Dawn of the Little White Foo-Foo Dogs

March 30, 2011

Every dog-reactive dog has a type—you know, the kind of dog that really gets their motor running, and not in a good way. For some dogs it’s a certain size of dog, or a specific gender, or even a particular breed. For Bodhi, there is something about small, white, cute-as-hell furry dogs (a.k.a. foo-foo dogs) that just puts him over the top.

Many dogs seem to see small, white dogs as prey. This may be the case with Bodhi as well. Of course, any dog with respectable hunting instincts won’t bark and lunge at prey, since that would scare it off, but will instead quietly stalk it. I have, however, observed Bodhi sit on the couch and bark through the window at the bunnies lounging out in front of the house. Sierra just looks on incredulously.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve been diligently working Bodhi around other dogs. At first we had to maintain quite a distance, and even then he’d lose control at times, and bark and lunge. So we worked even further away. It seems like it’s taken a long time to make the kind of progress I’m happy with, but we can now walk calmly past other dogs at a distance of ten or fifteen feet or so without Bodhi’s arousal level going over threshold. If the trigger is a large dog who’s sitting calmly, we may be able to get even closer. But if the dog is barking, all bets are off. And it’s also still difficult for Bodhi to maintain his composure if the other dog is running or is very active. Still, it’s progress.

So this morning at the park, walking with my friend Kathy and her dog Niko (Bodhi’s one and only dog buddy other than Sierra) we spied a man ahead on the dirt path walking two little white dogs off-leash. As I kept Bodhi’s attention, I asked Kathy if she would walk ahead with Niko and ask the man to kindly put the dogs on leash. Being that Bodhi’s not quite a candidate for sainthood yet, I’d hate to see what would happen if one of those little dogs were to come scampering up to us. It took the man a few minutes to get one of his dogs to come close enough to allow him to clip the leash on. During this time Bodhi was visibly anxious, but kept it together and took treats gently, sat, and did whatever else I asked. Once the dogs were leashed, we prepared to pass each other. As the surrounding sticker-filled weeds would have been difficult for either of us to move off the path, we each hugged one side and gave each other as wide a berth as possible, which turned out to be approximately ten feet. Bodhi did admirably well, taking treats and keeping his focus on me, with short glances at the dogs in between. Kathy exclaimed happily that she hadn’t heard any growling or barking from Bodhi, and just as I was about to respond, Kathy said, “There’s another one!” What are the chances? We always walk early in the morning and don’t normally encounter many dogs, and here we were running into Bodhi’s top triggers, one after the other. This adorable little white dog was attached to a woman who was on her cell phone and oblivious to her surroundings, but I was able to get her attention and at least get her to move over slightly to one side and not let her dog lunge out toward us. The dog actually barked a few times as we passed, but still, Bodhi kept it together. I was so proud of him!

There is also a woman we see regularly walking a large, sweet adult black Lab. Early on when we’d encountered them, Bodhi would lunge and bark furiously. I could tell the woman was irritated, and although I always called out a good morning greeting, she barely responded. But a few days ago we’d passed them and I’d called out, “Hey, look, he’s doing better!” She responded, “I thought you had the other dog with you!” This was quite the compliment, since she’s seen me with Sierra as well, and Sierra has never been reactive toward them. So this morning, back at the parking lot, I purposely walked Bodhi past her dog at a short distance. He did well, but once her dog was twenty feet or so away, another dog began barking and Bodhi lost it and began barking at the nearest dog, which was, unfortunately, the Lab. Barking, lunging…all the things he hadn’t done for a while now. I calmed him, and then after a few minutes, we walked past the Lab again (albeit at a larger distance). All went well. We said our goodbyes to Kathy and Niko, and got in the car to go home. As we drove through the park, I heard Bodhi bark. I turned my head just in time to see his head stuck out the back window, barking at that same black Lab. I guess Bodhi had the last word after all. What can I say, we’re working on it.


It’s All a Matter of Perspective

March 23, 2011

I just got back from teaching in northern California. Although the seminar itself was fun and well received, the weather wasn’t quite as wonderful. In fact, my flight home Sunday evening was cancelled due to heavy storms, so I was stranded until Monday. Fortunately, my friend Lisa Spector of Through a Dog’s Ear, with whom I’d spent the day Sunday, was kind enough to rescue me from the airport and let me stay overnight at her place.

Lisa has two fabulous dogs. Gina is a smallish, young black Lab with a sweet disposition and plenty of energy. Sanchez is a seven-year-old mellow yellow Lab with white around his muzzle and a knowing, soulful look in his eyes. I loved Sanchez on sight and I dare say the feeling was mutual. Lisa and I had been chatting quite a bit about our dogs throughout our visit (shocking, eh?), and I’d gotten a glimpse of their lifestyle. It’s interesting how the things one dog owner takes for granted can be completely alien to another. For example, we’d spent some time at a quaint shopping area where restaurants and shops lined crowded, narrow sidewalks. The location was, like much of northern California, very dog-friendly. Gina and Sanchez kicked back under our small outdoor table (the sun had momentarily peeked out) as Lisa and I ate dinner at a small Greek restaurant. It was still cold outside, but it warmed me to watch Lisa relaxing with her dogs without having to worry that another dog might pass, possibly causing lunging, barking, and flying fur.

Back at the car, Sanchez sat quite calmly, his leash having been removed, until Lisa cued him to hop up into his crate. I thought about how I would never have been able to do that with Sierra. Sierra has one of the strongest prey drives of any dog I’ve known, and it only takes one brief glimpse of movement for her to be off like a flash, regardless of how many recalls and hours of practice have been spent. Car-hopping on a busy street? Probably not in her future.

At Lisa’s house, I asked whether I should put my suitcase and other belongings somewhere the dogs couldn’t get to them. Lisa looked a bit puzzled as she answered that her dogs wouldn’t bother my things, and that they really never get into anything that’s left lying around. Okay, on what planet would that ever happen with my dogs? If it’s on the floor—or a counter, or higher up where they can figure out how to climb up—it’s fair game. So…really? People live like this, where it’s second-nature to bring their dogs around other dogs, allow them off-leash, and don’t have to worry that they’ll destroy the house? Okay, okay. Training and management help. I’ve done both in spades, and the quest continues. But some dogs are just naturally easier.

Lisa is an all-around fabulous dog owner who has gotten involved in agility, dancing with dogs, and is very invested in meeting her dogs’ needs. But she does admit that Sanchez was somewhat of a handful when he was younger. Even allowing for age (Sierra and Bodhi are both around two), I have to say mine are probably still much more difficult. I say this not with any sort of ill-placed pride, but with a sigh and a sense of resignation. Lisa’s dogs were bred to be Guide Dogs (she adopted them after they were “career changed”), which probably translates to a more mellow gene pool than that of a who-knows-how-she was-bred husky-keeshond-something-wild mix and a malamute-German shepherd-who- knows-what mix. I adopted both dogs from the shelter, and with all the existing issues, teenage destructiveness, and stress that came along with them, there have been times I’ve wished I’d just started with a puppy. Of course, there are plenty of great shelter dogs; it’s just that the breeds I’m attracted to aren’t “easy,” and sometimes taking on a dog who has been dumped—in Sierra’s case, she was a four-time shelter dog—can be a challenge. I’ve almost gotten used to the amount of daily exertion it takes to meet their exercise needs, the time and effort I continually put into working with their behavior issues, and the constant management required to keep my house and belongings intact. But I have to admit that glimpse into a more relaxed lifestyle with one’s dogs made me a bit wistful.

I have hope that as my dogs’ behavior improves over time, things will become easier. Looking back to when we first got Bodhi, he destroyed something almost each and every night. We couldn’t crate him due to a urinary incontinence issue, and tethering him in any way caused panic; but that’s another story. He now sleeps calmly through the night, unless of course he and Sierra are out exchanging howls with the coyotes. At least there are no longer any unpleasant surprises when I wake up in the morning. And at first, Bodhi jumped on us constantly, and mouthed hard and incessantly. Now, although his mind still seems to take a leave of absence from his body if he’s extremely aroused, and teeth do still end up on my skin now and then, it’s much better than it was. His pushiness, in the form of inserting his body into any tiny crevice left between Sierra and me when I’m petting her, has dialed back a few degrees. I’ve taught him that if he wants attention he must be lying down, and that works more and more of the time.

Bodhi is also behaving better around other dogs on leash, although it’s a work in progress. Whereas he used to automatically lunge and bark, he will now walk “with me” (my words for “heel”) and take treats, albeit sometimes with a whine and a gleam in his eye that says he’d still really like to go show that other dog what a tough dog he is. Both dogs have learned tricks, and of course, basic obedience. Bodhi is no longer afraid of my husband and, in fact, seems to adore him. Bodhi and Sierra’s relationship has also grown. They play well together, and are well-matched wrestling buddies. I no longer worry that the jaw sparring, up-on-hind-legs rough play is going to boil over into aggression, as they have become adept at reading each other’s signals and knowing when to back off.

And so, although my dogs are not the off-leash, laid back, dog-friendly dogs that I’d love for them to be—and they may never be—they have come quite a way in the time we’ve had them. Are they good dogs? It’s all a matter of perspective. From where I sit, they’ve got potential.

NOTE: I’ve now got a Facebook Author page. Be sure to click on “like” if you’d like to hear the latest from me. I’ve just posted a seriously silly outtake from the PR photo shoot Sierra and I did together.

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