Life is unpredictable. Even when you’re training, life interrupts you. It can spoil the perfect set up. It can destroy months of rehabilitation training. How can we help ourselves and our dogs learn to cope with life??
With Risa’s history and fearfulness, it is my goal for her to have as many positive experiences as possible. With people. With dogs. With novel objects and new locations. I want things to be 100% positive. Why would this be my goal? Am I setting us both up for failure knowing that such a thing is practically unattainable?
The short answer is “No.” I am not setting us up for failure with such high expectations. I’m setting us up for life.
It is impossible to always have a good experience somewhere. But, when you have more good experiences than bad ones, you can bounce back from the bad easier. Your history with that thing tells you that bad things are an anomaly in that situation. It prepares you to deal with life.
I am afraid of centipedes (we call them “million leggers” in my family). I know it’s an irrational fear as they are completely harmless. It’s their appearance that unnerves me. Growing up, we had a walkout basement so they were commonly found in the house. If, every time I went down into the basement, I had seen one of these critters, I would probably have stopped going down there. It would be even worse if they ran across my foot or ran out in front of me every time. Pretty soon, I would have refused to go downstairs at all! It’s no different with our fearful dogs.
When I first got Risa, she was afraid of people. I wanted her to become more comfortable with them and I allowed strangers to try and pet her. Unfortunately, she did not wish to have contact with them and shied away. The more they insisted on touching her, the more fearful she was. Even if they had food to offer her, she was conflicted about approaching them to get it. People remained a scary thing. She started to worry that all people were going to try and touch her. It wasn’t until I stopped letting most people pet her and only allowed interactions with people who I could trust to approach her properly that she really turned a corner. She learned that the majority of people are not going to try and touch her. That she can simply walk on past them without any concern. Through experiences with a select few, she has become more comfortable around people and will accept tactile affection from strangers on occasion.
This goes for dogs as well. Risa was scared by a lot of dogs early on in our relationship. She started to view every dog as a potential scary event which set her up to become a dog-reactive dog. Now, it’s my goal for her to view dogs as a good thing. I’ve done classical conditioning to pair the sight of other dogs with food. Seeing dog = awesome food reward. I’ve done “Look at That” to give her permission to check out the scary thing and then reward her for checking in with me. And I’ve recently started integrating BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) to teach her that she can create distance from other dogs without resorting to reactive lunges and barking.
I’ve also allowed her to interact with carefully selected dogs so that she could learn how to behave properly. I have to be very cautious when I do this, however, as I want to pair her with a dog who isn’t going to frighten her. No “Tarzan Dogs” or socially inept ones. They need to be relatively calm with good social skills. I want Risa to have good experiences up close and personal with dogs so that, should she find herself in a situation that gets out of hand, she can cope. Despite my best efforts pairing her with other dogs, she has had bad experiences with them. Several times, she has gotten tangled in a leash and was essentially ‘pinned’ to the other dog. She panicked and reacted. After separating them, the two dogs were fine together later on in the day. She’s also had several canine arguments but is still close friends with those dogs despite it all. Why? Because she’s had mostly good experiences!
In fact, yesterday I took her out for another day of off-leash fun. While we were having fun in the fenced area, someone came by with their dog. The person came inside the fence to meet Risa but we had his dog stay outside. Risa and the other dog looked at each other from opposite sides of the fence with slightly stiff body postures. Eventually, the outside-the-fence dog approached the bars to meet Risa. Ris kept her head low, did a tongue flick, and raised her left paw as they greeted face-to-face. After the greeting, Risa flopped into a playbow and they raced along the fenceline together. They stopped, Risa bowed again, and they chased each other back. I was astounded. I’ve seen Risa playbow to other dogs before but only dogs she has met several times. Never a dog she just met! But, because she’s had many more good experiences around dogs than bad (in recent history), she felt more comfortable opening up to a new friend.
By aiming for positive interactions, we set our dogs up for success over the long haul. Life isn’t perfect and bad things will happen. But, when the good outweighs the bad, we learn to let the bad go and move on.