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.

At the Crossroads of Fact and Fiction

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.

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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 WalkWith 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.

Dr. Dunbar, by the way, has some wonderful material online. Check out http://www.dunbaracademy.com/ or this TED Talk, or connect with like-minded folks via his Facebook page.

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!

News from the training trenches

Karen Pryor I-Click dog training clickers

It’s taken more than a year, but we are now officially a clicker-happy household!

If you’ve been following the blog you may remember that Sasha panicked at the sound of just about any loud or unusual noise. Clickers, in particular, left her cowering in fear, which presented more than a few challenges during obedience class..

When even the quietest clickers (like Karen Pryor’s I-Click clickers pictured here) set her off, I stashed the clicker deep in a drawer and worked on reconditioning her reaction to noise. It took a while, but we’ve made good progress. During obedience class we worked with verbal clicks and she learned to ignore the repetitive clicking by other people. She’s much calmer at home, too; these days she hears the coffee grinder and she jumps into training mode, anxious to earn her special TREAT.  (That success is recounted here.)

In the past few months I’ve been coaxing Sasha though a variety of challenges, and one of them is reacting calmly to the clicker while we’re out walking. I sweetened the deal, of course, with tasty soft treats (the tiny one-calorie kind I can break in half). I use the clicker when cars approach; as soon as she focuses on me instead of the car, I click, praise, and deliver a tasty treat. While she still occasionally barks at a passing vehicle, she no longer lunges toward the street.

Every now and then, she outsmarts me. This morning she sat quietly as a car passed by, accepted her treat, and then she barked! We’ll definitely be working on that behavior.

Our most significant challenge is still very much a work in progress, and that’s walking calmly past another dog. It hasn’t helped that we’ve been rushed a few times by unleashed dogs, which has resulted in renewed hyper-vigilance when another dog–even when leashed and seemingly oblivious to us–enters her line of vision. Once she sees another dog, it’s a struggle to get her moving again and focusing on me. We’ve had sporadic success, but we’re a long way from a reliable reaction.

On the good-news side, her bark tone and body language–head up, ears forward, tail wagging furiously, and no hackles in sight–tells me her reaction excited rather than fearful. Once she’s quiet again and moving where I lead, I click, praise, and treat. Clearly, though, I need a tastier motivator. I’ve ordered ZiwiPeak Good-Dog Venison Jerky dog treats, which come highly recommended for training. Stay tuned for a progress report once those arrive!

Helping Sasha feel comfortable, confident, and safe in any environment is an ongoing effort, and some days we seem to lose more ground than we gain. Still, I’ll celebrate every success along the way, no matter how small or trivial it might be. And we’ll keep our eyes on the goal!