In the last instalment, I told you about the changes we made following the seminar by Winkie Spiers. Those were absolutely great, but we also wanted to do some of the practical things Winkie had recommended, mainly social walking. So I started looking for somebody who might offer that, and I found Marina Gates Fleming of Happy and Relaxed Dogs. Now that sounded like something we wanted to achieve! She did not actually offer social walks, but proposed something else that turned out to be an important part of our journey: Parallel walking.
So one day in March 2015, when Dana was 10 months old, we drove to a large empty parking lot to meet Marina and the other participants of her class. The concept is simple enough: the dog and his human walk parallel to something the dog finds threatening or worrying, at a large enough distance so they wouldn’t need to worry, and to gradually reduce the distance as they become more comfortable. This was to be done on a lead of at least 3 m long (so the dog has enough space to express their body language and to explore the environment), and with the dog wearing a harness (so their neck won’t get hurt if they pull). We’d always used a harness, and a 3 m lead was procured easily on the internet. But while it seemed simple enough, it turned out not to be simple at all.
Reactive to dogs? Yes, among other things …
I had contacted Marina primarily to work on Dana’s reactivity to other dogs. I viewed that as her number one problem, as dogs elicited the strongest reaction from Dana. Imagine my disappointment upon learning that we would be working with … people! And imagine my surprise upon realising: Marina was entirely right to suggest this, since Dana was extremely worried about those people, even at a fairly great distance. Up until that point, I hadn’t even realised that this was the case, and from that point on, I could not believe that I had been so blind, because it was really blatantly obvious. So after Dana had stopped running around me in crazy circles (it felt as if I was lunging a horse!), we set off, parallel to a group of people.
Multi-tasking at its best
So why did I not find this not simple? Because I was required to simultaneously
1) Manage a 3 m long lead so it wouldn’t drag on the ground – we wouldn’t want the lead to get entangled in Dana’s legs
2) Give Dana a hand signal – just hold up my hand to show her that I, too, had seen the thing she was worried about, and that we would be fine. This clashed with 1) at times, since lead management frequently requires the use of both hands.
3) NOT look at her – I already knew that dogs perceived staring as threatening, but it had never occurred to me that looking at her all the time might be perceived as either a threat or an attempt at communication, while I actually didn’t want anything from her at the time. So hard to break that habit!
4) Observe her body language – having familiarised myself with calming signals, I was to watch out for them, and for the movements of my dog. How on earth would I not look straight at her, and still observe what she does?
5) Whenever she pulled on the lead, stop immediately, and when she stopped pulling, to continue walking immediately. Easy concept, difficult to put into practice.
6) Stop Dana from circling around me by blocking her with my body language if she tried to get behind me.
7) Walk slowly.
8) Indicate with my body language where I wished her to go by fully turning in that direction. And yes, that does necessitate losing sight of her on occasion.
All – at -the – same -time!
While all these things made perfect sense to me, it was immensely frustrating at first and seemed nearly impossible. But I was so determined about the philosophy behind it that I held on. It took me a long time (weeks? months? probably months!), but I learned not to let the lead drag, to watch my dog but not stare at her, to walk more slowly, to stop and start walking as needed, and Dana stopped circling me pretty soon. And of course the hand signal – after a very short time, she learned that it meant “Don’t worry” in this context, and she did indeed seem to worry a little less whenever she saw it.
Curves are just great!
Having walked in parallel with the group of people a few times, with Dana becoming less and less worried, we eventually switched to crossing, meaning we faced them as they walked towards us, but still at a distance. We learned to actively employ one of the calming signals: curving! We walked in enormous curves at first, avoiding the group. And Dana calmed down about this as well, at first a little bit, and at later appointments a little more. This is a technique that we used and still use in daily life when facing people (be it pedestrians, hikers, joggers, cyclists, horse riders …) – we curve!
Each session ended with an enriched environment, which means that all kinds of more or less common objects were scattered on an open surface and bits of liver paté were smeared on them. The dogs would sniff around for the paté (using the olfactory sense is calming!), lick it up (yippieh, a success and tasty treat!) and discover the objects at the same time (what’s this? is it scary? maybe? no, we can deal with it – success!). It was lovely to see how much the activity calmed her down. While we didn’t do any EE’s outside of class, I started making it a point to give Dana the time to be curious in all situations, to investigate at her own pace. We also incorporated paté searches into our daily lives. You wouldn’t believe the amount of liver paté I have smeared onto random bits of vegetation in my garden and in the forest in the past 1,5 years!
And now … rest
During Marina’s classes, I learned that it may take several days to recuperate from a very stressful event. When I first heard it, I didn’t really believe it, but I started paying attention and noticed for myself: If Dana had gone through a taxing event the previous day (or even the day before that), she would react much more strongly to seemingly (to me!) meaningless events than if the previous days had been quiet ones. So after a session of parallel walking or a long walk (haha, long – for Dana, 30 mins was a REALLY long walk at the time), she would need rest. And she finally got the rest she needed, my sleepy angel.
Progress March – April 2015
So, what did all of these changes bring us? I started keeping a dog diary, writing down what had changed. I’m so glad now that I did this. It helps put things into perspective, for example when I got frustrated about lack of progress. It would remind me of how bad it once was and how far we’d come. In the beginning, I also wrote down what goals I had for her and for us, but I stopped that after a couple of months. It didn’t mean anything, and it was more likely to distract me from watching her and going at her pace than anything else. We have no goals now, we just do what works for us and see how it goes.
Before the changes we made, Dana would constantly harass Corey to “play” with her. Sometimes he would, but often he didn’t feel up to it and was very annoyed about how she pounced on him. It was a learned behaviour of hers to channel stress, so she did it more often and more forcefully the more stressful the current situation was. If Corey did engage with her, the interaction (can’t even really call it play!) was rough and unpleasant. She would grab him by the scruff of his neck and twist, and he would lunge at her in an attempt to keep her away. It had become so bad that I had to let them out into the garden separately, as the garden was stressful to her (strange noises everywhere, and sometimes dogs in sight!) and she was not able to leave Corey alone in that situation. She couldn’t help doing that, and she was never punished for it. I intervened by putting myself between them and giving her a hand signal. By mid-April, this behaviour had already lessened so much. Her harassment had turned into invitations, playbows, ear nuzzling, and she would stop if he didn’t engage.
In the garden, she would start a low, booming bark whenever she saw a dog, and constantly run in circles even when there was “nothing”. The stimuli outside were just too much for her to cope with. By mid-April, she was able to sniff in the garden (treat and paté searches, but also just investigate), and I was able to take her and Corey outside again together, at least for a short time. I had also learned to spot dogs long before she did, and guide the two of them inside calmly before they noticed them.
Before the changes, she used to get so excited whenever my husband entered the room that she got up and jumped up at him every time. When he came home from work in the evening, she was jumping up, barking repeatedly and in a high pitch, sometimes nipping at his clothes and hair. Within 6 weeks, she had calmed down so much that she would only get up and walk in a little circle when he entered the room, but didn’t jump up at him any more. When he came home from work, she would still jump up and bark, but less forcefully, and the nipping had stopped.
Taking her for walks before the changes was a total nightmare for me – and probably for her, too! Whenever she saw a dog, or even just heard one bark in the distance, she would completely lose her bearings, jumping up and down, pulling, barking in a high pitch. And it was never quite clear: Was she frustrated because I didn’t let her approach the dog, or was she scared and wanted to get away? Either way I would have let her approach, it was not possible for any dog to cope with her like that. Whatever sentiment caused it, the reaction was huge, and she didn’t calm down any more after that until we got home. To give her a chance to break this cycle of stress, we went for walks at a time of day when there would be fewer or no dogs, or in places where we wouldn’t meet any. By mid-April, her reaction was still unchanged whenever she saw a dog BUT she was able to calm down again afterwards. Baby steps!
Our activities at home, like treat searches, were okay to begin with, but initially she couldn’t concentrate very well. She would sometimes miss treats that were right in front of her, and became nervous if Corey joined the treat search as well. He is a very determined searcher. We did some trick training as well, for mental stimulation. She learned things, but sometimes got stressed over it and gobbled up the rewards so quickly that she would cough them out again. Also, she wouldn’t play with me at all, no physical play, no tug, nothing. Within a few weeks, she concentrated a lot better during treat searches. She became a little more confident in them, even if Corey was involved as well. We shortened the trick training sessions and she didn’t cough out treats any more most of the time. She started finding some balance in her body, no longer constantly bumping into things. She started playing tug with me, even if it was just for very short stretches of time. After that, she must have decided that it was too scary after all. She loved playing tug with Corey, but he had fallen ill again then and didn’t want to play. So she devised a different game: she started picking up toys, throwing them in the air and caught them – my smart girl!
All of these are little steps, but for us, they meant a big improvement and the beginning of a journey in the right direction. Being happy with the little steps, that means being majorly thrilled when your dog sniffs a garbage bag! Because she used to think garbage bags were out to get her, and now they just make a funny noise and smell interesting. Couldn’t have been more proud!