Wow – time really does fly. So much has happened since the last time I found a moment to sit down and write a blog post. Where do I begin?
The little rascal has been a pretty easy puppy to take care of. He’s been spending lots of time with me when Tom is at work, and I couldn’t help comparing him to Phoebe. In most regards, Hadley has been less of a challenge than Phoebe when she was his age. Phoebe was an extremely high-energy puppy, and she was very mouthy. Hadley has mostly been relaxed and friendly.
There is, however, one thing that concerns me: Hadley is a rather wary puppy, particularly when it comes to strange dogs. From day 1 onwards, he has been alarmed by strange dogs, even the ones that were 1.5 blocks away. I am worried about this because Hadley spent his puppyhood among all kinds of different dogs – his breeder has more than 10 Border Collies, Norwegian Lundehunds, and a Beauceron. To my knowledge, Hadley has only had good experiences with her dogs. In theory, these positive early socialization experiences should have turned him into a dog who approaches new dogs with curiosity and confidence. However, this is not the kind of puppy he turned out to be: initially, he would avoid other dogs whenever possible, froze/stared and eventually barked when avoidance was not possible, and tried to hide/flee if they came too close. He also took a comparatively long time (read: several meetings over the course of several days) to warm up to new dogs. However, once he considered a dog a friend, he’d play with her like any other happy puppy.
After consulting with friends and colleagues and debating how best to handle a dog-sensitive Border puppy, I came up with the following plan, which I’ve been working on since Hadley has moved in:
Part A – socialization
introduce Hadley to my friends’ friendly adult dogs in various short sessions. Always put up a portable crate and/or familiar blanket for him to retreat to, and make sure the other dogs respect his safety zone. Let him watch and decide for himself whether and when he is ready to initiate interaction. Never force contact. Never overwhelm or flood him.
My idea was that I would provide Hadley with a number of distinctly positive experiences that lead to dog-dog friendships, rather than create lots of neutral dog-dog experiences. I hoped that the more dogs he got to know and make friends with, the easier it would be for him to be around new dogs in the future, and that eventually, he would start considering strange dogs to be interesting rather than scary.
Part B – management and alternative behavior
I would also work on Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That game (LAT). That is to say, I would teach Hadley to earn clicks and treats by means of looking at strange dogs from a distance: I wanted him to start seeing strange dogs as cookie-vending machines rather than potential threats. “Dad, mum, there’s a dog, did you see it? Look, it’s over there! Where’s my cookie?”
LAT makes use of both classical and operant conditioning. One the one hand, a potentially scary stimulus is repeatedly paired with a strong reinforcer (tasty treats), which changes the emotional response to the stimulus. On the other hand, the dog is being empowered as he learns that he can use dogs he spots on the street to make a treat happen. All he has to do is point them out to his humans with a movement of his head.
If strange dogs were too close, I would retreat by means of putting a barrier between ourselves and the trigger, changing sides or doing a U turn.
Part A has been going well. Apart from my own two dogs, I’ve strategically introduced Hadley to 12 dogs by now; some male, some female, some neutered, some intact, some small, some large:
1 Border Collie
4 Miniature Pinschers
1 Irish Setter
1 Golden Retriever
1 American Staffordshire Terrier X
1 Akita mix
1 Sheltie X GSD
1 small Terrier X
He has met all of them several times in safe, short sessions, and made friends with all of them. The first few outings, he would just sit in his safe space and observe from a distance until we went home again. I did not try to convince him to come out, but focused on making sure he felt safe. Apart from that, I did not distract him with food, but let him choose what to do – stay in his safe spot and observe, walk away and do his own thing, or initiate contact with the new dogs. Helene, a friend who shares her life with 7 wonderful dogs, has been a huge help with this. (Thank you, Helene, Xandro, Wasti, Arkani, Schoko, Hexi and Guinness!)
Helene lives just around the corner. So we would meet up at a meadow close by. I would get there first and set up Hadley’s safety zone: a pop-up crate and a blanket in front of it. He could choose to hide in the crate, sit on the familiar blanket, or come all the way out on the meadow. I took one of my own dogs with me so Hadley could see that they were not afraid of the new dog we introduced him to. If he wanted, Hadley could take the crate’s side exit and go explore the forest and shrubbery rather than engaging with the other dogs, who did their own thing out in the field.
The first two times, Helene brought Border Collie Xandro and Miniature Pinscher Wasti, and I brought Fanta and Hadley. Helene and I spent twenty minutes sitting on the blanket and chatting. Hadley stayed in the crate or on the blanket with us, but did not approach either of her dogs. This was okay. It was his choice. After twenty minutes, we left and Hadley went back to sleep at home to sleep off his adventures and maybe do some latent learning.
The third time, Hadley approached Wasti with a cautious wag … and started following him around at a distance. Whenever Wasti turned around, Hadley would hurry back to his safety zone, but soon after, his curiosity took over and he followed Wasti again. He did, however, still keep his distance from Xandro.
The fourth time, Hadley was happy to see Wasti and followed him around more, even if it meant moving further away from his safety zone. His overall confidence had clearly grown, and he even sniffed Xandro’s tail a few times – of course, when Xandro turned to face him, he would retreat like he used to do with Wasti. But from behind, the Border Collie had stopped looking all that scary.
We did numerous sessions like that. Once Hadley had grown comfortable with one dog, we’d introduce another one. The last time Helene and I met, we didn’t need a blanket or crate anymore, and were able to take all 9 dogs for a walk together. Hadley had fun from beginning to end. He mostly played with Phoebe, but did not mind running ahead with her, getting close to Helene’s dogs, and quickly bounced back the two times he didn’t respect Schoko’s personal space and got a reprimand by his new auntie. I’d call this a BIG success – thank you very much for your help, Helene, and a big thank you to your patient, friendly dogs who have already been a big help in raising Hadley!
Another dog who has been immensely helpful is Olivia, the dog who’s mum runs our local pharmacy. Olivia is a friendly and very patient Dalmatian. We’ve been visiting her several times in the course of the last weeks. At first, we kept Olivia in a back room behind a baby gate, while Hadley could look at her from the far end of the adjoining room. He could choose to walk closer or leave, to just observe Olivia who slowly wagged her tail and looked sideways, or to engage with the pharmacy personnel who were happy to greet him and let him lick their faces. (Meeting people is something that has always made Hadley happy.) The second time we went, Hadley chose to approach the gate and cautiously greet Olivia and lick her lips. The third time, he was able to meet her without a gate, and was happy to dance around her and explore her space. Olivia, the patient girl, gave him all the freedom in the world and happily took my thank-you treats.
Phoebe’s best girlfriend, the Golden Nayeli, has had a very easy time when it came to making friends with Hadley. She and her mum visited us at home and spent an afternoon with us. In his own home, where he feels most confident, and able to watch Phoebe and Nayeli play, Hadley quickly decided that he wanted to join in the fun – and that’s what he did. Thank you, Tini, for helping Hadley make a new friend! Nayeli has already been a great aunt for Phoebe when she was little, and now she’s doing the same thing for Hadley. It takes a village, doesn’t it?
Various other helpers later, Hadley has made great progress! By now, he will cautiously approach new dogs with a wag after only 1 or 2 minutes of observing from a save distance.
However, his initial response is still fear, and unless I carefully set up these situations and manage the initial distance, he will default to freeze/stare or hide/flee.
It was interesting to visit his breeder two weeks ago. His mom, dad and brother were there. Tom let Hadley out of the car. Hadley saw his father and immediately hid under the car. His father lowered his head to look at Hadley, and there was a lightbulb moment of recognition – as soon as he recognized the Border Collie in front of him, Hadley was ready to approach and happily greet his dad. Or at least, that’s what it looked like to me. It’s not that Hadley is afraid of his father – but until he recognized him, he wanted to hide.
What does this mean? Does he have a genetic predisposition to being on the fearful side? His breeder remarked a while ago, when I commented on Hadley being cautious, that he had always been “the most sensitive of the litter”. Is sensitive a euphemism for something else? I don’t know. And in the end, it does not matter. No matter where a certain behavior stems from, the laws of behavior always apply. And these laws are the foundation of all training. Also, no matter who Hadley was yesterday, is today, or will be tomorrow, the one thing that will always be true is that he’s the world’s most wonderful puppy, and the most perfect dog Tom could have adopted 🙂
But back to Hadley’s dog issues:
Part B has also been going well. I’m always armed with clicker and treats anyway, so I’ve been playing LAT with all the random dogs we met on walks. I like how having an objective (teach Hadley that the LAT game is fun!) changes my attitude towards dog encounters: it makes me happy whenever I see a dog in the distance rather than annoyed that I have to change sides or do a U turn. This always happens when I play LAT with a new dog – Pirate and I also had a lot of fun whenever we went out trigger hunting and LAT adventuring. It became one of our favorite bonding games.
As for Hadley, he is becoming an LAT expert. I’ve started naming the behavior, and the distance we can play at has shrunk. We can now play with (calm) dogs on the other side of the street rather than 1.5 blocks away, and after only a few Look-s, Hadley will now switch to offering a different behavior (usually prolonged eye contact or sit). Definitely a success worth celebrating!
Tom and Hadley also participated in my recall workshop the other day. Hadley had to keep a bit of a distance at first, but soon was able to comfortably work near the other dogs, and was happy to play with them after class. He’s a very brave little puppy!
The nice thing about writing these things down is that it makes me see the progress. When I don’t keep notes, it’s easy to miss out on the tiny little steps of progress I’ve been making every day or every session. It’s like watching a kid (or a puppy) grow up: you see them every day, and you don’t notice how they get bigger – unless every once in a while, you ask them to stand with their back to a door frame and draw a line where their head is. Taking training notes is like drawing lines on a door frame. It helps me see change.
I’ve made another observation that makes it clearer what often happens to clients who have reactive dogs: when I’m out with Hadley in our neighborhood, we hardly ever have an incident. I’m always ready to change sides, make a U-turn, play LAT … Tom and Hadley, on the other hand, still have those encounters where Hadley starts barking or freezes for a moment or two. That means Hadley still practices reactivity.
I’ve been thinking about why this happens to Hadley and Tom rather than Hadley and me, and come up with the following list of reasons. I think being aware of these might help me better coach clients with reactive dogs:
– Until we’ve trained our eyes and brain to selectively focus on dogs in our environment, we tend to see them too late (aka after our dog has already seen them).
– Until we’ve fine-tuned our observation skills to read the fine print in a dog’s body language, we tend to notice fear only when it is obvious – i.e. when our dog is about to react or has already started reacting.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that a puppy’s dog reactivity is a reason to worry in the first place. We tend to assume it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of, or that it will go away with random exposure to dogs, or that a dog is still capable of learning when in fight-or-flight mode.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that aversives are not a constructive solution for reactivity.
– We tend to forget that dogs learn all the time, not only in the training sessions we specify: we’re likely to forget clicker and treats when we take our dogs out to potty rather than setting up for a training session.
– Putting our dog’s safety and comfort level first, even if it means ignoring/stopping/avoiding/standing up to friendly strangers (and their dogs) is an attitude we have to consciously adopt, and to practice.
I wonder how I can make these pieces of the puzzle more accessible to my clients to get them to this point sooner rather than later. I want to minimize their frustration and maximize the quality of their and their dog’s walk. The more “mistakes” happen, the longer it will take for a reactive dog to get over his fears. The longer it takes for our reactive dog, the longer we will have to actively work on his issues, and the longer it will be until being out and about with our canine companion will be the walk in the park will be the uncomplicated, fun activity we’ve been looking forward to.
Of course, this is not to say that Hadley and I don’t run into problems on our walks, too. Walking a reactive dog is hard. It requires both background knowledge, concentration, the desire to be our dog’s advocates, and a number of skills we need to practice: observation skills, timing of the click, and speed (as little time as possible should pass between click and reward). We need to prepare before we go out (clicker, treats, mindset), and keep in mind that like children, our dogs learn every minute – not just when we want to train. Walking a reactive dog is not a walk in the park, it requires your full attention. At least for me, it still requires my full attention. When I don’t pay attention, I often run in a situation I become aware of too late. While walking around my neighborhood has been categorized by playing LAT and hardly any reactive incidents for me, going new places is harder because I don’t know when and where to expect the next strange dog. The other day, Hadley and I were hanging out at a park. He was on leash, and since it was a sunny Sunday and a number of people were out walking their dogs, I ceased the opportunity to play LAT from a safe distance near my car, always ready to retreat behind it, should it be necessary to get another barrier between us and a strange dog. After a while, a woman with her French Bulldog on a flexi lead passed us. Hadley was off the road at a little distance, and on a short leash. It should have been pretty obvious that I was interacting with/training my dog rather than seeking social encounters. The Bulldog came closer, and the woman let it run on the flexi … I politely asked her to stop her dog from coming closer, since my dog was afraid. But what did she do? Let the Bulldog keep running towards us rather than stopping her flexi, telling me, “Well, he has to get used to other dogs at some point, doesn’t he?”
Hadley barked before I had a chance to retreat behind the car. Encounters like this really annoy me. It’s NOT up to you, stranger, to decide when, how and what dogs my dogs are meeting up close. And it is never okay to let your dog run up to a dog on leash without asking. Dogs are on leash for a reason: maybe my dog is scared, or maybe he’s on a leash in order to keep your dog safe from his teeth, or maybe he has flees that I don’t want him to pass on to yours! ALWAYS ask before letting your dog great a strange dog on leash.
Anyways – time to post this update, which is, in fact, already a few weeks old – I just haven’t found the time to finish it yet.