Not a great photo, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a xolo in person! This is a shot of a xoloitzcuintli running around Görlitzer Park in Berlin.
My youngest sister now lives in Berlin, and she confirmed my assessment of German dogs, who seem to live with the utmost freedom and decorum. Perhaps even more than London dogs, dogs in Berlin are unbelievably well behaved. They almost never wear leashes. They know how to wait to cross busy intersections without being told. They ignore other dogs and other people. I find it so astonishing and admirable, coming from a small town in the southeastern United States, where it seems that about 40% of dogs, including my own, are leash reactive. (And maybe it’s really just the leashes that are the problem…)
Anyway, I always get a little thrill when I see a rare breed in person. Have you seen any rare breeds lately? (And does anyone really know how to pronounce xoloitzcuintli?)
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 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”).
Accordingly, here’s my game plan for modified BAT:
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).
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.
Implement rewards for sticking with me (and not pulling; looking at you, Eden), coming to my side when signaled, and ignoring triggers.
Teach a “leave it” cue for other dogs/people, which means “don’t look at that; look at me and wait for a treat.”
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:
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?
Eden health update: The results of her blood work came back, and she does NOT have EPI! Hallelujah! But she DOES have a pretty serious case of giardia. So, clouds, but silver lining, because it’s not a debilitating lifelong condition. But giardia can be pretty tricky and resistant. She may have been harboring this since we adopted her, and the signs only recently became apparent to us. She’s on a treatment plan now, so here’s to hoping that her GI issues clear up and that she starts packing on the pounds! Eden will be 9 months old this weekend, and she should weigh about 55-60 lbs. She currently weighs 45 lbs. So, a lot to accomplish.
On the brighter side, my in-laws and their pup Georgia are coming to visit for the weekend! Pyrrha and Georgia are great pals, but this will be Eden’s first time meeting her puppy “aunt.” If Edie doesn’t terrify Georgia, I think they will all be fast friends.
We’ve been continuing with our new walking strategy to reduce reactivity. Guion now walks Pyrrha, and I take the lead with Eden. It’s been going very well, and I think Pyrrha is making improvement. I’m more relaxed on walks, and Pyrrha is also forming a stronger bond with Guion (listening to him, taking treats from him, following his lead, etc.).
Regarding the garden: The dogs have been respecting the wire barriers around the forsythia and blackberries, and we are going to plant two apple trees in the yard this weekend. I am also feeling increasingly eager to build a hedge/visual barrier along that side of the fence. The numerous boy children are increasingly distracting to the dogs. AND I came out the other day to find one of the neighbor boys pointing a slingshot at Pyrrha while she was barking. OMG. I yelled at him, “EXCUSE ME??” And he dropped it and ran. So, yes. I am getting increasingly nervous, both about our dogs’ safety and Pyrrha’s ability to handle the stimulation/stress. So building a hedge is a top priority.
Happy Friday to you all! What’s been going on in your households lately?
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.
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.
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?
Oh, these little weirdos. They make our lives so crazy, and yet, what would we do without them?
January Goals for Pyrrha
Curbing jealousy directed at Eden. I am very happy to report that this is going a lot better. Pyrrha seems a lot calmer about Eden’s presence and a lot more tolerant of her adolescent antics.
Crate-exiting calmness. This is also going better, although she seems to have good days and bad days with this. The turning point has been that I’m finally figuring out what helps her here. She gets amped up when I let them out of the crates, and she then redirects that energy onto Eden. Our helpful practice now has been to let Pyrrha out of her crate, and I spend some time stroking her and speaking to her until she calms down, and then Eden can come out. This has been working so far, and it’s something we practice daily.
Avoiding leash reactivity on our walks. Lately, I’ve been walking them by myself, so I just avoid areas that I know tend to be populated with dogs. If Guion is with us, however, we practice our strategy of letting the confident baby (Edie) go first and Pyrrha follows behind, with me doing our classical conditioning protocol for when she perceives dogs. I think we’ll always be doing this with Pyrrha, to some degree, and it can feel disheartening, because the progress is SO incremental, but I’m glad that we at least have a plan in place now for her leash reactivity.
Classical conditioning protocol for seeing small children. We’ve been practicing this on walks and particularly at the mini-park/playground that’s near our house. On pleasant days, there is usually an assortment of kids at the park, so I keep Pyr at a fair distance away and treat her for every time she is looking at or perceiving a child, especially small children. She doesn’t seem to notice/be bothered by kids older than the age of 7 or 8, so we’re focusing the most on the smallest ones.
And now for the crazy baby:
January Goals for Eden
Sitting to greet people. This is sort of going well… she at least seems to know now what we want her to do: sit on the ground and wait for pets. But she just has so much love in her heart that it is difficult to contain! And we need to be more consistent. The hard part is when we have visitors (which we normally do). We need to have a strategy in place for telling guests what to do — before they walk in the door! — if Eden tries to jump on them.
Crate-exiting calmness. Super! She is now showing a lot of self-control in this area, because we’ve been clicking and treating for calmness (sitting quietly until the crate door opens). This is also helping Pyrrha’s crate-exiting craziness (above).
Not feeling the need to bark to announce herself in the backyard. I can’t say that her feeling this need has decreased, but our new strategy is kind of working: If I call her to come while she’s barking, and she comes, she gets treats. This plan has greatly improved her recall, which is a side bonus, but it hasn’t decreased her need to bark. I have a feeling this need may always be here, but we can keep working on the recall.
“Leave it.” Totally forgot this was one of our training goals. Whoops. Yeah, need to work on this one.
“Come!” She’s getting this down in a yard-to-house recall, but we need to generalize this to the home and to other areas.
Not counter-surfing. I also have no idea what to do here. How do you get your dogs to stop counter-surfing? (Pyrrha has never tried this, not even once, so we’re kind of at a loss.) Yelling “off” isn’t really helpful.
We had lovely, unseasonably warm weather this past weekend, which was very welcome. The dogs got a ton of exercise, and they were very calm and content. They seem to enjoy each other’s company more when they get lots of exercise; both of them were getting along beautifully, initiating play sessions appropriately, with no disagreements to be had.
On Sunday, we took them on a long walk by the river near our house. As I’ve mentioned before, on the busy stretches of the trail, our strategy is to have Guion walk Eden in front, and I walk Pyrrha behind, working on our classical conditioning protocol the whole time. Because of this, I get to enjoy the walks less, because I’m constantly on high alert for her two triggers (other dogs and small children), but I think it’s been a good strategy.
There were LOTS of dogs out on Sunday, as I expected, and Pyrrha did pretty well, all things considered. She only had one outburst, when two women with four dogs came close to us and let all the dogs stop and stare at Pyrrha, and I had nowhere to turn (except into the river!). (The dogs were friendly, but Pyrrha just can’t handle the proximity.)
I’ve been taking the clicker with me when I’m working with her on walks, and I think this has been helpful in signaling to people that I don’t want them and their dog to approach us. I hear people say, “Oh, she’s working with that dog,” and then they keep moving. Sometimes, when we stop to let dogs pass, some people seem to assume that we’re waiting for them and their dog to come greet us. The clicker seems to be helpful in communicating that this is not the case, and that we are training here.
Pyrrha’s anxiety lessened as the walk went on, too, which I was glad to note. Even though we kept passing dogs, near the end of our long walk, she was far more relaxed about them passing and was accepting treats a lot more gently and readily.
Eden continues to be unfazed by everything! She met kids, a man in a wheelchair, other dogs, and other people on the walk. I’m thankful for the abundance of good experiences she’s had so far, as they continue to increase her confidence and her already firmly held belief that the world is FUN and AWESOME and EXCITING.
I confess that I sometimes get jealous of these two, Guion and Eden, who get to lead the way and have happy interactions with people and dogs. I get stuck behind with Pyrrha, trying desperately to keep her from reacting. And if she does react in fear, she just looks like “another aggressive German shepherd.” Sometimes I want to wear a signboard on walks that says, in big letters, “SHE’S JUST SCARED; SHE ISN’T A KILLER.”
I try to look on the bright side. At least she’s not reactive to adults or teenagers. Pyrrha loves being outside and taking walks. And she actually loves other dogs — just not when everyone is leashed. And at least we have one shepherd who can be our breed ambassador, the friendly, goofy baby who loves everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to stay encouraged, when Pyrrha’s progress seems so microscopic. But I just have to keep believing that she is getting better. And take a deep breath. And just enjoy walking the dog.