you might enjoy “LOOK AT THAT!”  by Lilian Akin, CPDT, which was adapted from Leslie’s McDevitt’s “Control Unleashed.” And here’s one more short LAT dog training plan you might find useful.

And for a great round-up of ideas, be sure to check out Nancy Freedman-Smith’s article “10 Tips To Teach Your Reactive Dog To Stay Calm.

My goal is to help Sasha become more confident wherever we go. The “Look at that!” counter-conditioning approach has helped us both enjoy our daily walks. If you have a reactive dog, you might give LAT a try.

    Ready for a great adventure? “Let’s Go!”

Taking control

When you share your life with a dog, some things are essential responsibilities. For me, the list starts with love and attention. Add in good nutrition, regular veterinary care, and frequent grooming. Obedience skills and good manners are on the list, as well; these provide terrific opportunities to bond with your dog.

I’ll add control your dog in public to that list.

I live in a dog-friendly community. From trails to outdoor markets to parks, you’re likely to find nearly as many dogs as people. Some events, such as the annual Dogwood Walk, are all about dogs and raising both awareness and money to support our local animal shelter. When I take Sasha to a crowded event like this—as I did yesterday—I have multiple strategies planned to help her enjoy herself.

Sasha’s irritation with unleashed dogs extends (no pun intended) to dogs on retractable or overly long leashes. Knowing that, we always give a wide berth to such dogs, and to anything that might trigger stress. We settled on a bench off the walking path and beyond the reach of dogs on a standard leash. The exhibitor booths ringed the big meadow on the opposite side of the path. Sasha parked herself at my feet, clearly content to see the action without actively participating. Dogs and people passed by on the path, which gave me plenty of opportunities to say “Look at that” while doling out bits of Ziwi treats—her favorites, second only to cucumbers. All went well until a dog on a long leash came from behind us and rushed Sasha who, predictably, panicked.  When we told the owner, “Control your dog” the woman said, “Shut up.”

No.

I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to allow any person or dog to abuse my Sasha. Instead, I’ll use this forum to remind people of a few basic facts of responsible dog ownership.

Respect space. Don’t assume all dogs—or people—are comfortable being crowded by strangers. While I was still calming Sasha, a woman we’ve met before came by with a lovely Sheltie and a Pomeranian. She stopped beside the path but came no closer, and all three dogs sat calmly during our brief visit.

Some dogs feel the need for personal space more than others. This is often misunderstood—or ignored—by people who insist their dog is friendly and just wants to play. Those folks would be well served by learning more about Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS).

Be polite. Four Great Pyrenees came strolling along. (I’m not sure Sasha knew what to make of anything that big.) The dogs were on long leashes and one headed our way at a leisurely pace. When I told the owner, “We’re keeping our distance” he said, “Understood” then nodded and moved his dogs along. No fuss, no drama, just good manners and thoughtful behavior.

Practice Responsible Ownership skills, and be courteous to others in the community.

Control your dog. Unless you’re at a designated off-leash dog park, keep your dog on leash and under your control. Save those long lines for open meadows and fields, and use retractable leashes only when it’s safe to do so. Be aware of your surroundings, and accept responsibility for your own actions as well as your dog’s behavior.

You might be familiar with the AKC Canine Good Citizen program. Practicing the skills required for each test can help you control your dog.

***

Sasha is a smart dog. I’ll keep working every day to help her feel comfortable and confident in her surroundings. And until others learn to be responsible owners, I’ll continue to protect her from scary dogs and careless humans.

Here’s to good health!

A neighbor stopped by this morning. “Are you training Sasha to be a therapy dog?”

“No,” I responded. “But she’s certainly good therapy for me!”

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

 

Sharing your life with a dog really is good for your health and overall well-being. Consider, for example, this info from Harvard Healthbeat:

Pet ownership, especially having a dog, is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. This does not mean that there is a clear cause and effect relationship between the two. But it does mean that pet ownership can be a reasonable part of an overall strategy to lower the risk of heart disease.

Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners — probably because their pets have a calming effect on them and because dog owners tend to get more exercise. The power of touch also appears to be an important part of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog.

There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.

Dogs’ calming effect on humans also appears to help people handle stress. For example, some research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress. That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.

If circumstances limit your ability to share your own home with a dog, consider volunteering at your local shelter. Visit Adopt-A-Pet online or Volunteer Match to find opportunities near you.

 

A Blue Ribbon Day!

After this morning’s backyard adventure, the four-legged family members opted to spend most of the day inside. Sasha seemed apprehensive when it came time for her mid-afternoon yard break, so I went out with her. This time, however, I was armed with a Plan of Action.

The dogs visiting next door came straight to the fence,  with the Chihuahua leading the conversation. (I’m rapidly growing fond of that little voice.) In similar situations, Sasha has immediately engaged in sustained barking and her mood tends to shifts from interested to agitated in record time.

This afternoon, though, I’d gone prepared. Even as Sasha looked toward the fence I focused her attention on me as I moved toward the center back of the yard. There’s a 20-acre field behind our fence, where the only distractions are squirrels and, come evening, coyotes. We worked through sit, stay, down, and recall even as the dogs barked in the background.

And joy of joys–instead of reacting as she did this morning, Sasha stayed focused on me and worked through the basic obedience routines. Calm, confident, happy. That’s my girl!

This is a FIRST for Sasha!

 We’ll keep working on managing distractions and increasing confidence on our outdoor adventures. For now, I’m happy to know Sasha is on her way to becoming a Canine Good Citizen!

Keep Calm and Have a Plan

Most holiday weekends, our neighborhood sees an influx of out-of-town guests who bring their pets along. For those of us whose dogs are wary of strangers, the new arrivals can add a new level of anxiety.  While vigilance–and maintaining a safe distance–can often prevent a full-blown canine crisis, it pays to have a plan in place to help mitigate stress.

I have a plan. Several, in fact. Lots of strategies and tactics to put into place on our walks, in the park, or anywhere else we might care to go. What I didn’t have was a plan to mitigate the stress of strange dogs showing up at 7 am next door.

Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat were in the backyard, enjoying the first rain-free morning we’ve had in a while.  All was peaceful until we heard dogs barking and running toward the fence on our eastern boundary. Sasha, being a Sheltie and the good guard dog she is, ran over barking in response, with Buddy The Wonder Cat in close pursuit.

There’s a wooden fence along the boundary; it’s the “shadowbox” kind with pickets offset on each side with slight gap between pickets. The gap is enough for animals to glimpse each other but not enough for even the leanest dog or cat to slip through. (Cats’ paws, however, are another story, hence my close attention when the boy is outside.) So with a fence between them, the interaction started off well. Buddy The Wonder Cat loves visitors of all kinds and was clearly eager to visit the Chihuahua who approached. Sasha followed head up, ears forward, tail in happy-wag mode, and the whole body posture suggesting a “happy to meet you” attitude. Her barks were conversational rather than confrontational. Even better, she paused after greeting the visitor and looked to me for approval. She was probably hoping for a tasty reward, too, but my bathrobe pockets were devoid of treats so she had to make do with happy-voice praise.

Alas, the peace of the meet-and-greet was shattered when a bigger dog approached, shoved his nose into the gap, and hurled a barrage of barks and growls our way. Whatever he said, it wasn’t nice. Buddy immediately flattened on the ground, just as he does when a hawk swoops low across the yard. Sasha’s ears went back, tail and body lowering, and her bark tone shifted to classic “keep back” in seconds.

It was easier than I’d expected to get them both inside. I used a combination of the Focus and Look-At-That techniques we’ve been working on. Asking Sasha to focus on me instead of the scary dog gave her a reason to disengage. If you’re interested in helping your dog focus on you, here’s a video that may help:

After a game of Find It! inside, we ventured out for a neighborhood walk, and soon met a different neighbor heading our way with her dog she’d recently adopted from the local shelter. I was encouraged to see Sasha’s initial reaction was once again that of interest, so I used the Look At That again while rewarding her with treats. When they got too close for her comfort (across the street and two houses away) I switched direction and lured her away with me. I paused at the corner when Sasha turned to watch them moving closer on the opposite sidewalk. I had the super-yummy Ziwi treats with me which did the trick! Sasha first stood, then sat calmly, enjoying her treats while alternating her attention between the dog and me. My neighbor stopped on the opposite corner and let the dogs see each other while Sasha enjoyed her treats. Here’s an example of what we did:

I owe much of our progress to Beverley Courtney’s excellent workshops. If you have a dog that’s reactive or fearful, check out Beverley’s Brilliant Family Dog website and online training resources. You can find her on Facebook, too.