Post from May, 2008

Finally – a glimmer of hope

Thursday, 29. May 2008 23:28

So. Misha was not getting better. She was now MORE reactive and fear aggressive when she saw other dogs. For a few weeks we didn’t do any training and completely avoided ‘dog yards’ because I didn’t want to make her miserable any more. We just walked the same ‘dog free’ route every day and played together.

After a few weeks I got myself together and found a Canine Good Citizen class with a trainer that was willing to take a chance on us. The teacher was a huge help to us (even though I was pretty much a disaster). Misha behaved badly towards the other dogs but we learned some more basic obedience with lots of positive reinforcement and had fun. Somehow, on test day, everything came together.  If you had never met Misha you would never have guessed she was afraid of other dogs.  And then there was an incident with another dog that distracted the trainer for just a couple of minutes.  It gave Misha an extra minute or two relax to realize the new dog walking towards us was not a threat and she did the exercise perfectly.  We passed and Misha now has her CGC tag.

Now CGC class was over – what to do next? I posted on a local message board asking for advice on more classes or places where I could continue to expose her to other dogs in a controlled atmosphere. A very kind trainer/behaviorist replied with a a bunch of amazingly good information. Her most important advice was to buy a little 50 page booklet named Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell.

We started working on the program in the book, techniques called desensitization and counter conditioning.

We worked on lots of basic stuff at home. It didn’t take over our lives but we spent at least a few minutes practicing basic commands every day. I realized how easy it was to work in a ‘watch me’ just walking past her. We did happy stuff, lots of treats and praise. No harsh corrections this time around. More than one person told me I was just ‘bribing’ her. Oh well, bribery was making us both a lot happier than punishment did.

Our daily walks had a zigzag pattern to keep us on the opposite side of the street from all the dog yards. For a few weeks I saw no real difference in her reaction to other dogs. We could stay far enough away that she wouldn’t bark and lunge – but she wouldn’t ‘watch me’ or even pay attention to a treat until we were completely out of sight of the other dog.

On the good side, with the more positive training style we were both enjoying our daily walks and training sessions a lot more. But I was getting discouraged by her continuing dog reactivity. I was beginning to think we would just have to ‘manage’ her, keep her out of situations with other dogs. Honestly, there were days where I just kept up the program because I had to feel like I was doing SOMETHING.

Then one day we passed a previously dog-free yard and a dog rushed the fence and barked at us. I turned us to the side and headed across the street. Misha’s hackles went up a little – but she didn’t bark or lunge back towards him. She followed me across the street and nudged my hand to request her liver treat. I was too startled to play it out exactly right but we did get headed in the right direction. She made eye contact with me and sat when I stopped walking. She most definitely got a whole handful of liver treats. Do I believe I can bribe a dog not to be scared? Oh hell yes!

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Taking Charge

Thursday, 29. May 2008 23:08

So, what do you do when your beautiful, sweet, timid dog turns into a snarling, snapping dervish when she feels threatened by another dog doing something terrible, like, say, glancing in her general direction?

I had been looking forward to training together but I knew I was in over my head with her reactivity to other dogs. We needed help from a trainer/behaviorist. I got a good referral to a nice, knowledgeable fellow. We learned about pack leadership, I was told I needed to show her I was in charge, I was too easy, I needed to be strict and no-nonsense with her. We didn’t cause her physical harm but the corrections were enough to make her fairly uncomfortable if she misbehaved. This was especially important with a nervous dog, to teach her to be more independent. If I coddled her I would be reinforcing her fear. It was similar to the training style used in a class I took 20 years ago. It was a lot like the trainer we’d seen on TV. It looked like what I knew about dog training.

We also used a technique called flooding, taking her near yards with dogs. She was sitting and staying instead of barking and lunging by the second session. I thought she was still kind of scared, but she was absolutely doing what she was asked. She’d sort of turn her head away and lick her lips. She yawned a lot.

She responded very quickly. She was behaving better right from the beginning, even during the very first session. It was a miracle. Just like on television.

After a few weeks things I realized the changes weren’t all good ones. Don’t get me wrong, she was behaving. But even though our daily walks and training sessions were getting easier for me, they just weren’t the highlight of her day anymore. Instead of letting out a happy ‘waroooroo’ when I picked up her leash she would just sit and turn her head away while I buckled her up.

By our last scheduled visit, she was clearly afraid of the trainer even though he never physically harmed her. She wouldn’t go to him at all, and she would back away when he took her leash to show us something new. She really didn’t want anything to do with him and I wasn’t comfortable forcing her to deal with him. I didn’t schedule another session.

Then, a few days after that last session, we walked past a yard with a dog. I was confident and unconcerned, we’d walked past this dog with no problems before. He was NOT cranky with us. He was woofing a little, but playful. As we passed the first corner she startled me with a low growl.

Then – She lost it. She barked and lunged and snarled at the poor fellow behind the fence while she abruptly and completely emptied her bladder on my shoe. I’m not talking about a shy little piddle. She seriously pissed herself.

We got around the corner and sat down on the curb. She was still trembling but she licked my face and let me hug on her while I told her I was sorry and cried.

My sweet girl had been doing her very doggy best to behave the way I expected her to. What did I give her in return? I let her be terrified.

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