Despite numerous setbacks and still being unsure of what to do to help Risa, I never gave up. I constantly sought new information from friends, dog trainers, and books. We were making steady progress. I can remember the first day it really hit home. Risa was rushed by two off-leash dogs. I somehow managed to get them away but not before they upset Risa and she had a meltdown. As we walked away from the scene, I was a bag of nerves and could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Within several steps, Risa’s leash was more slack. Instead of her pulling on the lead due to her heightened arousal level, she had calmed down quickly. I no longer had to wait several blocks before I could expect her to be calmed down. She had done it quicker than ever before. Progress, though slow, was being made.
The first thing I did that made a world of difference was to adjust my attitude. Just realizing that Risa behaved this way out of fear was enough. Instead of viewing her reactions as something negative that needed to be stopped, misbehavior on her part, I felt sorry for my dog. It’s incredibly difficult to be angry with someone for being afraid. It’s seems ridiculous! “Stop being SCARED! What is WRONG with you!?” While I couldn’t console her directly and tell her it would all be okay like I would if she were a human child, I did have to start showing her that there was nothing to be afraid of. Easier said than done. I had a lot of negative history to erase. I had to stop getting frustrated with her behavior. I had to stop anticipating negative things happening every time I saw another dog. (I used to get a sense of dread in my stomach every time a dog appeared. I knew what was about to happen and I know I sent a clear message to Risa every time I felt that rock growing in my gut.) I had to prove to Risa that she didn’t need to take things into her own paws. That I would protect her from the scary things in life.
Along with that, I started thinking happy thoughts when I saw other dogs. Instead of tightening up the leash and getting ready for the bad things, I started talking to Risa and saying “Oh look at that Boxer out for a walk.” Or “Oh that’s just Champ!” in a happy voice. If she had a reaction, I would often say something like “Oh he can be out on a walk too. Silly.” I did this for my benefit (it kept me from getting frustrated), Risa’s benefit (she could see I was not concerned), and for other people’s benefit (yes I know she looks aggressive but she’s not; just being silly). It was hard to see every challenge as a training event; a time to work and improve my dog’s behavior. My gut still clenches sometimes when we pass a dog even though we have far more non-events these days.
One of the biggest mental changes I had to make, however, was how I viewed our relationship. At the start, I was the alpha. Leader. What I said was law and ignoring me was a challenge to my authority. This put me in direct conflict with Risa a lot. I didn’t want our relationship to be so adversarial. Not to mention that thought process had helped get me into the mess I was currently in. I slowly changed my viewpoint from one of me being in charge to one where both parties’ opinions are considered. While I may want Risa to sit calmly as a dog walks by, sometimes that dog is too close. Or sometimes asking for Risa to remain stationary makes her feel too uncomfortable to comply. I started thinking long and hard about what I was asking her and realizing that, sometimes, I asked her for much more than she was ready to handle.
I also switched our equipment. While I only used a prong for a short while, I didn’t like walking her on a flat collar either knowing she was likely to lunge. I felt the risk of her hurting herself was high and searched for an alternative. I ended up getting her an Easy-Walk harness. She didn’t need it for its intended purpose: helping a dog learn to walk on a loose leash. I liked it because it gave me more control over Risa’s body mass (which is concentrated in her chest). It also prevented her from hurting her neck if she lunged or when I needed to “Get her outta Dodge!” when she was in over her head. Once I felt I had more control over my dog, I was also able to relax more when we were on walks.
After reading Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, I started implementing some “Look at That!” in our training. While I never broke it down into the steps outlined in the book, it still became incredibly useful. Whenever Risa saw a dog (but didn’t react to it), I clicked her and gave her a treat. Pretty soon, her head whipped around when she heard that click. As time went on, she would look at dogs and then turn to look at me as if to say “Did you see that I saw that dog?” Once she started doing that, I started clicking the looking back at me. I love LAT because it empowers the dog and gives them permission to acknowledge that scary thing. The handler isn’t trying to get and keep the dog’s focus while the dog worries about the scary thing they can no longer see.
I think one of the best things that ever happened to us, in regards to Risa’s reactivity training, was moving. Where we originally lived, it was pretty sparse and there weren’t a lot of dogs out and about. When we moved, it was to a crowded place on the east coast where we saw dogs daily. There was no avoiding it. Rather than see this as a potential for disaster, I saw it as an opportunity. I could work on Ris’ reactivity every day. We were bound to see improvement then!
So I brought treats with me on our walks. Every day. Rain or shine. Cold, frigid days where I could barely feel the treats between my fingers. I focused on classical conditioning: pairing something good with something bad. Whenever Risa saw another dog, I started shoveling treats into her mouth. It didn’t matter what she was doing. That dog appearing meant good things came her way. When the dog was gone, so were the good things.
Ideally, I would have kept Risa under threshold during these sessions but it didn’t always turn out that way. Even when she reacted, I tried to give her the treats. I also wasn’t as attentive to when she saw the other dog. I often gave treats as soon as I saw it. Still, despite not doing things exactly right, we saw progress. Good progress. I was able to taper off of the treats slowly without Risa regressing.
Once Risa became more comfortable seeing other dogs and had fewer reactive meltdowns, I felt more confident with her around other dogs. I was fortunate enough to have several friends who were willing to let their dogs be guinea pigs for Risa. We met up for several walks with various dogs. Despite her issues, Risa really seemed to enjoy walking with her own kind. Dogs could bump and jostle her and she was fine. They could race by off leash and she didn’t react. I allowed her to walk alongside as many dogs as I could. Each time she did, her confidence improved. Her ears became more relaxed and she looked more normal. We were even able to find a friend whose dogs became Risa’s best buddies. The three of them manged to get along very well considering 2 of the 3 had dog-to-dog issues. Knowing that all parties involved understood the risks and issues that the dogs had made it much easier if things went awry. Which they very rarely did. 😉 And, even when they had a bad day, there were no bad feelings afterward. The dogs were still friends despite it all (and so were the people!).
These days, Risa’s reactivity is pretty well-managed. It is not gone. It is, however, much less than it ever was. If she does react, it’s short and she recovers almost immediately. Sometimes, the reaction is so minor that you’d never know that’s what it was if you didn’t know her history. Instead of reacting on walks, Risa tends to offer calming signals as she passes dogs (lip licks, look aways, sniffing). I even catch her stretching her head in their direction trying to catch a whiff of them as we pass. 😉 I know she is curious about other dogs now but I find it difficult to indulge her curiosity. I would love to but know it wouldn’t take much for her to end up over her head, overwhelmed, and reacting negatively.
Despite our progress, I’m always seeking out new methods and ways to help her. I’ve recently started incorporating some behavior adjustment training (BAT) with her. It’s too soon to tell how well it’s working but I like the idea of having another way for her to feel in control of her world. That offering eye contact or a calming signal is just as effective as a barking, lungefest in making other dogs go away.
It’s been a long journey but one I wouldn’t trade for the world.