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