A Day To Remember

Monday morning walks can be a challenge, and today was no exception. Sasha was on high alert right from the start, with barks aplenty at anything and everything that moved. The incessant wind gusts didn’t help, either; this is one dog who does not appreciate leaves and dust swirling around her face.  She was already worked up and fussy when we turned a corner and saw a group of young boys playing ball far down the street and several men visiting on the opposite sidewalk.  Males of all ages, unfortunately, seem to be a trigger for Sasha, and she’s quick to voice her disapproval.  The usual “leave it” and “let’s go” and “walk on” didn’t work at all, and she looked set to bark her way down the block–and it’s a long block. That’s when inspiration struck.

Training Time! I’ve no idea why it never occurred to me to run a mini-training session in the neighborhood, but today was the day. It was wonderful to see her snap to attention when she realized what we were doing. We worked through the different positions to include both the right-side sit from front center and the left heel from front center and the “circle round me” heel to end in a sit on my left. There’s a limit to what I can do without dropping the leash, but I got creative with a few rounds of sit-stay, down-stay, and having her in a down while I walked around her and stepped over her to re-position myself.  Sasha loved it. The generous dispensing of treats helped, of course, but this girl loves to be mentally challenged.

After that little session, Sasha walked on, clearly pleased with her performance. She didn’t bark or even alert on the people as we went by, which is something of a minor miracle. (Hey, she’s a Sheltie. She talks. To everybody.)  The people, however, certainly noticed her! One of the adults gave us a thumbs-up and a big grin as we went by.

 

Training Time is typically on the 30-foot long line at the park, when we work on the long down-stay, recall, and down on command. Smart Sheltie that she is, she knows the long line means play time and training, and she’s always ready for fun! And then there’s indoor Training Time, which goes back to our first days together when we realized that loud noises scared her and the sound of the coffee bean grinder sent her scrambling to hide. It took a long time, but now the sound of the coffee supplies coming out has her quivering with joyous anticipation, because she knows that it’s time to go through the paces and earn a treat. We’ve progressed to practice off-leash heeling in the house as part of Coffee Time Treats, with Buddy The Wonder Cat perched on a tall stool watching the action. Today’s session, though, is the first outside in the neighborhood while walking with the standard 6-foot leather leash.  Now that I’ve seen how excited she became at the idea of a walk-time work session, we’ll be doing this again, and often.

 

The BEST news, though, came thirty minutes later. We’d walked around the neighborhood and were approaching the local park when I saw an (always) off-leash dog and owner headed our way. I told Sasha “Cross” (I’ve taught her to pause on the sidewalk until she hears that command) and off we went, angling away from the unleashed dog.  Sasha stayed focused on me and (of course) the treat in my hand. We actually passed within 20 feet of the dog without so much as a mumble, grumble, or growl. Now, it’s possible Sasha never saw the dog, although that’s highly unlikely, as she’s prone to alert on movement two blocks away. Whatever the reason, she stayed focused on me and walked calmly forward until I gave her a well-deserved reward in the form of a bigger-than-usual treat.

We may never reach the point when Sasha is able to calmly walk past any dog without reacting, but today was a shining example of what’s possible. For that, I’m grateful.

Look at her now!

When Sasha first came to us last year, she was terrified of loud noises (clickers at obedience class frightened her senseless), anxious around strangers (men in particular), had no leash skills to speak of, and tended to be very vocal around other dogs. And judging from the condition of her coat and skin, grooming was an unknown experience. To appreciate how much has changed, here are “then” and “now” photos:

Surrendered to sheriff February 2016

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to “now” took a lot of patience and training supplemented by good food, grooming, and veterinary care. Our biggest challenge has been managing her reactivity to cyclists, vehicles, and DOGS. Sasha’s never been the kind of dog who appreciates the up-close-and-too-personal sniff and greet, but after she was jumped by off-leash dogs, her fear level went sky-high. I’ve dedicated hours to what I think of as targeted training and positive reinforcement.

We started with “Look at that!” (LAT training) to help her react calmly to cyclists and vehicles, and Sasha has reached the point where she rarely reacts to bikes, cars, and trucks. And while I was pleased with our progress using LAT training, I needed expert help to keep her moving when other dogs came into view. I turned to certified trainer Shanthi Steddum KPA-CTP who runs the Northwest Arkansas School for Dogs. With Shanthi’s help, we’re making good progress using the Engage-Disengage game. After just a few sessions (supplemented by daily at-home training time), Sasha is noticeably calmer and confident in the presence of other dogs. If you’re inclined to watch, fast-forward to the 5:23 point to see the first dog come close, and then 13:50 for the second dog’s approach. They make me laugh about the 14:25 mark when they’re clearly having a 10-second silent conversation, and again at 14:36 when the “neutral” dog breaks first!

And notice I’m using a clicker here–that’s another step forward for us. There’s a limit, though, to Sasha’s tolerance for the clicker, so I use verbal clicks and say yes or good instead. Her tolerance level varies from day to day (true for all of us, I think), so I adjust as needed.

And isn’t she gorgeous???

If you have a reactive dog, working on engage-disengage may help you!

For the text lovers among us, check out Alice Tong’s article Reducing Leash Reactivity: The Engage-Disengage Game I found on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site. Here’s an infographic from that article illustrating the basic steps (click to enlarge):

 

If you prefer video over text, these may be useful to you:

Both Sasha and I are learning as we go. For my part, I’m getting better at interpreting her body language and vocal signals. If we pass a house with dogs in the back yard, for example, Sasha will bark (hey, she’s a Sheltie!); sometimes it’s a quick bark or two, and other times it’s a clear “conversation” between the two! If she freezes in place at the sight of another dog, I stand still and secure the leash without pulling on her martingale collar.  I don’t say anything but ever since I started counting silently, I’ve realized she’ll bark up to a count of 11 (sometimes less) and then disengage by looking away and/or back at me. Then it’s treat time and we move on. Progress indeed!

My next goal is helping Sasha develop confidence in calmly walking with other dogs and walking past other dogs without comment. (I still have the Canine Good Citizen “Reaction to Another Dog” test item in mind.) Stay tuned!