Sunday, November 20, 2011

On reactive dogs (and having one!)

I rarely speak of Dahlia's reactivity in public and it's certainly not something I talk about with friends and family. Sometimes I still fight against the stigma, against the way that people view reactive dogs.  




Yet she is none of those and nor has she ever been those.  There are many reasons dogs are reactive, but the two major reasons are:

1. Fear.  Dogs that lack socialization often react to every little noise, every little thing they see.  That tall guy in the hat?  They've never seen something like that before, they get scared, and so lash out.  Barking and lunging will make the scary thing go away!  That dog who is easily twice their size?  They've never met a dog that big, they get scared, and lash out at that.  To the laymen it looks like aggression and while it's a form of aggression, the root cause of it is fear.

2. Frustration.  Some dogs have little frustration tolerance and so when they see something they want to get to but can't (because they're on leash or behind a fence), they lash out in frustration.  I liken it to a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. They lose all control of themselves and bark and lunge.  It looks nearly the same as the fear response, but isn't.

The body language for the two is different, especially in the ear set (back for fear, forward for frustration) and tail set (down much further for a fearful dog).

Dahlia came to me with frustration reactivity.  I had never heard the term before and while I knew a lot about the basics of dog training, I realized I better get off my butt and do a more thorough study.  I read a lot.  I spoke with a lot of trainers and behaviorists.  I watched DVDs and read books on body language.  I started to go out and study dogs and their owners and talking to people to figure out why their dogs were acting the way they were.  What caused the reactivity?

Then I set to helping my dog.  I figured out her triggers (other dogs) and how close those triggers could get before she started to react.  I figured out the little body language signs that meant a reaction was imminent.  And so I started the "Look at that" game.  "Look at that!" I would proclaim when we saw a dog just at the right distance away (close enough to be noticed, but not close enough to elicit and over the top reaction).  Dahlia, of course, was looking already.  And then she'd turn to look at me because of my excited voice.  At that point, she'd get a treat.  Something really delicious.

We did this every single day for months.  Little by little we were able to get closer and closer to the other dogs.  Finally she could walk by a dog who was on the other side of the road without reacting about 90% of the time!  So then we moved it closer, first stepping into the grass on the near side of the sidewalk then just off the sidewalk, always creeping closer and closer but always playing the "Look at that" game.

It took about a year to get to the point that we're at now.  Dahlia is almost completely non-reactive.  She has the occasional episode, especially if we're just leaving the house after she's been alone for a few hours, and we come across a dog who is too close and whose owner is jogging with him (the desire to chase is strong!).  But those happen so rarely that I would call her about 99% non-reactive.

The journey to that was long and a constant up and down struggle.  We'd make good progress, then something would happen that would set us back a bit.  She bounced back quicker and quicker each time, but it still was not a steady upward pace.  I've seen this same unsteady progress from other dogs I've helped out and I've read about it from many friends who have dealt with reactivity too.

Recently, I've been reading some stuff from folks who are harassing a friend of mine.  They gave her a dog who had been locked in a room for most of his young life and has a lot of fear and a lot of reactivity.  A lot more than my dog ever did.  It's been only a few weeks and they are expecting a miraculous recovery.  They're expecting this fear aggressive dog to be fine in the house with the person's other two dogs.  They're expecting her to film him outside while training.  They're expecting daily updates (which anyone with a reactive dog knows is pretty ridiculous due to the aforementioned ups and downs of working with reactivity).  It sure would be nice for this dog to learn to live in the human world, but when a dog lacks early socialization, it's hard and it takes a lot of time.

If you have a reactive dog, take heart!  You can work through it, but it will take time and dedication.  It's all worth it though, isn't it?  The moments when a dog finally walks past another dog, notices him, and then look at you instead?  They make it all worth it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dahlia's first agility trial!

This weekend we went to our very first agility trial.  For the first time, we opted to go with CPE (Canine Performance Events).  Everyone I spoke to, including our instructor, assured us that it was the most relaxed and most newbie-friendly of the venues.  And ultimately, they were right.

We had a fantastic weekend full of some ups and downs.  We did four runs, and NQ'ed on three of them.  Two were a total disaster.  But she got a qualifying score on one run (Jumpers Level 1) and a first place ribbon for it, both of which were nice to go home with.  I didn't expect her to get any Q's this weekend so I was really quite happy with that!

Perhaps the best part about it was how focused she was on me and how hard she tried through each and every run.  The one thing that threw her for a loop and ended up causing the three NQ's was "contact anxiety."  She wouldn't get on the dog walk in one run.  I had been worried about the dog walk from the get go.  She's comfortable with it usually, but this one was different from the others that she's seen.  It had no slats, was not rubberized, and I watched many dogs who hit it hard and nearly slipped off the ramp leading up to it.  It was also a little wobbly. Our instructor flat-out refused to let her dog get on it.  Dahlia was apparently smart enough to refuse it and instead of being a good human, I kept trying to get her on it.  After three times I finally gave up!

She also struggled with the A-Frame, flat out refusing it once and starting up it a second time but then deciding against it.  Like the dog walk it was not rubberized, though it did have slats and was more sturdy than the dog walk.  But I did watch some dogs slipping on the way down and so ultimately she was probably smart for getting off it instead of hurting herself by continuing up and over.  Had she been able to do it, we would have had a qualifying run for the Colors course and might have gotten one for Full House as well.

Overall, though, it was a fantastic experience.  I had my down moments (like when she totally blew the Full House course), but mostly I felt pretty good about what we had accomplished.  And now I know some things that need to be further trained!  I'm hoping to find some fun matches (aka Show 'n' Go's) in the area to get her up onto equipment she hasn't seen before.

But we'll also be going to another trial.  This one is on December 3rd.  We'll be doing three runs (Standard, Colors, and Wildcard) that day.  It should be great fun!

Dahlia was happy enough to model her ribbons.  Doesn't she look proud of herself?


And for anyone interested, here's a video of our second run of the second day.  This was the Colors course where she started up the A-Frame but then turned around and came back down before getting too far.  Unfortunately I forgot to have someone videotape her really good run!  Try not to laugh too hard over how slow she is.  She was faster the day before, but not by much!