Monday, March 3, 2014

Behavior Solutions Training Class Week 8

Yesterday was our last Behavior Solutions class. We took a field trip to the patio of a popular downtown pizza joint. Athens experienced the first spring weather we've had here in the South, and it felt like the whole town was there with their dogs. This was a perfect situation to test all our new skills. We all hung out in the sunny patio with our dogs, walked them around downtown, and enjoyed ourselves without incident. It was the perfect graduation for a reactive dog class imaginable.


We can't say enough how healing it was to be in a judgment free classroom surrounded by others dealing with reactive dogs. Possibly the most important thing we gained from the past eight weeks was the ability to be calm in situations where our dogs are stressed. Before taking this class, our heart rates shot up anytime we saw a dog being walked. We'd anticipate the barking, lunging, and growling, and the harsh stares from strangers whose dogs wouldn't hurt a fly. No doubt our anxiety was transferred through the leash to Spartacus. In the classroom, in a way, we looked forward to a few reactions each class - so we could study them and learn from them. Reactions aren't the end of the world, and now that we can keep our cool, we can prevent them more easily and snap Spartacus out of them quicker. Learning to chill out has been empowering for us, and we know it's the first step in helping Spartacus too.

Of the rave reviews we could provide for our class at Pawtropolis, perhaps their greatest asset is their flexible and balanced methodology. They offer one class that uses 100% positive methods to teach basic manners, whereas our class seemed to borrow from the best of different training concepts. When we asked our trainer if she recommended any books, her honest answer was that mixing and matching different training philosophies is what works best in her experience - so no single book could provide all the answers. At the same time, when we expressed interest in clicker training, she entertained the idea of putting together a clicker class for reactive dogs if there's enough interest.

Overall, over the past eight weeks, we introduced a lot more positive reinforcement into our handling than we had been doing before on our own. Our treat belts reeked of hot dogs week after week.

Here's an overview of concepts we covered:
  • Reading dog body language 
  • Rewarding every millisecond of eye contact with treats and "yay!" or "yes!"
  • Hand feeding to build the bond and teach the dog to understand all food comes from you. Also reinforces eye contact.
  • Body blocking to own a space, such as doorways, between dogs, food on the floor, you name it
  • Nonverbal leave it
  • Heel using "crazy walk" (constantly changing directions) to teach your dog to follow you
  • Effective timing for affection/reward and for discipline
  • Backing your dog up until they make eye contact as a way to break their attention from their trigger
  • Lots of real life practice set ups

After eight weeks of specialized training, we feel that we can take on almost any situation on leash as long as we have a few feet of space from other dogs. Spartacus really benefited from being around other dogs who learned to respect each other's boundaries. In class yesterday, he was sunbathing a couple feet next to other reactive dogs. None of them tried to sniff each other, everyone kept to themselves, and it was beautiful. Of course, 99% of the dogs we pass on the street are pulling towards us, often with their owner's consent, so we still have a lot of counter conditioning to work on. Also, we've learned to be vocal and advocate for our reactive dog with the simple words "my dog needs space". At least we know Spartacus can happily co-exist with other "bad dogs" and that he doesn't inherently hate all dogs on leashes. It took eight weeks to learn that, and it's a beautiful thing!


  1. I just love Spartacus' face! What a handsome guy! It's nice to hear how well he's done in training. We're hoping our Barry has as much success. It's still freezing here so no walks to parks or patios for picnics for us yet but maybe next month - or the month after??

    How does Spartacus like his backpack? Have you noticed if it helps to slow him down a bit and keeps him focused?

    We need to have Barry wear his backpack more often. I think it was a helpful tool.

  2. Hey! He is super handsome, isn't he? So is Barry!

    In all honesty, these are pretty old photos. I'd love to pull out the camera in class and show how great he's doing, but gotta keep our priorities straight and focus on class. We haven't used the backpack much this year. Last spring we used it all the time to physically prepare him to carry his food for backpacking and camping adventures, where space for anything is at a premium. But he's reacted at dogs even with his backpack on. We didn't see any magical transformation the way I've heard described by others. It did give him a bit more of a workout, but his behavior didn't change much. Spartacus no longer pulls much on the leash but that's because we've worked really hard to teach him to heel using "crazy walk" (changing directions constantly), and he's also less rambunctious since he turned 3.

    If you're looking for a tool to help reduce pulling, I can't say enough good things about the Gentle Leader head collar.
    Especially if Barry is lunging, this will give you a lot more control than anything else we've tried. It's used by lots of positive trainers.

    The backpack is good for exercise but I wouldn't rely on it alone to change behaviors.

  3. Barry is similar in wearing the backpack. It helps a little but that's it. I pulled it out last night (after seeing your post with Spartacus wearing his) and my husband and I thought that he did really well with the back pack and also, being that it's still chilly out, he can use any extra exercise we give him. In the end he still pulls - that doesn't change too much. Not yet anyway. He's totally a lunger with or without backpack.

    I've heard some great things about the gentle leader. Our trainer is bringing a collar/harness or something over for us this Sunday that she thinks will help so we'll see what she's bringing. I'm nearly willing to try anything but I know the reality is that we need to work with Barry and be consistent in training him.

    I totally know what you mean about taking pics during class and training. I've never taken any pics during any training with Barry either for the same reason.