Sasha is no fan of hot, humid weather. That’s why we’re out for our daily walk by 6 a.m. and home again before 7:30 a.m. at the latest. Depending on our route–and how often we have to detour or backtrack to avoid off-leash dogs and other challenges–we usually enjoy 1-2 miles a day. Even at that early hour, though, we stop for shade and water breaks as needed.
Knowing when to stop is easy: Sasha heads for a shady spot, goes straight into a down-stay, and waits for her water. We stop at least once and sometimes more often; I let her choose the time and place. I carry a Gulpy Jr. water dispenser on all our walks; it’s a BPA-free water bottle with its own tray. It’s small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket of my cargo shorts and large enough to keep her hydrated for our walks.
I’ve been experimenting with different leashes and harnesses on our walks. I keep looking for a hands-free leash, but have not yet found one we’re both comfortable with. Our current favorite harness is the SENSE-ation front-clip harness, although even that has its drawbacks (namely, sagging and “gapping” as noted in this review). I like the front-clip harness to help manage Sasha’s tendency to channel her inner sled-dog speed when trying to hurry past something that’s scary to her. In this video clip, she’s wearing her harness. You can see–and hear–that she’s anxious to get past something she doesn’t like (in this case, it’s a dog she can hear but not see behind a wooden fence):
Despite her anxiety, there are signs of progress most days. Here she’s locked on to bunny rabbits and robins in a yard. Previously, she’s been so focused that I couldn’t move her forward. I’d score this one a C+ because she did–eventually–move on:
And one last clip in which she’s demonstrating the “Look at that” behavior (she saw the neighbor’s dog) before focusing her attention back on me. Notice the slack in the leash? I’d score this one a solid B+, maybe even an A-. What do you think?
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:
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.
In Dangerous Deeds (#2 in the series), Waterside Kennels owner and amateur sleuth Maggie Porter finds herself caught in the crossfire when community members take sides over a proposed “dangerous dog” ordinance to ban specific breeds. For the record, Maggie agrees with the AKC that breed-specific legislation (BLS) is not the way to go. Her refusal to support the ban leads to a smear campaign and a boycott organized by a few who want to seize Maggie’s property for their own. When one of those nefarious characters turns up dead on Maggie’s property, everyone at Waterside comes under suspicion. Sheriff Lucas Johnson is forced to step aside because of his close ties to Maggie and her employees, and the lead investigator doesn’t seem inclined to look beyond the kennel to find the killer.
As you might expect, it’s a struggle to keep the kennel running amid a boycott and murder investigation. Fortunately, there’s a loyal group of customers who want to see Waterside Kennels stay in business. They ask Maggie to lead training classes as part of a “Good Dog!” campaign intended to promote responsible dog ownership. Maggie agrees, and preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test is soon underway.
At this point in the publishing timeline, I’m feeling a bit disjointed. While all ten items in the CGC test are in the book, Sasha and I are still working to master several of the items. (You and your dog must pass all ten to earn the title.) If you have a reactive dog, #8 might be the most challenging:
Test Item #8: Reaction to Another Dog. This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.
Sasha generally ignores other dogs when we’re at Lowes, PetSmart, or other dog-friendly businesses. Outside? That’s a different story. Sasha’s been charged by off-leash dogs on three different occasions, and it’s been a struggle to regain her confidence when another dog comes into view. If you have a reactive dog, here are a few ideas that may help reduce anxiety and boost confidence. “May” is the key word here, because what works for one dog might not work for another. And sometimes what works one day won’t work the next! When that happens, remind yourself that Every Day is Training Day #1, and go from there.
“Are you sure those dogs are friendly?”
Socialize. Since those encounters with unleashed aggressive dogs, Sasha tends to freeze and bark. LOUDLY. To help rebuild her confidence, I joined a Pack Walk group to give her time around other leashed dogs. True to recent form, Sasha reacted to all the dogs who came anywhere close but no major panic outbursts, thankfully. She barked off and on (more on than off) as we followed the pack, with treats dispensed during every quiet lull. It occurred to me that she didn’t like to bring up the rear; when we reached a spot with a wide grassy verge we moved off and up so we were parallel. More quiet than bark, so of course TREATS!
After a few pack walks in April we took the plunge and went to the Dogwood Walk. With 450+ in the crowd, I admit to being nervous but Sasha clearly enjoyed the day. We started by taking some time to stroll across the open meadow so she could get a good look around. She had quite a bit to say to a few of the smaller dogs who ventured too close, but otherwise seemed content to wander quietly along the booths. We stood in the shade next to a BIG retriever and she ignored her. Ditto the handsome Sheltie and adorable Pomeranian when their mom stopped to visit. And she was gracious in allowing some folks to offer her treats (provided by me) and to pet her. I adored the children who asked to pet her–and kudos to the parents who taught their children how to approach strange dogs and ask politely for permission to visit!
Train. There’s just no substitute for regular training. I like to mix it up with quiet indoor training time (handy in April when the rain fell in torrents and flooding kept us home) and varied outdoor activities. There are a few places–and dogs–that seem to trigger Sasha’s nervous reaction, so I work hard to capture her attention and keep her focused on me when we hit those trigger spots. If I see neighbors approaching with leashed dogs, I’ll move to the other side of the street whenever possible, or at least get to the side and 10 feet away. I first tried following a trainers advice to put Sasha in a sit-stay with her back to the dog and to keep her focused on me, but quickly found greater success if she can see the other dog while in a safe position. What’s working for us: I put Sasha in a down-stay and we wait while the others pass us by. She rarely barks from that position (unless she’s very excited or stressed) and is more likely to carry on what I think of Sheltie-speak while she watches the dogs pass by. I keep the ZiwiPeak air-dried venison treats (expensive but worth it, and recommended by top trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar) as her special reward for being good around other dogs. The rest of the time I train using Pet Botanics Mini Training Rewards; they’re a soft low-calorie treat that’s easy to split into two.
Be happy. Dogs are downright brilliant when it comes to sensing emotions. Emotions travel up and down the leash! Let your dog know you’re happy to spend time together, and celebrate all the good things that happen. When I’m praising Sasha–particularly when she’s managed something difficult and done it well–I’ll laugh and dance and praise lavishly. She knows when she’s done A Good Thing, and she’s clearly pleased with herself and my reaction.
We’re starting agility training this month. That’s just one more opportunity to socialize, to train, and to be happy. If she enjoys herself there as much as she did in obedience class, we’ll continue. Stay tuned for news!