Putting Our Trust Back in Dog

This post is about dog-dog intros, and it is geared more towards non-reactive dogs. There might be some takeaway tips for owners with reactive dogs, but when it comes to reactivity there are many other factors to work on for dealing with on-leash greetings.

I am the first to call myself a micromanager when it comes to my foster dogs. In so many situations I am quick to make the decision that involves more management rather than the one that involves less. This includes controlling my dog’s behavior around other people, making every decision about the way my dog is handled at home, making sure those who interact with my dog on a daily basis know how she is being trained, etc. So when it came to dog-dog intros, I found it tough to put some slack in the leash – literally.

On-leash introductions with two dogs can be very tricky, often because they’re a high stress situation for the handlers. I know those of you with dogs are probably very familiar with on-leash greetings (and, in turn, if your dog is okay or not okay with them). It might be a dog on the street you don’t know, or maybe it’s a dog you’re introducing to yours for the purpose of perhaps bringing them into your home, or sometimes it’s with a friend of your dog and they’re about to have a play date. Often times there’s a lot of nervousness, anxiety or anticipation around an on-leash greeting – because who knows what could happen, of course!

Because of this stress, it is human nature to want to micromanage the greeting. I know I used to be the one to hold my dog on that extra tight leash – you know, “just in case.”  However, I quickly learned that being over-bearing during an intro is not the best approach.

There are a lot of ways you should manage an introduction between dogs. The location should be somewhere neutral and very open. Both dogs should be as calm as possible, or at least not extremely over-stressed. Dogs should, if possible, be wearing gear that helps keep stress levels low, like a harness or martingale collar. The introduction should happen in a parallel or nose-to-butt fashion – absolutely not head on (two dogs meeting face to face is not friendly in the dog world, despite how normal it is for us humans!). These are all factors that should be thought about and controlled during a greeting.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is what the handler is doing – or, depending on how you look at it, not doing – during the introduction. So many of us, like I mentioned above, want to keep our dogs on an ultra-tight leash as they walk up to the other dog (remember, not head on!). This, however, adds oodles of unnecessary stress to the situation. The tension travels straight down the leash into our dogs and makes them wonder what the heck there is to be worried about, and when they see the other dog they often find their answer. We want to do as much as we can to help our dogs think that meeting another dog is no big deal.

In order to keep an introduction as stress-free as possible, keep the leash LOOSE! When I finally started doing this with Johnnie, I saw a dramatic decrease in her tension and an increase in successful greetings. Of course you want to still be 100% ready to pull the two dogs apart should things go south, but trusting the dogs to do their own thing during the intro is much safer than trying to hold both back by keeping the leash extra tight and pulling at their necks.

I recently mentioned this tip to one of my volunteers. When she relaxed the leash, her dog relaxed as well. She saw the visible response and said, “It’s like putting the trust in back with the dogs.” And it really is. There are lots of things you want to control and even *micromanage* (hooray!) about the situation, but the leash is not one of them.

Here I am keeping a loose leash by Johnnie’s shoulder during an intro with an unfamiliar dog. There is a chance that the dog she is greeting would have relaxed a little more without the tension of the leash – though her handler is doing a great job at staying vigilant throughout the greeting. I know it is very difficult to let that security of a taut leash go, even though it is actually generally safer without!

The bottom line is that our dogs can either think meeting other dogs is a big ordeal and something they should be worried about, or they can think that it’s nothing to bat an eye over. There were two situations in particular with Johnnie where leaving it up to her meant a much better outcome than if I had tried to control the whole situation, and those were encounters with off-leash dogs. When the off-leash dog came flying up to Johnnie, I immediately loosened the leash and let her work it out. If I had immediately tightened my grip, Johnnie would have picked up on the new tension and figured, “This dog must be something to be worried about!”

Another quick tip I have found helpful is to try to stay by your dog’s shoulder during the greeting, not behind them like you would if you were walking. Staying by your dog’s shoulder is another way to help keep the leash loose, and it makes it more difficult for the two leashes to get caught up should the dogs start playing (or spatting).

If you want to read more about on-leash intros, check out this article by Pat Miller in the Whole Dog Journal. As usual, I also always think it is important to read up on canine body language so you know what your dogs are saying to each other when they meet. There is nothing more beneficial than setting your dog up for success and knowing when to get the heck out of Dodge!

DesBaylor     This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor's (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.

This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor’s (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.


All the Things We’ve Learned

To say that Johnnie has come a long way from the day she stepped foot paw out of the shelter would be an understatement. Johnnie Cash, once thought to be out of control and insanely energetic, turned out to be very bright, a quick learner and a model student. Together we learned how to communicate with each other. Training is not a one way street – I have to figure out how to tell her what I want just as much as I have to figure out what she is trying to tell me. I have loved every minute of growing and learning with this little girl.

Here are two videos of some of our accomplishments. This first one is a demonstration of how lovely she is to take outside. She learned in probably the first twenty four hours what it took to be allowed to head out the open door, which was sitting quietly. The last thing I want is a dog who drags me around, especially out the door before I’m ready! All we had to do was slowly open the door while she was sitting, and immediately close it (gently, so we didn’t squish her!) if she moved towards it. Heading out without a release = door closing! As she progressed with the polite sitting, we began to ask for eye contact. Now we are – as shown in the video – to the point where we can have the door wide open before she heads out.

You can’t tell in the video because the door frame is in the way, but she is holding perfect eye contact until I release her.  Also, notice that I do not need to use treats for this. The simple release through the door is the reward, but only after the use of negative punishment, meaning we took the open door away (negative) to decrease the behavior (punishment) of moving towards it without release. Dogs learn what works for them, and Johnnie quickly learned that sitting and making eye contact meant she would be able to head out into the world, and jumping towards the door meant it would close and the fun things on the other side would go away.

This next video is a short compilation of some of the tricks that Johnnie has learned. She demonstrates sit pretty, touch, sit, high five, down, paw and say bye.  These tricks are great for so many things, like distracting her if I need to keep her mind busy, helping to win over the public, or teaching new behaviors. Plus, they’re fun and learning them together was a great bonding experience. At one point you’ll notice I ask her to sit from a down, but then I realize she doesn’t know that (yes, “sit” from a down is an entirely different behavior than sitting from a standing position!), so we moved to another cue.

In the video you see how she does most of the tricks without treats. I gave her one at the beginning, but then she performed the rest without a reward. So many people, when they are introduced to reward-based training, get frustrated about how much we use treats or other rewards. “Will I have to be giving my dogs treats and using the clicker for their whole life!” they ask. The answer is: not necessarily. We use a high rate of reinforcement when we are teaching new behaviors, but once the dog has learned and practiced the behavior, we move to rewarding only every once in a while (there are real scientific words for these different techniques but I have not mastered those yet – check out your high school psych textbook for more info, ha!).

This ends up being a fun game for the dog because they know that “one of these times she’s going to give me a treat!” – it’s just a matter of when. Johnnie is a pro at “sit” now, so I don’t have to reward her every time she sits when I give her the cue. But, to make sure she continues to be a pro, I reward her every once in a while. Make sense? Unfortunately it works the other way too: if your dog is able to snatch something off the counter 1 out of the 10 times he tries, he will continue counter surfing because he’s waiting for just that *one time* he hits the jackpot. Also like begging. If you give your dog food from the dinner table every once in a while, they will likely continue to beg all the time in hopes that it’s one of those special occasions where they get a taste. Animals are smart little beings!

So, who made it through all the training talk? If so, congrats – you now have a heads up that Johnnie has a special announcement to make tomorrow. She promises it is one you won’t want to miss :-).


Best Toy Ever

Over the weekend I made an impulse purchase of a new toy for Johnnie. It was a combo of her two favorite toys: a strong rope and a big ball. Called a Jolly Pet Romp-n-Roll Toy, I figured Johnnie would really like this new find. I was wrong – she *LOVED* it.

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This toy is perfect for our new found favorite form of exercise: moving vertically. Nothing tires Johnnie out faster than the exceptional effort of trying to grab a toy I’ve waved right above her head.  It’s also a great outlet for her natural need to chase/catch things. We absolutely love it, as does she!

toy03Just like tug, we make sure that we have rules when we play a game like this. Johnnie must always be sitting calmly and making eye contact with me before she gets the “okay!” cue to go for the toy. By realizing that moving towards the toy makes it go away and most definitely does not get her closer to catching it, she quickly learned to sit and wait politely.

toy06She also must drop it when we ask. Her “drop it” cue is a little rusty, so we use this game as a way to practice. As soon as Johnnie gets the rules down, she is free to play away! Check out this little jumping bean in action.

toy08 toy05 toy03 toy02 toy01Can you see now why it tires her out so well? We went ahead and expanded on this concept by buying her a flirt pole from Squishy Face Studios. We are in love! This type of play is so much fun because it’s both a bonding experience and ultra-fast exhausting tool. Aside from crowded public events or difficult new experiences, I’m not sure there’s anything else that makes little J work this hard. Look at her tired smile!

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toy09Does anyone else use a flirt pole or other similar exercises to work their dogs?


Our Big Day

Sunday was a big day for me and Johnnie. Like I believe I mentioned last week, it was the day of my humane society’s dog walk, Paws in the Park.  Paws is our biggest fundraiser of the year and a ton of planning goes into it, so I was absolutely thrilled when the event was a huge success (despite some serious rain the second half!).

You might remember last year when Otie came to visit me at Paws in the Park, and this year my mama was generous enough to bring Johnnie (foster dad was supposed to come too but he was sick, poor guy). I’d been wrestling a lot with the decision of whether or not to have her bring J to this event because there usually hundreds of dogs in attendance. Hundreds, literally. A few weeks ago I was very “noooo way!” to the thought of bringing her, but as Mark and I talked it out, I started to change my mind.  I wanted to give her the chance to have positive new experiences. But Johnnie Cash can be sort of hot and cold with other dogs – which isn’t unusual for a dog, I just didn’t want to set her up to fail by throwing her into an event with a TON of other dogs.

But luckily we had a couple things going for us: it’s an extremely open venue so we wouldn’t get caught in tight quarters which stresses her out, and, for the most part, the other dogs at the event are pretty social too. It’s when another dog reacts towards her that she’s especially prone to a melt down. Also, to be honest, it was probably good that my mom was the one to handle her for the most part. Unfortunately I have become quite the worrier, and I know Johnnie can feel that stress on my end! My mom promised that she’d only stay for as long as J could handle the event, even if it was only five minutes.

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So the ultimate result of Johnnie’s trip to Paws in the Park was an exciting, positive experience! I was so, so happy and relieved when she met face to face with a few other dogs and wanted to play, and when she walked by the other attendees without batting an eyelash for the most part. We even tried some agili-dogging! And, no surprise here, she ROCKED it! She’s so confident in trying new things that she thought walking up a skinny beam just for a treat was the best thing ever. Whoever adopts her should really consider agility as a form of exercise and bonding!

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paws01As you saw yesterday, she also made a friend with MCHS mascot Henry. She thought he was a big stuffed toy to play with!

paws7I was so proud of her for doing so well. There were many moments when I asked her for her attention by saying, “Hey Johhhhniieeee” in my fun voice, and she checked right in even though there were other dogs around. She is really learning how to focus!

A big thank you to my mama who made this fun break possible during my chaos of running the event. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to bring J and deal with my micromanaging! You are the absolute best Foster G a dog and daughter could ask for.

paws6Since Johnnie came in, made doggy friends and rocked agility, all with no problems, I told my mom they had to leave :-) I was thrilled (and wanted to make sure) to end on such a good note! So in addition to the fact that the humane society raised a ton of money, this event was also a big success for our foster family. Now I have two things to celebrate!

To adopt Johnnie Cash and enjoy fun learning experiences like this one, check out her Adopt Me page.


Johnnie & Other Dogs

Ah, the lovely journey of discovering how your dog feels about other dogs once they get comfortable in their environment. Our two months with Johnnie Cash have been interesting and informative, and I think we’re at a place where we pretty much know her feelings about other dogs and how to handle them.

Johnnie was in a playgroup at the shelter and I took her on a playdate with one of her shelter buds the first day I brought her home, so I knew that even if some reactivity began to show, there’d be hope. Lots of dogs are reactive on leash because of the added stress, but can safely participate in playgroups. It’s all about knowing your own dog. So for the first few weeks of having Johnnie, I kept leash greetings to a minimum. I wanted to figure her out before I had to figure her and other dogs out. In the neighborhood we crossed the street when we saw other dogs and I worked on keeping her focus on me, not them.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

She did very well at this for a long time. Barking dogs in yards were nothing to her, especially if I had some string cheese, and passing other dogs on the street wasn’t too difficult. After about a month though, she started getting a little barky at adoption events. It wasn’t usually at particular dogs – meaning, she wasn’t being reactive in a way that is often interpreted as scary – it was more just in general, seemingly out of frustration or excitement.  Then on walks it seemed like she was focusing on other dogs more. Operation prevent-the-reactive-foster-dog immediately went into action.

I knew I needed to work on Johnnie’s feelings about other dogs before the frustration turned into reactivity or aggression. It was the incident of getting stuck at the cherry blossoms that helped me realize a few things: I have to be very mindful of Johnnie’s threshold, I can’t get too relaxed with training around other dogs and if I don’t manage situations around other dogs well, Johnnie has the capability to cause quite a scene.

The major thing we work on is focus. Every walk we’ve taken since then, I’ve had treats and a clicker. To help Johnnie stay focused, I always make sure we are below her threshold around other dogs. This means we are at a far enough distance where she doesn’t feel the need to bark or try to get to them (usually it’s a playful trying to get to them – but if they react towards her, sometimes it’s a “get back” bark). We also always have high value treats. For Johnnie, string cheese usually does the trick, or sometimes hot dogs. Food is a primary reinforcer for dogs, so it’s very important and helpful to have that be your strongest tool.

Dogs are often reactive for two reason: fear or excitement. It’s important to realize this when working with a reactive dog and know that they’re acting out because they’re uncomfortable. Also, it’s important to try to keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react. Every time a dog reacts, they reinforce themselves. It feels good – and, most of the time, it works because whatever is making them uncomfortable moves away. If it works so well, wouldn’t you keep doing it?

So when staying below threshold, I click and treat Johnnie for just acknowledging the other dog and then looking away. I start with this and then build up to her acknowledging the other dog and then making eye contact with me. This way, it becomes her decision to look at a dog and then immediately look at me because it means treat time! This redirection helps her from getting too intently focused on the other dog – something that often leads to a reaction. It is actually helping her re-wire her emotional response to other dogs, instead of just nixing the symptoms and having her still feel uncomfortable around them. We usually practice it at a park or somewhere that I know there will be other dogs around but that we’ll also be able to stay a safe and comfortable distance from them.

This method is most helpful when we’re on our Pit Crew walks or at adoption events. She does not need it as much when we’re passing dogs on our walks, as long as I make sure our route keeps her below threshold. At events where we’re in closer proximity to other dogs, it is helpful for us if she is continually doing something, whether it’s walking, watching me (our cue is literally “watch me!”), doing touch, etc. – we have found it important to keep her little brain focused on a task so her thoughts do not wander to the other dogs! We also do lots of practice on parallel walks with low key friends that won’t bother Johnnie while she works on her calm and focus skills.

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Johnnie practices not worrying about the fact that Nicky’s in front of her. She gets rewarded any time she “checks in” with me because it means she’s being super relaxed around Nickster.

 

This past weekend we had a few breakthroughs after many weeks of practicing acknowledging other dogs and staying calm. We attended an adoption event in a busy town center. Johnnie was able to be around many other dogs and she did not have one barking melt down! I was sure to constantly keep her focus on me or redirect her with a cue if her eyes started straying, and I was also sure to keep her below her current threshold (which is actually a closer distance than it was four weeks ago – yay!). She made a puppy friend, which is usually easy because puppies are so easy going, but she also met a couple other dogs on a loose leash and was fine with them. Go Johnnie!

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What I will not do is take this awesome performance and use it as an excuse to say, “Yay! Let’s attend all the doggy social gatherings in the area this summer!” In fact, I’m not sure Johnnie will ever be the type of dog to attend or live somewhere with heavy dog traffic. I think it will always be too much for her, unless her adopter works extremely hard with her to continue improving that emotional response. I’m okay with it because it is who she is, and her adopter will appreciate that just like I do. She might not like every other dog she meets, or she might not like being around a lot of other dogs in a close space – but hey, I’m the same way with humans.

I knew that a lot of Johnnie’s barking was probably frustration, so I kept thinking about trying to find her a play date. I know she is an over-zealous player though, so I wasn’t sure who would be a good match for her. Turns out the perfect playmate was an old friend who was just an email away, and we hadn’t even thought about it! Tune in tomorrow to see who Johnnie played with this weekend (who can guess?), and how it went.

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To adopt your very own work-in-progress, check out Johnnie Cash’s Adopt Me page.


Our BFF Management

When I attended a seminar last year about working with your dog’s problematic behaviors, the first thing the CPDT-KA trainer told us was, “From now on, don’t let your dog perform the behavior you want to solve.” Of course everyone in the room looked at each other like “hey lady, if that worked then we wouldn’t be here!” – but she was right; when you are dealing with a problematic behavior, you should do everything in your power to keep your dog out of situations where they can practice the behavior.  This is because of one key point: practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

This concept of management has helped immensely with Johnnie while teaching her to be a well-behaved house dog.  Whenever we are presented with an “issue,” we first see how we can manage it. Sometimes you can simply better manage behaviors and not necessarily change your whole life or spend buckets of money on training to solve the problems. Note: this is obviously for minor stuff, NOT aggression or safety issues, which should be dealt with by a professional trainer (although if you have a reactive dog, definitely keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react for the same reason of preventing practice!).

Some examples of easy-to-manage behaviors: putting lids on your trash cans to keep your dog from stealing nasty stuff, making sure you pick up and put away all your socks and shoes and valuables so your dogs can’t chew them when you’re not watching (seriously? he ate your Ray-Bans? why were they within doggy reach to begin with?), closing your blinds so your dog can’t be reactive out the window, keeping your dog away from the door when strangers come over so he cannot jump on them, etc. These small adjustments can make a world of difference in your dog’s behavior. Furthermore, if you do end up investing in training, a lack of management can totally throw off your progress. Because, like we said above, practiced behaviors get rewarded, and rewarded behaviors get repeated.

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Anyway, back to how this has helped with Johnnie. There have really been very few problematic behaviors with Johnnie that we haven’t been able to modify with management. When she kept getting into our living room – a space we wanted her to stay out of because it wasn’t dog-proof – we bought a higher baby gate that she couldn’t jump over. Problem solved. When she started doing her leash biting, I walked her on two leashes so I could simply drop one if she started tugging. This specific behavior also took some other training steps, but the basic concept was still management to avoid reinforcing the behaviors (turning it into a game of tug) – and she got over the bad habit.  When she wanted to chew things that weren’t appropriate, we gave her plenty of appealing, appropriate outlets and the “bad” chewing pretty much stopped. As we are working with her excitability around other dogs, we avoid situations where she has the opportunity to practice barking, which prevents the behavior from becoming too engrained. Do you see what I’m getting at? These management techniques vary between solving the problem entirely or just being a stepping stone in improving a behavior, but they are all extremely important.

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If your dog has a behavior that’s really bugging you (again, other than aggressive or unsafe behaviors) think of ways that you can prevent the behavior before it arises again. What simple steps can you take to set your dog up for success and avoid situations where they’d practice the unwanted behaviors? Depending on how serious the behavior is, you might want to then consult a professional trainer on what to do next – but you’ll already be off on the right foot.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to close all the bedroom doors before I leave the house to manage Johnnie’s ability to get into things she shouldn’t!

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To adopt Johnnie Cash and see how management will help you two adjust through the transition, check out her Adopt Me page.


The Cherry Blossom Situation

Our first stop on our exciting adventure this weekend was to the DC cherry blossoms! They actually weren’t quite blooming yet because it’s been so cold, but they were budding and it was still gorgeous scenery. Even as DC natives, the cherry blossoms are something we look forward to every year.

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But, for the record, anyone who has a dog that’s working on not being overly-excited around other dogs should probably think twice about heading to the cherry blossom festival. . . even if you think that going at 8 am is early enough to beat the crazy crowds. Because it’s not. And you’ll show up unprepared and you won’t have enough treats and neither of you will be ready when a sudden mass of dogs and humans appear nearly on top of you out of what feels like no where. So then because you show up unprepared and the alarming amount of dogs overwhelms you and the crowds and pathways totally don’t lend themselves to DINOS (dogs in need of space), you and your dog have a near meltdown. This includes but is not limited to your dog acting like a total lunatic, you getting extremely flustered and embarrassed, and total failure in the whole “set you dog up for success” category. Oh and of course you’ll be meeting up with some blogging friends who are seeing your dog for the first time and it will be a *perfect* first impression – especially when your dog gets loose from her leash and your friend needs to catch her as she flings herself towards their dog.

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09 10So, in summary, folks with dogs who are working on their skills around other dogs will have a totally uneventful and calm trip to the cherry blossoms! What, that’s not what it sounded like I described? Okay, you’re right. It will probably be an exhausting and tough trip. But on your way out you’ll realize how well your dog actually did do, given the circumstances. Slowly you’ll start to put together every moment where she was actually great and you’ll begin to forget the general picture of “bat-sh*t craziness” that it feels like you left with. Then you’ll head out to a secluded spot where you can take pretty pictures in as much personal space as your little heart desires!

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And you’ll breathe a big sigh of relief and say, “Good job team”. . . then run to the car before anything else can go wrong right :-)

To adopt Johnnie Cash and her nose that matches the cherry blossoms, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.