Let’s Go!

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.

(Have a larger dog or going on longer hikes? Gulpy has a 20 oz. water dispenser available.)

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?

Every day is an adventure in training!

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!”

A cat with a dog of his own

Two years ago, we introduced Buddy The Wonder Cat to Sasha. We’d been a one-cat household since Katie, our 14-year-old Calico, passed away, and without a dog for 17 years since losing our beloved spaniel Alix. It’s fair to say we were a bit nervous about bringing home a rescue with an unknown history but we hoped Buddy, being the (mostly) mellow kitty he is, would eventually accept the newcomer.

Those early weeks were a challenge for everyone involved. It helped, I think, that we let Buddy stake out his preferred territory—which included the bed, the upstairs guest rooms, my lap, and the office. Buddy make it clear, right from the start, that the office was his domain, as evidenced here the day after we brought Sasha home:

The backyard became neutral territory, and as the days warmed into spring the two of them slowly became comfortable together:

They grew so comfortable with each other that Buddy supervises all the training sessions and joins in play time:

And when Sasha injured her leg and had to be confined to her crate, Buddy first tried to unzip the screen to help her escape. When that didn’t work, he stayed as close as he could:

They share most of the water bowls scattered through the house, although Sasha tends to ignore the bowl in the laundry room where Buddy is prone to wash his paws. Sasha also ignores the water bowl next to her food dish at the end of the kitchen island. That, too, is Buddy’s territory, where he likes to fish for ice cubes (really!) while he watches Sasha eat. I feed him first, having discovered that Sasha won’t start eating until Buddy comes to keep her company. Between his enthusiastic splashing and Sasha’s habit of drinking at the edge of the bowl and dribbling water in the process, all the water bowls have catch plates under them. The kitchen bowl is currently Buddy’s preferred place to dunk strings, grass, and miscellaneous things he drags in from the yard, so he has plenty to keep him occupied while Sasha eats.

I generally feed them early mornings and late afternoons, with the water bowls picked up before meals for cleaning. Yesterday, I gave Sasha a snack of cucumbers (her favorite treat) mixed with her kibble, hoping to help her calm down after yet another dog charged us during our afternoon walk. I’d intended to feed Buddy next, but he’d apparently decided food came second to offering sympathy and support for Sasha:

A cat with a dog of his own.

 

Is there a doctor in the house?

Sasha with her “Puppy”

…Or maybe it’s a seamstress we need!

This week marked the second anniversary of Sasha joining our household. Freezing drizzle and a silly injury of mine has kept us housebound, so we’ve celebrated with toys. And that is A Big Deal.

Why? (Glad you asked!) When Sasha came to us, she didn’t know how to play. She was anxious, easily startled, and tended to shy away if one of us made sudden movements or raised a hand. When we tossed a soft Frisbee, she’d tremble or retreat from the action. Ditto with balls of all sizes and textures, although Buddy The Wonder Cat demonstrated the fine art of chasing after toys for her. The variety of toys we piled into a basket might have thrilled any other dog, but Sasha just walked on by.

Then, a few months later, she received a Sock Monkey, and suddenly it was game on!  (And thanks again to the sponsors of the Humane Society of the Ozarks who donated all those treats and toys.)

Fast-forward 18 months. We were wandering through the local pet supply store when Sasha discovered the toy aisle. She browsed through every shelf at nose level until she found the red stuffed squeaky toy pictured above and now known as “Puppy.” (Ask her to fetch Puppy and she’ll bring you this toy. Every time.) She nosed that toy out of the bin and examined it thoroughly, to include a few exploratory nibbles, before carrying her prize triumphantly to the checkout counter.  Since then, she’s learned the fun of “fetch” and “bring it” and enjoys a rousing game of tug. And she’s generalized that experience to her other toys, so we’re now treated to play time with Puppy, Sock Monkey, and Squeaky Duck.

Today, though, it was all Puppy.  I think we’d hit 15 rounds of “fetch” and “bring it” before she decided “tug” was the game of the day, followed by a tear-the-stuffing-out session. By that point I was laughing too hard to focus, which explains the slightly fuzzy photo above.

Time for a patch job!

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.