It took me time to write this part because, in all honesty, it’s been a while and our situation changed so much that my brain somehow blocked a big chunk of the negative memories and our initial attempts to deal with reactivity.
Nevertheless, I will try to go backwards, to the point where I began gathering my initial ideas and putting them together.
At first I felt helpless… I knew something wasn’t right anymore and felt lost and a failure. But Fred was my boy, he loved me and trusted me, so it was my job and responsibility to help him. Since my knowledge of Fred’s reaction was minimal, I did what I’ve always done in the past – I turned to Patricia McConnell and got two books of hers, Fiesty Fido and The Cautious Canine. Both were small, leaflet-like, perfect to be devoured over a couple of nights.
They taught me what reactivity was, gave me foundation and some very helpful tips. They also made me realise that Patricia’s advice, as good as it was, didn’t suit our particular situation.
So I had to look further and learn more… And it hit me then. Why not just learn canine psychology and read the volumes normally reserved for people who study animal behaviour? Said and done, I enrolled in and gradually completed two courses, in Dog cognition and behaviour and Animal behaviour, and invested in a few fat and heavy books that explained everything in detail, starting from the brain development and behavioural changes, to breed-specific behavioural traits and protocols that addressed every issue.
Basically, the way I approached and saw this was similar to when I studied nutritional therapy. As a therapist I addressed every particular person as a unique combination of several factors, and so I then worked with these factors to create a very personalised action plan. For example, if somebody wanted to lose weight, they could have read a diet book or two because those books worked for some people. Yet reading those popular books would never meant to work for everyone because they are simply generic texts – nothing more. So a lot of people ended up at my practice because my advice would work for them specifically (and it did).
Dog training is exactly the same.
I realise that this might have been a bit extreme, but I knew I could do it, so I read, processed, learned and put everything into practice. Even more so, I knew my boy better than anyone else because we are together 24/7, so his actions and behavioural nuances would not be misunderstood.
Training-wise, I was looking to counter-condition and desensitise Fred using positive reinforcement, aiming to create relaxed and positive experiences that would eventually push the negative memory far, far away and make scary and unfamiliar things – seem ordinary.
… asking Fred to sit in a stay position if we saw a dog approaching. Some suggest that it could work, but in our situation it made Fred anxious and over-reactive.
… telling Fred “it’s alright” and petting him whenever there was a scary dog because it’d create mix messages for him – and certain touches could even make him more reactive.
… making Fred look at me and get a treat when a dog approached, as suggested in some popular literature. Doing this only lead to a situation when Fred would never look at other dogs and never learn that dogs weren’t actually that frightening to look at.
… ever using high pitched and excited voice because it can put most dogs into alert mode.
… getting into situations when the lead would need to be kept short or tight.
… creating expectations and judging our life by the number of successes and failures because it created a lot of frustration and helplessness whenever things didn’t go as planned.
I NEVER USED…
… punishment in any form, physical or via recommended devices such as shock or citronella collars etc.
… the flooding method that means full exposure of the dog to his fear (by taking him to places full of dogs such as a dog park or unfamiliar and often crowded locations such as markets or public squares) with an idea that he will eventually give in and stop being afraid (this technique is still used, so I thought I’d mention it).
… getting into situations where the fear was obvious yet allowed no escape or created frustration (something as ordinary as being stuck in a very narrow street where you’d have to pull your dog close to you and keep the lead tight and short, especially to avoid an approaching dog, can become extremely stressful for a reactive pup).
We changed where we walk and when we walk to avoid over stimulation and bumping into other dogs, especially those who were likely to lunge and bark. Everything had to be under my control and thought through in advance. This helped to lower stress levels and cortisol response (in both of us…).
Our initial walks were also shorter as they seem to create calmness rather than over arousal that could have been brought by both the physical stimulation and Fred’s strong prey drive and amazing ability to sniff out absolutely everything.
During each walk we moved in a rhythmic motions, either walking or jogging (swimming can also be great if you can do it) because such an exercise is believed to address specific brain receptors that process both fear and sense of happiness and can eventually rebalance the former with the latter.
Whenever possible, we’d stop to sniff and explore the surroundings, so Fred could fulfil his natural needs.
We also varied locations as much as we could, so Fred would learn that positive experiences can happen anywhere.
Eventually we also played games whenever the scary dogs were nearby. Play releases endorphins and stops the dog being preoccupied with fear because they want to focus on fun.
Ironically, the most obvious positive changes were achieved when we actually had to stop going for walks. We got house-bound for the first three weeks of COVID pandemic and I had to focus the boys’ attention on house-based exercise, training and play. Within days Fred became much calmer as the outside stimuli were completely removed from his life. He became more chilled than he’d ever been. Once we resumed the walks, he was able to relax and enjoy them.
Whenever we were out, I always had plenty of treats with me. Whenever we saw a dog, I’d wait for Fred to look at him, then quietly praise him and as he looked back at me (after calmly observing the “scary thing” for even a second) I’d give him a treat. At first we practised when the dogs were pretty far away. I’d then say “Let’s go” to calmly walk back and away from the approaching dog, keeping the lead loose at all times.
The takeaway point to remember here is that fear and appetite are mutually exclusive, so a dog cannot feel fearful whilst eating, a natural psychological reaction that eventually leads to a new positive experience.
But the dog must face the fear (at a safe distance) first, recognise it completely, and only then get the treat. Failing to follow this and simply giving him food to drive his attention away from the fear (as I already mentioned in the beginning of this post because some books and trainers still advise it) can, in fact, make the situation worse, not changing the dog’s brain response to the fear stimuli and consequently never altering psychological reaction to it.
It took a while, but eventually we could walk by all dogs barking behind fences without any acknowledgement from Fred’s part whatsoever; walk towards dogs reducing Fred’s perception of “danger” to a minimum until we could walk in a parallel fashion alongside or towards most dogs (I still avoid dogs known to be highly reactive)
BUILDING CONFIDENCE THROUGH PLAY & GAMES
Fred has always been a very curious and confident pup, but the event changed his views on things and made him cautious. To improve it, I included various and very brief training sessions to practise everything he knew and learn a few new tricks and skills.
Each session was a little different to avoid repetitiveness and prevent boredom, lasted a few minutes and as long as Fred was happy. We stopped at any signs of hyperactivity to avoid any stress build-up.
The basics we practised included sit, down, recall, loose lead walking (in various locations), sit-stay for 1 minute and down-stay for 1 minutes (building up slowly and as long as Fred was relaxed), settle and training together. Karen Overall’s “Deference” training was also very useful (her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs & Cats, is a fantastic source of information – and if you can get a copy, do. It addresses every question and psychological condition and is one of my Bibles). The latter basically means that dog needs to sit down and wait calmly whenever he wants your attention – or anything. This ability essentially helps them to remain calm because they’d expect you, as their guide, to provide them with information or specific response (a bit like a pack leader would do – however I never mean, use or advise on applying the dominance meaning to it).
Additionally, I used relaxation protocol by Victoria Voith, which is similar to another one used by many trainers. However I decided to stick with Victoria because a) it was the original version b) it was designed with an idea that dogs were not restrained to stay – instead it was their choice to remain in a sit or down position for a set period of time. This freedom of choice can lead to positive changes in psychological response – unlike the situation when dogs are made to stay, which can negatively affect dogs if they suffer from reactivity, anxiety, fear or aggressive behaviour.
I did try to teach both boys Overall’s Breathing technique, but we are still working on it, though it’s rather sweet to watch my pups learning inhaling and exhaling on request.
I also got more food toys in addition to the familiar ones we already had, plus scattered treats around objects Fred wasn’t sure about, but was happy enough to explore eventually (and because there was food involved)
We played a lot of “find food” games around the house and garden, first I’d scatter the kibble on the grass or floor, then I’d start hiding pieces in boxes and toys, then I’d fill the boxes with paper or use unfamiliar textures for Fred to explore.
I even created an “obstacle course” in the garden using all sorts of random objects and teaching Fred to jump and walk over or around them, or using them as yet another sensory and sniffing tool.
It is important to mention that all our games and training sessions were done to set Fred up for success because many dogs who go through traumatic experiences end up feeling anxious and fearful of anything new simply because they expect to fail in any situation that seem threatening or new.
As a result, Fred’s famous curiosity and insatiable desire to explore returned with gusto. He began taking his time to sniff in a calm and explorative manner, and even approached a few calm dogs to say “Hi”.
I think this is a good place to stop for now… I still got a couple of areas to cover, but will save them for my next post.