Do you use BAT and leash skills?

Out with the girls

While I’ve been separated from our two monsters this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my poor leash-handling skills and the need to approximate off-leash walks in our small (but busy) town when we return in August. We have a lot of training to do, and I am excited about the continued challenge of working with our leash-reactive shepherds.

We have leash laws in my town and in our parks and on trails, so it will still be rare for our dogs to experience off-leash freedom, but I want to be able to simulate the experience of off-leash walking with them, as they are both leash reactive to other dogs.

I started thinking about Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) again after reading Patricia McConnell’s recent review of Stewart’s new book, BAT 2.0. I read Stewart’s first book, but I don’t think I really let the principles of BAT sink in. (Clearly, I didn’t, because I still have two leash-reactive dogs.) I was also grateful to find this recent post from Anne at All Dogs Are Smart, which is very helpful and includes some great videos on how to teach loose-leash walking (with harnesses) as well.

I would like to apply some BAT leash-handling principles but also add a food reward. Our dogs are highly food motivated, and BAT often seems a bit too “mystical” for my taste (and I am not sure our dogs would discern any reward or positive reinforcement from some of its techniques, such as “mime pulling”).

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My husband walking Eden this past fall.

Accordingly, here’s my game plan for modified BAT:

  1. Start working each dog, individually, on 15-foot leads (I like these biothane leashes from All K-9). The “individually” part is what is going to be a pain and be time-consuming, but it’s essential to work with them separately until they both have a handle on the new regime (and until I am totally up to speed with my new leash-handling skills).
  2. Start training inside, in the basement. Graduate to the backyard and then to the front walk, on up, over the weeks, until we are ready for a full walk.
  3. Implement rewards for sticking with me (and not pulling; looking at you, Eden), coming to my side when signaled, and ignoring triggers.
  4. Teach a “leave it” cue for other dogs/people, which means “don’t look at that; look at me and wait for a treat.”
  5. Then, finally, try some walks in the real world!

Do you use BAT techniques? How do you help your reactive dog on walks?

Previously in this series of thinking about dogs off leash:

“Sorry, she’s a rescue…”

Am I the only one guilty of this transgression?

Relaxing a bit
Pyrrha, circa June 2012. A few weeks after we adopted her. (Check out the pup cooler-raiding in the background.)

Scenario: Your dog has a reactive outburst. Or growls at an approaching toddler. Or does something behaviorally embarrassing to you, the owner. You see the shocked or scared faces of people around you. And so you say, “Oh, sorry about that. She’s a rescue…” by way of explanation.

Excuses, excuses! It’s terrible, I know, but I’m pretty sure this statement has spilled from my lips in a tense public moment with Pyrrha.

It feels like an easy “out,” especially with strangers. They then just seem to think, “Oh, I get it. Your dog has a lot of baggage.” And yes, it’s true: Pyrrha does have a lot of baggage.

But I’m just reinforcing negative stereotypes about rescue dogs whenever I say this. Some rescues are totally issue free. And some aren’t. But I’m adding to this public perception of rescue dogs as damaged goods whenever I say this. And I want to stop.

Better explanations I can issue to strangers, if Pyrrha has an outburst:

  • “I’m sorry about that; she has some fear issues that we are working on.”
  • “I’m sorry; we are working on training her.”
  • “Hope we didn’t scare you; we are working on polite behavior in public!”

Do you ever say this about your dog? Have you found more helpful things to say to people to explain your dog’s sometimes problematic behavior?

 

 

A leash reactivity epiphany

So. I feel like a terrible dog guardian. But I also feel kind of hopeful about this discovery, even though it rankles the feminist in me.

Context: Kari recently got to meet Ian Dunbar (jealous! But thanks for the tip that he’ll be in Fredericksburg in May!), and he apparently said that men are better at walking reactive dogs than women, because men just “don’t give a shit” about what people think of them. Reading this made me feel some womanly outrage and immediately jump to counterpoints. Men also care what people think of them! Women aren’t the only ones. And surely this is a crass generalization about the sexes.

But on a recent family walk, I wanted to put Dunbar’s theory to the test.

#vscocam queen of all she surveys
Obviously not on a walk, but I don’t have another illustration of Pyr at the moment, so you’ll just have to imagine her, walking, not reacting.

I’m always the one who walks Pyrrha, because she’s so bonded to me, and Guion always walks Eden. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes get jealous of them, because they get to be the “friendly, normal” pair who gets to walk in front of us and have happy interactions with strangers and/or their dogs.

This time around, I told Guion to walk Pyrrha, and I took Eden. It was a warm, sunny evening, and so there were tons of people out on our walk, with their dogs and children. Trial by fire, husband! I gave him the bait bag and wished him luck.

We passed six or seven dogs on leash. And we walked by the House with the Scary Dogs, where Pyrrha always loses her shit, like gets all paws off the ground with fear and fear-aggressive displays. The Scary Dogs were throwing themselves at the fence toward her.

Guys. Pyrrha had NO REACTION to any of this. Like, none.

She was still a little tense, but she never made eye contact with the dogs (either the leashed ones or the Scary ones), and she was taking treats from Guion the whole time. No barking, no lunging, no growling. Calm, contained walking.

Why did this happen? I’ve been asking myself this question since, and we’ve taken other walks where the same thing happens (Guion walks Pyrrha; no outbursts at all).

My basic theory is that Guion is just a calmer person than I am. I’ve mentioned before that I think my nervousness just amps up Pyrrha’s anxiety on walks. Guion doesn’t worry about anything, ever, and I think Pyrrha was picking up on his projected confidence. I have tried to work on this, and I try to put myself in a calm, confident mindset whenever I take Pyrrha on a walk, but clearly, some of my anxious self is still seeping through.

So, Dunbar’s theory has held true in this case. But my response to Dunbar would be that if men “don’t give a shit,” it’s because they’ve been cultured by our society to believe that “giving a shit” about their dog would come off as fussy, feminine, and silly. It’s NOT because having a penis makes you an inherently better dog walker. Women “give a shit” because culture allows us to be worrisome, apologetic creatures. And, for better or worse, both approaches rub off on our dogs.

At the end of the day, though, all I care about is that Pyrrha isn’t reacting in fear on walks. That is HUGE. Huge, you have no idea. Guion is still going to practice our classical conditioning protocol with her, but for now, he’s Pyrrha’s walker, and I’m Eden’s. It’ll be so interesting to see how this develops, but I have hope — even if it’s tempered by some of my feminist anxiety.

Walk with these 3 crazies. Sweet shades, @jfarkle.
Men! Walking dogs! My dad and Guion.

What do you think about all of this? Are men better at walking reactive dogs than women? If you have a leash-reactive dog, have you ever tested this theory?

Graduation from reactivity class

Every relationship takes work. #lovethem
Every relationship takes work.

Last night, Pyrrha had her last session for the reactivity class we’ve been taking. For graduation, we went to practice “in the wild” at a pet supplies store. It was STRESSFUL, but so is real life with a reactive dog, right?

The goal was to have the handlers use the store aisles as buffers–easy obstacles for us to duck behind–and keep working the “Pavlov machine” of treating the dog for every perception of a trigger (e.g., another dog). Pyrrha was already overwhelmed by the new environment that the addition of her big fear (other dogs on leash) brought her to a fairly high level of anxiety.

I anticipated that this might be the case, so I brought her into the store early to let her sniff everything and get the lay of the land, per se. This might have helped her during the actual practicum, but I confess it was hard to tell. There were cats up for adoption in cages on the floor, which got her prey drive kicked into action; there were tons of treats left at dog-level for easy snatching (you sneaky pet store owners! I know what you’re doing, and it’s working…); and there were lots of other reactive dogs milling about AND unsuspecting customers and their dogs and children.

Suffice it to say, last night was a perfect storm of triggers for Pyrrha–but again, that’s the real world, and you can’t contain it or control it.

Deven encouraged us to go outside and take breaks when needed, and we did that a few times. Pyrrha’s mouth was getting really hard, and she was just about taking off my fingertips when I delivered treats. Taking a break to sniff outdoors seemed to help her regain herself.

She had two reactive outbursts last night, and both were my fault. One was at one of her reactive classmates, while I was talking with Deven, and the other was at a customer’s boxer, who came bounding in the front door, and I was talking to a human classmate when it happened. That’s the tricky thing about reactive dogs; to manage them in the wild, you have to be a pretty rude human. If I was paying attention to her and to the environment, I could have prevented both of those outbursts, but a minute-long conversation was enough to divert my focus from her and let her express fight mode.
Mea culpa, Pyrrha.

Concluding thoughts about our reactive dog

We learned a lot in these past six weeks, and I am so glad we took this class at Canine Campus. I wish everyone I knew with a reactive dog could come to town and work with Deven! She’s amazing. I feel so lucky to have a trainer like her in my hometown.

Last night was a sobering reminder that we still have a lot of work to do with Pyrrha and that I can’t let myself get lazy. She’s so calm and easy in our house that I can forget that she still has a lot of anxieties when she confronts the real world.

I got a chance to talk with Deven last night about Pyrrha, and she said that Pyrrha has made a lot of progress in a year. It’s hard for me to see sometimes, being so close to Pyr, but it was nice to have that external confirmation. She also recommended I look into the following things to continue to help Pyrrha with her anxiety:

  • T-touch (Tellington touch)
  • Aromatherapy
  • Nose work classes (which she offers)

I know a little bit about all three, and they sound appealing to me. Have any of you worked with any of these strategies for your fearful dog? Which have you liked or disliked?

The slow and steady work of making associations (Week 3, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 3 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

I missed writing up a Week 2 recap, but you can read the fundamentals of this class on my Week 1 post (which I recommend, for anyone who has a reactive dog).

As Deven said, “This class is about as interesting as watching paint dry.”

Because that’s the long, slow, hard work of classical conditioning and making new neural pathways. During the past two weeks in class, we’ve just worked on clicking and treating (that’s where the operant conditioning mix comes in) the dogs for perceiving the trigger of another dog in the room.

Week 2, we worked with Deven’s shy, reactive dog Surprise, who remained still and didn’t want to make eye contact with any of the class dogs. (We’re all separated out in different rooms, and Surprise is walked around the center of the room.) This week, Deven brought in her bouncy, friendly mini Australian shepherd Rumba. Rumba was more of a challenge for the class dogs, because she was more active and clearly wanted to engage. (Rumba particularly seemed to want to meet Pyrrha!)

We practiced Patricia McConnell’s “emergency u-turn” several times each, in the class ring, and then we worked for the rest of the class on just clicking and treating for perception of Rumba, over and over and over again.

This class was a good reminder of two things:

  1. This is slow and steady work, and hundreds of repetitions are needed.
  2. Practicing this behavior “in the wild” is much harder, which is also why it takes so long to recreate these pathways.

But we’re in it for the long haul!

Getting to know Brynn
Pyrrha and Trina.

 

In other news:

We have been doing more evaluations of Brynn/Trina, and I think we’re not going to keep her, for a number of reasons. I know, after all of that fanfare!

Essentially, she is a lot more naturally shy than we thought. She’d been getting so confident and comfortable in our home that we were pretty fooled by her behavior, and kind of shocked during our outings to realize that she is naturally pretty fearful of new people, children, and other dogs on walks. She’s also afraid of getting in the car and strangers. (I think her super-relaxed behavior on the Downtown Mall that first night may have been influenced by drugs?? Ha. She had just been spayed a day-and-a-half ago at that time, and I think she was still pretty out of it, which led to her reallllly chill demeanor, despite the craziness of the environment.)

Again, these are not black marks on her personality, and we will continue to work with her and socialize her, but we are looking for a genuinely confident, “bombproof” puppy. Trina is not that, but she will still be a wonderful puppy for the right home.

As much as I want to keep her, I also know that I don’t want two leash-reactive, shy dogs. So. A hard decision. More on this later. It’s been a bad week, whew.

Getting to know Brynn