I didn’t mean for it to happen. Normally, my husband takes one dog running while I take the other to the park. Whichever dog I have with me gets a very brief run in the empty dog park, and then a walk that incorporates sniffing, exploring, and periodically having to pay attention to Mom. But once in a while, circumstances—namely, my husband’s work schedule, and my own appointments—conspire to give me the choice of either walking both dogs myself or no one getting any exercise for a few days.
You’re probably thinking, So what’s the big deal with walking two dogs? You’re a trainer, how hard could that be? And you’d be right. But these particular dogs came with their own set of issues. When I adopted Bodhi from the shelter at around a year of age, he was very reactive on leash toward other dogs. We’d pass another dog at the park, and suddenly his 55 pounds would feel like 100 to me as Bodhi lunged, snarled, growled, and barked. Even without other dogs around, Bodhi had apparently never been taught to walk without pulling, a feat which was probably made more difficult for his previous owner by the fact that he’s got malamute in his mix, a breed with a natural propensity toward pulling.
Then there’s Sierra, a.k.a. Mommy’s Little Predator. I’ve never seen a dog with such a strong prey drive and such intense stalking habits—and that’s saying a lot coming from a woman who’s worked with wolves and wolfdogs for the last 20 years. Not only does Sierra have typical predatory behavior toward squirrels, rabbits, and other critters, but she’ll stalk other dogs. Thankfully, it’s not the entire stalk sequence that ends in grabbing and shaking, but if she’s on leash and sees another dog at a distance, she’ll immediately go into a stalk. As we continue along, she’ll slink-crawl toward the dog, suddenly oblivious to any verbal commands, tension on the leash, or anything outside her own focused mind. If Bodhi is walking along next to Sierra when this happens, her habit is to snark and snap at him. “See that dog in the distance? It’s mine!” Resource guarding at a distance is such an unlovely behavior, and one that can be challenging to modify.
For a while now, I’ve been working separately with each dog. We’ve worked on Bodhi walking nicely without pulling—I don’t mind if he walks out ahead, so long as the leash stays slack. When passing other dogs, Bodhi’s gotten to the point that he’ll notice the dog and then, even if he’s walking ahead of me at the time, immediately place himself in position on my left side and look at me, waiting for a treat. If he’s truly having a difficult time containing himself there may be an accompanying whine (this recently prompted a passerby to comment, “You need to oil that dog!”), but he keeps it together. We’ve gone from his wearing a Gentle Leader to being able to behave more calmly while wearing just a front clip body harness.
The big challenge with Sierra hasn’t ever been pulling, but getting her attention around distractions like other dogs and people (certain people at the park offer her treats, so she began pulling toward any person—isn’t generalization great?). So we’ve been working on attention around distractions, and she’s improved to the point that most of the time I can get her to walk with me past other dogs without the digging-in statue-stalk pose.
Today was the second time recently that I had both dogs out together. I have to say, I’m thrilled with their progress. When you take two dogs with issues and put them together, especially in potentially high distraction, high arousal situations, things can escalate and all that training can quickly go out the window. But I felt as though it was time to start purposely working them together now that the separate training and behavior modification has taken hold. As soon as we got out of the car, a man who had parked nearby got out of his car—with two Chihuahuas. (Mind you, this is before 6 a.m. and there’s never anyone else parked there.) Both of my dogs are better with small dogs than large ones, but still, this could easily have been an explosive situation. I’m proud to report that even when the Chihuahuas began to bark (shocking, I know), Bodhi and Sierra, although visibly aroused, were able to pay attention and accept my directions to walk away with me.
As our stroll continued we passed other people, and both dogs responded well to “With me,” their cue to fall into position on either side of me and look to me (at which point they receive super yummy treats). We practiced “With me” around dogs at a distance, high school track teams running past, and even a bunny running up a hill. Sierra and Bodhi did wonderfully. Even though it took Sierra a moment to turn away from the bunny, she was handsomely rewarded with treats and praise, as it’s still a real breakthrough for her. Next we wound around a large dirt track. Although Sierra had already pooped in the dog park, she apparently had to go again. I put both dogs on sit-stays, and then scooped. Now I had two leashes in one hand and a poop bag in the other. I had a vision of this being an immunity challenge on Survivor: the Flaming Poo Bag Course. Would we be able to navigate the obstacles of other people and dogs in this fashion, without creating a literal mess? I’m happy to report that we could and did, and no one was voted off the island.
The more challenging situations came when we traversed an area at the back of the park where the trails are narrower and the terrain more rocky. There’s seldom anyone else back there, but today we ran into a woman with two English Springer Spaniels. Bodhi immediately began to whine, but fell in next to me, looked up, and awaited treats. Sierra began to pull toward the dogs. Because we had been practicing attention so frequently, including multiple times on this particular walk, I was able to call her name and get eye contact. I knew it would be very challenging for her to walk past these dogs, so I chose instead to have them sit and wait. They sat, they waited, they earned treats. Excellent! Then we passed a field where Nala, a lovely Golden Retriever, can sometimes be seen chasing a ball thrown by her owner. To tell the truth, I’d forgotten about that. Sure enough, there she was. Would this be too much for the dogs? I calmly said, “With me” and we began to walk past. Two furry heads turned toward me, then briefly toward Nala,…and then back toward me. Success! Treats rained from the sky.
All in all, it was a most excellent morning. Of course, I know there will be setbacks and situations that are too much for my dogs to be able to hold it together. But I’m so proud of them and the progress they’ve made. It’s days like these that make all the hours spent training worthwhile.