Thursday, November 24, 2011

Slinky's Separating Sojourn: Day 14 of Slinky with Misha May

Many dogs are reactive on leash. When Slinky was first adopted, she was barking at every dog. At that time we believed it was curiosity but it was escalating and could have become a lot more unpleasant and threatening. Before it became a habit and was mistakenly encouraged, I wanted to modify it. I explained that if we reprimand our dog for doing that, they formulate a negative association with other dogs and maybe even people. This often worsens the behavior. It is important to remain calm and say something lighthearted like ‘it’s a dog’ or it’s a puppy’. I’ve seen this work almost every time to lower the anxiety and arousal levels in both the dog I am walking and in the other dog as well.

Sometimes dogs have already solidified this behavior which makes it much harder to change in a challenging situation. I equate an unprepared leash reactive dog walking around other dogs, to an athlete going to the Olympics without proper training. You will fail; you might get hurt; you will not earn a medal. But if you practice the behavior you desire initially without other dogs around, your dog and you can learn what to do when you get to the championship.

Every day for a few minutes at a time, in the quiet of your home, wait for your dog to look at you and say ‘yes’ and give a treat. Don’t ask your dog to do a thing. Just wait for her to check in. You are rewarding a very natural behavior. By rewarding it, it will become stronger and happen more frequently. From your home, try your yard, then a calm walk. If you practice enough, your dog will look at you for direction instead of going off on the other dog.

If it doesn’t work, it means you entered the competition too soon. Back up and practice more. When you finally walk where there might be another dog, you need to be ready to watch for your dog checking in, to say ‘yes’ and to give a treat. At the same time, you can say lightheartedly, ‘it’s a pup!’ All too often we are ready to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ which may halt the behavior right then, but they repeat it again on the next walk because it hasn’t been extinguished. They have not learned what it is we prefer that they do. We tend to spend our time correcting but not teaching. Teach this replacement behavior well.

My Misha, for whom The Misha May Foundation is named, was reactive toward other dogs when she was on a leash. I had no idea what to do then and no one around me did either. The only solution I had was to yell at her and try to make her stop. Or sometimes we managed to avoid other dogs. I always felt so frustrated and embarrassed that she just wouldn’t stop it. Of course, now I realize that my stress and my yelling probably gave her the exact opposite message from what I wanted.

And like the dogs of many owners I hear from now, Misha was fine off leash. I now understand that being on leash is not only unnatural for a dog, but can sometimes render them feeling vulnerable or worried. So because allowing our dogs off-leash without proper training is dangerous, what do we do? We must associate leash walking and training with only positive circumstances. We must prepare ourselves and our dogs to have a safe fun calm time.

Being a confident leader means I think through the possible upcoming scenarios and prepare myself and those who are depending on me. I don’t wait until I am in the midst of a situation that I know my dog cannot handle and then panic and maybe even take it out on my dog. I wish I had known then for Misha what I know now for my current dogs.

Similar to us, dogs don’t necessarily learn in a linear fashion with only successes and constant progression. Sometimes they regress or forget, are tired or are still processing the new behavior. These excerpts from Gina’s note demonstrate how Slinky had a few setbacks.

Regarding any treatment protocol for a phobia or sensitivity, setbacks can also be triggered by asking them to do too much too soon or even too much at a time. We can’t always predict when this will happen but if it does, it’s important to recognize it the way Gina has. My advice then is to stop the training and rest. Then when beginning again, begin at the beginning. Build again with small successes and proceed at the dog’s comfort level.

Gina picked up Slinky to spend the night with her. Here are her updates:

Housetraining Setback: “The patio door was open for Slinky to come and go, but I just noticed that she urinated on the carpet in one of the bedrooms.”

This is a common are where dogs regress. If there isn’t a medical problem, it usually means we need to continue to communicate very clearly where the bathroom is. A complete and simple housetraining protocol requires that they never make mistake. This is accomplished by knowing specifically where they are – outside going to the bathroom, contained in a crate or small area, or leashed to your belt.

Young dogs like Slinky are not yet 100% reliable as their bodies are still developing. In addition, Slinky has been transitioning between homes and routines and may have gotten confused.

Dogs who are nervous or who have been reprimanded for mistakes will also tend to sneak off to go where you can’t see them and yell at them. Unfortunately they associate going to the bathroom in front of you with being yelled at.

Separation Anxiety Protocol Setback: “Yesterday, I practiced pulling the car into the driveway and she only whined a little. I pulled the car from the driveway into the street this morning and she whined more than yesterday. Also, the ‘wait’ command did not work with Slinky this morning and I had to fight her away from the door to get out.

I noticed this morning that she was following me around more often. Perhaps this was because I moved the car this morning. I fed her in the crate today as you advised and she still hasn't finished her food. She was more preoccupied with the fact that I put my coat on and had moved the car - again, I think she was afraid that I was going to leave.

Later, as I was sitting in my car waiting for Gene, Slinky was whining a bit. I think you're correct that she whines when she gets bored. Gene had her on the leash as I was collecting things from the car and she dropped to the ground and refused to walk toward the house with him while I was still by the car.”

It sounds like Gina had a handle on what was happening with Slinky. There were too many challenges for her that she had not quite habituated to yet. Instead of helping her, these separation practices were triggering her old behaviors. She became less secure instead of more at ease. In this case, we stop and give her a rest from the practice separations. The bowl of food needs to come iust outside of the crate to a place where she is comfortable eating. We can only help her along if we meet her where she is.

Crate Training Regression: “As for the crate, I placed our T-shirts in it along with the Kong toy and Bully Stick. Outside of sniffing around, Slinky has not spent any time in her crate since I picked her up yesterday afternoon.”

Slinky was communicating her discomfort with the difficulty of the exercises on this day. She resisted all new behaviors as if she were putting on the brakes and yelling, “You’re going too fast for me!” Fortunately, her mom was paying attention and the protocol was eased without doing any harm.

Also, before old behaviors change irreversibly, there is sometimes a trial period where we see if perhaps the old behavior will get us the results we want instead. Later on this day, we will see a video of Slinky feeling quite relaxed and playful in and out of the crate. She is still trying on behaviors to discover how she feels and what she can gain with each.

Self-Soothing: “She preoccupied herself this morning by watching squirrels from our patio door and then running outside to chase them when she has a shot.”

Slinky is engaging in an old behavior that is self-soothing as it is a release of pent up, perhaps stressful, energy and an invigorating distraction. This is a great sign of her psychological health that she can continue to move confidently away from Gina when she has the opportunity and free choice.

Slinky acclimates once again to the crate when she returns to my house. This video shows her going in and out in the company of Twinkle. It also shows her copying Canyon in playing with the towel. Canyon has a towel that she chews on, carries around and treats roughly. Slinky participated too. Now she is trying it on her own.

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