For the past two years, we've had a very small yard and rely on multiple daily walks around Athens, GA to exercise our pup. A month ago, we dreaded encountering other dogs on these walks. Even dogs across the street. In fact, we hadn't stayed on a sidewalk with an approaching strange dog in over a year. We were constantly on the lookout. Avoiding other dogs was the only solution we knew. Spartacus had consistently blown up ferociously at almost any dog he saw - the best we could do was keep him on a tight head halter and pray it would be over soon. Barking, growling, writhing in the air and lunging in every direction to battle the pull of the leash - that's what we mean by leash reactive.
Today, we can proudly say we've made some improvement. Last night we attended Week 5 of Behavior Solutions class at Pawtropolis, led by the amazing Tamela Boyd. This class is limited to four dogs and is endearingly referred to as "The Bad Dog Class". We love it because it provides a nonjudgmental atmosphere for dogs and owners dealing with behavior that is stigmatized in public. How can you work on leash reactivity if you're relegated to walking your dog in situations where you can't address it's triggers? In Behavior Solutions, we practice passing other classmates at distances we just couldn't ask of a stranger, knowing our dogs might erupt. But through a combination of well-timed discipline and plenty of positive reinforcement, the outbursts are reducing in frequency and severity. We are conditioning our dogs to learn new responses to old stressors.
The method that we are most focused on is using check-ins to keep Spartacus' attention on us instead of his environment. The idea is simple: every time Spartacus chooses to look us in the eye, he gets a treat. We carry treats and kibble with us on all our walks, and in class he receives a near constant stream of hotdog bits for staying calm and keeping his attention on us. The end goal is to pass another dog and have Sparty just look to us and pay little mind to the other canine. A voluntary check-in from our dog demonstrates his impulse control, but for now it's still okay to use voice commands to redirect Sparty from his battle plans. Though he can't keep his eyes off us most of the walk, we say "Sparty, eyes!" to remind him of the check-in game when dogs are near. And we rejoice when his soulful gaze meets ours.
Careful timing is key. Just a quarter second delay in redirecting Sparty's attention can lead to hysterics. We've gotten better at abruptly forcing a seize fire when he does declare war, but the triumph is better felt when he decides to look to us instead of react at all. This merits plenty of praise and treats, and it feels like this positive reinforcement is creating a real shift in response. We made it through class yesterday with three minor outbursts in an hour and a half. Most of class, Sparty was within feet of other dogs in various staged interactions: two dogs passing each other, walking around a stationary dog, remaining stationary with other dogs practicing tricks around us, meeting a dog and owner behind a fence to name a few. Three outbursts and at least eighty victories.
Progress is slow, and we still don't feel comfortable passing a strange dog on our side of the street just yet, but we are building new behaviors and learning so much right now. We know many dogs are never truly "cured" of their reactivity, but they are managed so well that no one would know the difference. Yesterday at Behavior Solutions, recent graduates were invited back to refresh their manners and provide some new stimulus for our group. It was amazing to see how far they had come. One 100 pound black lab mix didn't make a peep and acted as the neutral dog for different exercises. Another graduate was so quick to respond to her owner's corrections, it was clear her reactions do not have an opportunity to escalate and she can be managed in public.
As for us, we've been able to transition from a Gentle Leader head collar to a parachute cord slip collar, and we can confidently pass dogs across the street graciously. We are so grateful and optimistic that in just a month we've laid the foundation for this new journey with Spartacus. We know it's a long road ahead, but we are excited for the future and all the hard work it will bring.