31 Aug The Reactive Dog Dance – Helping a Reactive Puggle one step at a time.
True to his name, Tyson grew up aggressive. He also grew up large for his breed. I was told he was a jack-a-pug but when he reached 30 lbs I started calling him a puggle. When he got to 40 lbs I started calling him a huge puggle. While his size was a surprise, so was his personality. In the outside world Tyson was trouble. Skateboarders, teenagers, kids, there wasn’t much that didn’t set him off. His biggest nemesis was puppies, particularly males between 5-8 months. We had enough incidents to send me straight to google to research, “Why does my dog hate puppies with balls?”.
It was low times for me. Having just graduated from a correction-style training program, Tyson and I were truly a mismatched pair. While I was supposed to be working with other people’s problem dogs, my own dog’s behaviour was spiralling out of control. I knew nothing about positive training. The only thing I did know was that I was not going to use correction on my dog. After watching dogs in my program go from bad to worse, I at least had the good sense to abandon the useless techniques I had learned. And so, with a huge puggle in tow, I set out to learn a thing or two about how to resolve aggression without force.
When I think back to the work we’ve done in the last 8 years I can relate it to learning a series of steps in a dance I call the Reactive Dog Dance. One step forward and two steps back, Tyson followed while I stumbled along trying to teach us both the routine.
Our first steps we learned from Click To Calm, by Emma Parsons. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as Tyson started to give me eye contact, signs of success. I instantly loved clicker training and Tyson was so responsive. These were baby steps but we were finally getting somewhere.
When we got a hold of Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, we learned our u-turns and our loose leash walking. We started gliding past triggers one by one.
Over the last 8 years we learned so many steps to this dance it’s hard to remember them all. Tyson’s behaviour improved tremendously and somewhere along the way, I became a skilled handler and a better partner, accepting my dog for both his strengths and limitations. I learned how to bring out the best in him and protect him at all costs. My four-legged partner also grew in leaps and bounds. Tyson learned to have tolerance for dogs, to love to retrieve even in the presence of his triggers, he excelled at training. It became easier to both exercise and manage him. Time passed and the incidents grew fewer and fewer until eventually there were none at all.
These days Tyson and I have a well-rehearsed routine. You’d never know that I spent the first years of his life tripping all over him. Yet despite our success I still see the pitfalls and in the back of my mind there’s still steps missing in our dance. Even with our best attempt at classical conditioning, Tyson never learned to like dogs. An approaching large dog will still make him lose his breath and although he will turn and look at me as we rehearsed, I can still see the panic in his eyes. Classical conditioning is the most mysterious part of the dance, having the power to modify Tyson’s emotions, I couldn’t help but wonder why we failed at it. While the actual details of the steps seem like a blur now, I do remember sweating through them. They were challenging to practice, requiring serious commitment and dedication. I walked away knowing that I had tried my best. We had most of our dance completed, did it really matter if we plateaued?
Having learned to not dwell on our failures, Tyson and I coasted along and I continued to look for some new steps to teach my dog. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Grisha Stewart speak about Behaviour Adjustment Therapy (BAT). I couldn’t sit still as Grisha spoke about how BAT had worked where CC fell short. This was the first time I had heard a trainer admit to the limitations of CC. Grisha explained that unlike CC, BAT allows the dog to really get close to that ‘thing’ that they are so afraid of; to sniff and examine it, not only understanding how it works, but how to work with it, without the treats to distract them. I had suspected that Tyson’s relationship with treats had impeded his learning, he was so food motivated even the smallest treat sent his dance into autopilot.
After the seminar I raced home, grabbed the puggle and found an opportunity to practice BAT with the fattest, laziest, cat in the the neighbourhood. I’m not expert yet, but BAT is easy, the steps come naturally, and these days I scan for opportunities to incorporate it in all our walks.
Today we had another session at the skate park. As we zone in on some skateboarders, I scan my dog. He is observing, his little nose is twitching as he takes it all in, and like we’ve rehearsed so many times before, he turns away and looks at me. I notice that this time his response is different; there’s no panic in his eyes, he’s calm. We turn and shuffle off preparing for our next session. I can’t help but think about how blessed I am to have this dog as both my teacher and my dance partner. We’ve just learned another part of the reactive dog dance and I’m pretty sure it’s the step that we’ve been missing all along. Thanks to BAT, I’ve finally found a way to teach my dog to look at a trigger and breathe.