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.

If at First you Don’t Succeed…Group Class, Week Two

February 15, 2010

After a less than stellar showing at our first group class (here’s the blog in case you missed it), I was hoping we’d do better next time. Sierra had been so distracted and intermittently shut down during the initial class that we hadn’t been able to accomplish much of anything. In fact, I could barely get her attention. It’s not that she didn’t know “sit” or to look at me when I called her name. She did. The problem had more to do with her learned helplessness and worry during training than with her intelligence or ability. Hey, it takes time for a four-time rescue dog to learn to trust again. I get it. Still, what good is obedience training if the dog will only comply in private?

This week, we were assigned a position in one of the room’s corner booths, which was a bit more spacious and farther from the other dogs than the one we’d had last week. (The trainer wisely rotates the dogs each week so no dog becomes territorial of a specific area over time.) That probably helped, as did the fact that we’d been in the room before, and Sierra now understood she wasn’t there to play with the other dogs. My being armed with a bag full of hot dogs and string cheese didn’t hurt, either.

This time, we were a team. The class reviewed down from a sitting position, which Sierra did well at home and, I’m happy to report, just fine in class. Then we taught the dogs down from a standing position. I hadn’t addressed that particular skill with Sierra, and it quickly became clear that no one in her previous homes had, either. I followed instructions to move the treat between her front legs while resting my other hand lightly on her lower back to help with the last bit of the down if necessary. I’d never used my hand to physically guide a dog when teaching this skill (though I do lure it the same way), but as it turned out in Sierra’s case it was necessary, unless I wanted to shape the behavior, which would have taken longer than we had in class. After three repetitions the light bulb went on, and the fold-back motion became faster. The wonderful thing was not that Sierra could achieve what was being taught, but that she could actually pay attention and process information well enough to learn something new in a previously over-stimulating, anxiety-producing environment.

Next was a “hula hoop contest.” No, the dogs weren’t expected to stand on their hind legs and swing a hula hoop around their torsos—that’s advanced class! They were to walk by our sides on a loose leash as we each paced around our own individual hoop that had been laid on the ground, changing direction on the instructor’s cue. When the music stopped, the dogs were to sit inside the hoops. The first dog to do so would win. (The traditional musical chairs type game with all the hoops in the middle of the room had been modified because of the few fearful dogs in attendance.) Round one was a tie between three dogs, none of whose names started with the letter S, though we missed it by mere seconds. But when the music stopped at the end of round two…woohoo! Sierra won! Now, that’s a comeback! Go, Team Sierricole! (Well, if Brad and Angelina can be Brangelina…)

The instructor then asked how many dogs pull on leash; predictably, most of the students’ hands went up. Sierra was chosen for the demo. A pile of treats was placed on the floor, and the idea was for her to walk next to the instructor with the leash loose in order to reach the treats. If she pulled, the instructor would gently turn and walk in a different direction. (Trainers may know this as “penalty yards.”) Sierra did great—in fact, she did too well, and it wasn’t as dramatic a demo as it could have been had there been a less cooperative dog involved. But, hey, if doing too well was her worst problem, so be it! Of course, that doesn’t mean Sierra walks perfectly next to me when she really wants to get somewhere—like the entrance to the park. But we’re working on it.

All things considered, this week’s class was a 100% turnaround from the last. That beautiful furry girl and I will continue to practice and to do our homework, just like the other students. And I know we’ll keep getting better and better. I don’t plan to blog about class each week, but I hope that if you’re reading this and have been considering attending a group class, you’ll go (even if you’re a trainer). There’s a natural teamwork that develops as you learn and practice together that can help to deepen any relationship. Also, learning even basic obedience skills together can help with behavioral problems at home. And if any of you have a rough first week of class, if you feel like a failure or are even considering not returning, hang in there. It gets better. If we can do it, you can too.

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