Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Class, New Approach

Even though Spartacus is dog reactive, we truly hope that we will see other dogs on walks. That's the only way we can work on his reactivity. For some reason, we rarely see any dogs around lately! In keeping with our goals, we knew Spartacus needed to be enrolled in another class in order to get guaranteed regular exposure to other pups. We have been curious to try clicker training with a professional and googled around only to realize a Foundation Clicker Class was starting the very next day in our area. So Thursday of last week we headed out to the introductory class, sans Spartacus, and got the low down from an all positive trainer.

The trainer we are working with has lots of experience and among her specialties, she has worked with many aggressive and fearful dogs. She works with dogs who have killed other dogs and landed people in the hospital - so Spartacus with his showy reactions on leash is nothing to her. The class itself consists of mainly adolescent dogs without any serious behavior issues, and our trainer wanted to do a private evaluation of Spartacus before approving him for this crowded intro course. 

We've recently been managing his behaviors based on what we learned in our Behavior Solutions class, and we are forever grateful for that experience. Still, there are so many approaches out there, and we're really curious about a purely positive approach. Our last class was what I'd call a balance of positive reinforcement and some dominance techniques. The main method of learning was through classical counter conditioning and operant conditioning (I think, it's so confusing to me).

Today I took Spartacus to our new trainer's house so she could observe him meeting her five dogs individually. Armed with hot dogs, I approached test dog number one with Spartacus on his Gentle Leader. He didn't react with barking, lunging, or growling, but his posture was stiff, ears forward, and hackles raised. Rather than cue Spartacus for eye contact, the trainer advised me to just wait for him to offer it. With him on a Gentle Leader, I wasn't too concerned that he would get out of control, so we stayed just a few feet from her Jack Russell. Within a minute or two, Sparty was volunteering eye contact and his posture was showing signs of calmness. Eventually his tail was wagging and he was trying to greet the other dog. We let them get closer. We didn't let the dogs greet on their own, but the trainer picked up her dog and let Sparty sniff her butt so she could watch his response. Spartacus showed positive interest with no sign of aggression. He proceeded to work through the same nervousness around two more dogs - starting off nervous and then settling down beautifully all on his own, wanting to play. Test dog #4 was a little jack rabbit who was bouncing all over the place. Spartacus reacted to this dog dancing in front of his face with a little bark/lunge. The trainer said the behavior itself was warranted, but Spartacus didn't give any warning signs which was problematic. Test dog #5 was a blind geriatric Italian Greyhound with a lame back leg. Most dogs are freaked out by his odd way of walking and acting. The poor old guy was barking in the wrong direction, and Sparty remained calm. Go Sparty! 

He was approved for the group class, and we're also going to do a few private sessions working on Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T.) or the variation, Constructional Aggression Treatment (C.A.T.). I like that these methods ask the dog to volunteer behavior. The trainer believes a dog that teaches itself a behavior learns better than a dog ordered to respond to cues. These two training methods also reward the dog for a variety of calming signals, not just eye contact with the owner. It'll be really interesting learning to read all the subtleties involved in dog communication. We've been learning these for a long time, but we learn something new every day it seems!

Have you tried using B.A.T. or C.A.T. on your reactive dog?

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