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!”

7 thoughts on “Whistling Past The Graveyard

    1. Thanks, Betty Louise. The experts would definitely NOT be impressed over my poor clicker skills, but I am impressed that Sasha overcame her hyper-sensitivity to noise to appreciate that the clicker sound means treats are on the way! We’re making our own way and enjoying life together, one day at a time.

  1. Kay Bennett

    My rescue Tyler notices anything that may be different and at first he would bark and jump back. Now I say “look it is nothing” or something like that. I walk towards it and he has the confidence now to come with me. I still wonder every time I see a dog when we are out, but we are getting there. So happy you two are having some progress. Sharing from here on facebook

    1. Kay, thanks for sharing. Great news about Tyler’s progress, too!

      Her reaction to other dogs is the only barrier to earning the CGC. Ironically, we’d pass today if the CGC test were offered indoors in a dog training venue. When we participated in the Basic and Intermediate Obedience classes, she ignored all the other dogs in the room, just as she did when during the Trick Dog seminar (where she earned her Novice title). When she saw those very same dogs outside during breaks, though, it was serious bark time!

  2. Thanks for the hints. Most dogs are leashed here…most…
    We’ve got a speaker ( removed from a toy) and are using happy voices when approaching unknown dogs on leash or sit and we’ll watch someone pass at a little distance so Molly can see not all dogs are a problem. She still wants to keep an eye on them – even walking sideways if necessary. Recovering from an attack is a long slow process and what works one day may not reassure the next.

    1. Phil, using a speaker from a toy is a great idea. I love Molly’s idea of walking sideways–that’s one very clever dog!

      It took more than a year before Sasha didn’t panic over loud noises, so I used a verbal “click” for months. Now the sound of the coffee grinder signals “Find it!” and training time for her, and she loves it. It all takes time.

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