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.


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.


Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

I’ve often heard that when you’re working on or with something that it’s good to keep a journal. Keeping a written record of your journey helps to show yourself how much progress you’ve made.  Especially when working with animals, it is essential to have the ability to look back after a training session that didn’t go so well and see all the victories you’ve made thus far. That way you aren’t too hard on yourself or your animal when things don’t go perfectly one time.

I am extremely lucky to have this blog to track my journey. With the click of a mouse I can access any date in the last 14+ months and see what I was up to on that exact day. Pretty cool, huh? What’s better is when I look back and see just how much I’ve learned.  It’s astonishing at times – I can’t believe where I was and where I went and where I am now.  And, just like I mentioned above, I sometimes find myself needing a little pick-me-up to remember just how far I’ve come (or, on same days, even just that I’ve come anywhere!).

Yesterday started my first week coaching a reactive dog class with Your Dog’s Friend.  As I listened to the instructor give a review to the students last week, I kept nodding in agreement to what she was teaching and thinking in my head, “Yes! Totally! Yes that’s the perfect thing to do!” for all these dog owners who have never learned a successful way to deal with their reactive dogs.  It really got me thinking: holy cow, I have learned so much in just the past few months. Since when did all of this become just engrained in my brain as common sense knowledge?

Just a few months ago I had a pretty rough run in with a reactive dog. Many of you might remember the post That Time I Failed (in fact, lots of you might remember it considering it’s gotten the most views of any of my entries – oy!) about a dog I was supposed to temporarily foster and had to bail on because he was reactive towards my dad and others. I talked about the reality that I didn’t know much about managing a reactive dog. Fast forward five months, and here I am helping to teach a class about it. So what changed?

What changed is that I learned about the way dogs think and why they act the way they do. I learned that reactivity is usually based in fear or frustration. I learned that most of the time when a dog is reacting, you cannot teach it anything because everything in that moment its brain has shut off except for what it’s focused on, and that you must remove the dog from the situation immediately. I learned that it makes total sense for a dog to be reactive towards something it doesn’t like, because when it barks and lunges the bad thing moves away. I learned that practiced behaviors get repeated. I learned SO MUCH and it all just seemed to click (no pun intended, hehe).

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Because of all this, I feel the need to point out to myself (and whoever else cares to listen) what I did wrong with Mylo on the night that he lost it in front of my dad. So much of the way our dogs react is caused by the environment and circumstances around them, including their handler (and then of course their previous emotional opinions about things).  I’m glad I can now look back and see how badly I did not set Mylo up for success, and hopefully address these mess ups with any dogs I have in the future.

1.  I forgot to remember that change is scary for dogs.  I should have remembered how much transitions with a new dog can suck. Imagine being moved to a new place with new people you didn’t know – would you act like yourself?  We took Mylo away from his fosters, to Mark’s apartment and then to my home. Sounds like a plenty stressful situation to me, and certainly a good reason to act a bit unlike himself.

2.  I had him in a choke collar. I cringe even typing that. I had gotten instructions from his fosters to put him in a choke collar and, because I hadn’t learned much in the way of how to teach dogs to walk nicely using positive methods at this point, I went with it. Mylo had ZERO interest in letting this thing slow him down, so he was nearly choking himself the entire time. Discomfort adds to stress and can heighten a dog’s reactivity levels because they are redirecting their feelings about the pain.  If I had him today, I would have immediately put Mylo in a sense-ible harness to remove that element of stress.

3.  I introduced him to my dad in the dark and without any preparation. I will always and forever be more careful about introducing my pops to dogs because I have finally realized that when they don’t like him it’s not them, it’s him. He’s tall, he’s got a big beard, and he wears dark clothes. Recipe for disaster for a dog who is weary of large humans!  My poor dad – I didn’t give him any heads up about how to approach Mylo, so he went right up saying, “Hi doggy, hi doggy!” like he always does. Mylo didn’t like that.

Today, I would keep Mylo far enough away that my dad didn’t bother him (known as ‘below his threshold’), and then have my dad throw treats to him to show Mylo that father = yummy things (without putting the pressure on Mylo to approach my dad to take a treat from his hand!).  I would have told my dad to avoid eye contact or hovering over Mylo, and if he got to the point where Mylo wanted to say hi, to crouch down to his level without directly facing his body at Mylo – a much more inviting greeting for a dog!

4. I didn’t bring treats anywhere with me. Treats don’t solve everything, but they sure can get you out of a pinch when you need it.  A dog that’s focused on a high value treat isn’t as quick to focus on something else it might react to.  If I had treats from the get go, Mylo might have been more inclined to pay attention to me instead of his surroundings.

So I know that dwelling on the past isn’t always the best idea, but I think reflecting on it and reminding yourself of lessons learned can sometimes be very beneficial.  I would encourage you to start keeping a written log if you are on any sort of journeys of your own. I know there are plenty of times – even for non-animal related things like training for races – where I wished I could have written evidence of my accomplishments. Everyone deserves to give themselves a pat on the back every once in a while (or maybe get a high-five from your dog), and reflection can help to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to do so.

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