First visit to the dog park

[Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of this excursion, because I wasn’t actually planning on taking her to the dog park. Hence, I did not bring my camera. You’ll just have to use your imagination!]

After a long walk
Post-dog park exhaustion.

I haven’t been all that eager to take Pyrrha to a dog park.

I am well aware that dog parks can be stressful places, especially for shy dogs. You can’t control the other dogs in the park. You really don’t have any idea what the other dogs will be like or how they will behave. As the guardian of a shy dog, I view dog parks as a risky place. But I’ve still always wanted to visit one, mainly for curiosity’s sake. And there is something so alluring to dog people about a wide, fenced-in area where your dog can run free…

So, this past Saturday afternoon, a breezy and warm day, I decided to take Pyrrha to the local park, just to romp around the fields on her long lead. She was happily sniffing and darting around for a good half hour or so. Now, this particular place does have a fenced-in “dog park” area. I decided that maybe we’d just mosey over there and I’d let Pyrrha sit on the hill and watch the dogs from a safe distance. If she looked exceedingly anxious, we’d turn around and go home.

As we approached the dog park, I saw that it contained only two pups: Two almost identical-looking beagle/hound mixes. One was a few inches taller than the other, but they were almost like mirrors of each other—the same markings, the same faces and ears. Pyrrha saw them and was instantly alert. I started talking with the two men in the park. To my surprise, the dogs—Khaleesi and Malcolm—were not related and the men didn’t even know each other. They both adopted their dogs from the local SPCA, though, and it made me think that there must be some canine lothario roaming around these parts…

Pyrrha gradually gained confidence to sniff Malcolm and Khaleesi through the fence. All three tails started to wag and I thought, “Well, I guess you can’t get a better introduction to a dog park than this.” (And I already knew that Pyrrha felt comfortable around beagle-shaped dogs, for whatever reason.)

I snapped off her leash before we walked through the gate, and the afternoon in the dog park proceeded without a hitch. I was so relieved–and proud of how smoothly and calmly she acted. Pyrrha, Khaleesi, and Malcolm romped around in circles, each one demonstrating how poor their retrieving skills are, and alternately relaxed with each other under the shade of the sole tree. We had only one other visitor: An older woman and a mannerly 8-year-old black lab named Chesty, who only stayed for about 10 minutes. Chesty’s introduction to the group was also very smooth and Pyrrha didn’t seem nervous at all—no hackles, nothing. Being off leash really does wonders for her.

I couldn’t have asked for a better or more relaxed introduction to the dog park for Pyrrha. I think we’ll still be cautious with dog parks, but this was a successful first time and I am grateful that she had this very positive encounter.

Highs and lows: Stories from our morning

Deep in clover
Deep in clover, deep in thought.

A few highs and lows from my morning with Pyrrha.

HIGH: Squirrels, the most delightful of temptations

So, we’ve discovered the one thing that gets Pyrrha really, really excited: SQUIRRELS. Birds are mildly exciting, cats are very interesting, but SQUIRRELS, OMG, SQUIRRELS. She just loses her mind for them. I love it, of course, because it’s an opportunity to get to see her act like a normal dog. If she spots a squirrel, our gentle, slow walker TAKES OFF like a rocket (and nearly dislocates my shoulder). She jumps in the air, she lets out these adorable, frustrated barks. I’ve even seen her try and climb a grove of trees to try to get to a squirrel. Of course, she’s never even come close to one, but it is perfectly endearing to watch her try.

HIGH: A fondness for beagle-shaped dogs

This morning on our walk, for the first time, Pyrrha expressed a desire to actually run up and meet a dog on leash! A man was walking his beagle mix past us, and I drew Pyrrha off to the side of the walk to let them pass. Instead of her normal tail-tucking, hackles-raising display, she rushed forward to greet the dog and gave a play bow. No snarling at all! The dogs sniffed and Pyrrha was all happy wags (not slow, threatened wags). As the beagle mix and his human walked off, Pyrrha let out an excited, playful bark, with her tail wagging vigorously, as if to say, “Where are you going? Come back and play with me! I’m not even scared of you!” So, that was encouraging.

I say that she likes “beagle-shaped dogs,” because the few dogs that she hasn’t shown any fear of have been beagles or small hound mixes. (Lucy, the dog she met off leash, was a small hound mix.) Not sure why this is, but it’s a good trend to recognize.

LOW: Training mistakes

I just got my copies of Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt, and On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. These are two books that I’ve been waiting to read for a long time now and both have been repeatedly recommended to me, as the new guardian of a shy dog. I’ve only read a handful of pages in each, but so far, they’re both great.

After reading the first 20 pages of Control Unleashed last night, I decided it may be good for Pyrrha to learn how to target. Pat Miller recommends teaching them to just touch an open and extended palm with their noses as a first step.

This morning, I pick up the clicker from Pyrrha’s basket and then go cut up a treat into many small pieces. I put the clicker and treats in one hand and call Pyrrha. Big mistake. Why, you ask? Because as soon as she spots the clicker–this strange object–she bolts. Pyrrha is now very susceptible to bribery, probably because of my errors. I tried to pair delicious things with scary events (such as grooming, ear cleaning), like all the books told me to, but Pyrrha gets herself into such a state that she will refuse treats in the moment and try to get away. Now, if I ever approach her with a treat or an object that’s unfamiliar, she immediately assumes I’m trying to bribe her into doing something scary and terrible and runs away. So, that’s problem #1.

Problem #2 is that I still tried to teach her “touch” after she ran away. Clearly, I should have stopped and tried again later. But I was frustrated. And that was problem #3. It was such a simple, non-threatening request! At least it was in my mind. To Pyrrha, the extended palm in her face, even when there were treats nearby, was alarming and too much for her to handle. I should have stopped and walked away. Instead, I tried a few more times, and then finally accepted that she wasn’t going to get it and so I put the treats down and left the room.

I left the house very disheartened this morning, but it was a good reminder that I really have to start at ground zero with this dog. She is not going to learn like a “normal” dog is going to learn and seemingly non-scary things–like extended palms or concealed little plastic objects–will frighten her. I mentioned this to my boss, a fellow crazy dog lady, and she recommended that I maybe try to teach Pyrrha to “look at me” first, instead of targeting a palm; this could be less intimidating to teach.

Anyway. I’m trying not to feel too dejected. She’s harder to train that I expected, and Pat Miller makes it sound so easy in her book! But Pyrrha is not an easy dog. This is the one thing I know.

And so we move back to square one.