Monday, February 24, 2014

Behavior Solutions Training Class Week 7

Yesterday, our special training class for reactive dogs took another field trip. Sadly, this was our second to last class. Say it ain't so! On the flip side, all graduates are welcome to return to the last three classes of all subsequent Behavior Solutions groups for free! Allowing the graduates to participate gives the currently enrolled dogs fresh stimulus and helps the graduates continue to hone in on everything they've learned.

Our group consists of three dog-reactive dogs and one people-reactive dog. The people-reactive Havanese is worst on his own territory, so this week we went to his house. Human students took turns ringing the doorbell and entering the house of the Havanese while the rest of us worked on pass-bys and other dog triggered stuff. Thus far most of the classes have focused on the needs of the dog-reactive dogs, so we were all more than willing to let our trainer spend the whole class with the Havanese and its owners. Until today, we had no idea what this guy's deal was. He was so quiet and perfect in class. Finally his true colors came out - you could hear him barking inside from down the street!

So as our trainer and the Havanese did their thing, we practiced pass bys with safe distances between us, and all went well. Then we tried talking to other owners with our dogs sitting just a few feet from each other. Spartacus had to face two dogs from a past class, dogs he did not know. They couldn't have been further than five feet away. One of the dogs was very friendly and wanted to meet Spartacus, so she was making some eye contact. On our first attempt to mingle with the other handler, Sparty barked and growled when he saw the friendly dog. We did a quick about face and I stood facing Spartacus, his gaze locked into mine. I turned to his side in a heel and let him face the other dogs. When he took his eyes off me, he barked and growled again. Another quick about face and back we were. This time, he was fine. He kept making eye contact with me and blocked out the other dogs sitting five feet in front of him. He accepted that I was going to talk to their owner and he was going to behave. Cheers, Spartacus! Those were his only two reactions all of class.

We were there for almost two hours total, and 99% of that time, Spartacus was completely fixated on us, the bearers of hot dog. We have been working for seven weeks on being more interesting than other dogs. Every millisecond of eye contact has been rewarded. In class that reward is tiny pieces of hotdog, and on our daily walks we use a combination of kibble, hotdog, and diced up Natural Balance rolls. Ladies and gentleman, we are thrilled to report that always stinking of meat has paid off. As we type, we are simply in disbelief. Spartacus successfully passed other dogs ON THE SAME SIDEWALK! He couldn't have cared less when we passed the Frenchie from our class. Six weeks ago he lunged and growled and barked and did his whole freak out dance at this very dog multiple times yards away. Today, as we passed said Frenchie, the sidewalk may as well have been empty for all he cared. Then came the Doberman, a perfectly behaved dog with her CGC who is not in our class. Like Delilah, she's a reactive dog's sibling, and was there for moral support. When we passed the Doberman, which we did three times, Spartacus barely noticed. Granted, we each walked our dogs to our left and there were two people between them as they passed, but that is not a barrier Spartacus recognized in the past. Being on the same sidewalk as a passing dog seemed truly impossible to us just weeks ago. We walked by the Dobie and Spartacus looked to me for hotdog. Then he realized another dog had just cruised by within feet of him. He started to look back. His ears darted. Right at that early sign of targeting, a small snap of his slip collar got him right back to focusing on his handler. No reaction whatsoever.

Eventually, the group sat on the ground in a kumbaya type circle with our dogs relaxing together just feet apart. We asked our trainer if there's any chance we can get to a point where our reactive dogs will actually greet other dogs, do the whole butt sniffing thing, and be normal (on leash). She made a wise point. Our goals are probably different than our dog's goals. We may want Spartacus to be social and normal, but that's our goal. Meeting other dogs on leash is not what Spartacus wants to do. It stresses him out for whatever reasons. Instead, he has been learning to do something else when dogs are near - ignore the dog, look at his owners, and get treats. We have provided a way for him to feel safe around leashed dogs by teaching him that he can ignore them, that he doesn't have to protect us from them. For now, we are going to respect our dog's boundaries and not force him to adapt to our vision of what a dog should be like. Reactive dogs have special needs and if you can manage their reactions and still go out in public with them, you've done them and yourself a great service. With lots of practice counter-conditioning, reactive dogs can function in society and lead fun awesome dog lives.

There are still many months and probably years of diligent  practice necessary for Spartacus to consistently maintain his cool around other leashed canines. If we ever feel that he has become so desensitized to leashed dogs that he can maybe try approaching them for a normal dog greeting, we will bring that up to an experienced trainer. But if that never happens, we'll still be super proud of our boy and love him all the same. Spartacus doesn't have to be a normal dog to be a good dog. Our greatest fear when we started this class was that his leash-reactivity would prevent him from accompanying us on all the walks we want to take with him and all the trips and adventures we see in our future. The transformation in just two months has been profound. Our confidence, along with Sparty's, has reached new heights. Working with a leash reactive dog is incredibly fulfilling. Every small victory brings a newfound sense of hope. So what if Sparty can't do proper meet and greets on leash? If we have to swerve a few feet out of the way when dogs approach, that's a pretty good bargain for having our best friend by our side.

Oh and the territorial Havanese made a ton of progress today, so we're proud of him too!


  1. Sounds like great progress and a great class setting up real life situations. Even as an owner or non-reactive dogs, I often avoid others on leash just because I don't want them getting all distracted and excited when seeing other dogs. Having a people reactive dogs sounds a lot more challenging!

  2. Thanks! It's nice to hear that even non-reactive dogs are being trained to pass other dogs without greeting. I think it's best to avoid letting dogs meet on leash for lots of reasons. Even in the CGC test, dogs have to wait patiently while their owners greet and the dogs aren't supposed to really acknowledge each other. Many dogs are not that comfortable with the arrangement of greeting on leash since it is a bit of an unnatural set up. But there are so many owners, and I used to be one of them, whose dogs just pull them up to other dogs and say "oh he just really wants to meet your dog!". Before Spartacus was aggressive-reactive, he was friendly but in your face to other dogs. As first time dog owners, we had NO control. If only we'd started training from Day 1, but now we know better for all our future pups. We don't judge or blame others whose dogs are not in control, we just have learned to be vocal "My dog needs space on leash!" when another dog is pulling up for a greeting.

    Spartacus' reactivity is definitely most extreme with dogs, but he's an insecure boy who gets nervous when faced with new situations. He's barked at maybe four strangers on the street over the years, nothing crazy like his reactions towards dogs but we could identify he was freaked out by the person's huge coat or backpack, having never seen that before. So for instance, if it was Halloween, we'd be extra vigilant just as though people in costumes were other dogs because we know the new sights put him on edge. But 99.9% of the time, he wants to hug and kiss everyone he meets. His favorite place to go is the vet because he gets to interact with so many pretty vet techs!