Bark and Lunge: Saving My Dog from Training Mistakes

(updated Nov. 2015)

A memoir

BarkLunge

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Bark and Lunge has received three national book awards:

Indie Excellence Award and Sponsor’s Choice Award, the USA Best Book Award, and a Gold Medal and 5-star review from Readers’ Favorite.

Buy the eBook from Amazon, Kobo, Nook, or Google Play.

Buy the paperback from IndieBoundAmazon or Barnes and Noble. Your local bookstore can order it for you too.

 

Running out of Cheese

baker-dogs-2017

In my last post, I wrote about a de-facto off-leash area. If everyone else’s dogs are off leash, why can’t ours be?

For me, it’s an issue of manners. People who don’t have reactive dogs (or people who don’t KNOW their dogs are reactive, especially those whose dogs are small) think it’s perfectly fine for their dog to run up to a person or another dog. When other dogs are off leash and my dogs are off leash, there is no problem. In that situation, Leo doesn’t have much interest in the humans. Unless they’re moving particularly fast. Or on wheels.

Even so. Leo probably would not run up to a jogger or cyclist (or cross-country skier) and bite them if he were off leash. Probably not. But that’s not a risk I can take with a 98-pound German shepherd. Unfortunately, when he is confined to a leash, he is extremely likely to bark and lunge and act very scary as one of these fast-moving humans passes by. See my problem? Everything would go better for everyone if Leo were off leash (probably). But since I can’t assume that everyone we meet will be okay with my dog running up to them, I keep him on a leash.

Last year, we took the dogs to play in the snow on Mount Baker and didn’t see another soul on the trail. This year, the little parking area was full, so we knew we wouldn’t be alone. I was not overly concerned, because the trail is fairly wide, with good visibility, and I had cheese. When I saw people approaching, I called Leo back to me, leashed him, and cheesed him until they passed. It worked brilliantly. Our counter-conditioning has been a terrific success.

It became clear that this was a de-facto off-leash area, so I stopped calling Leo to me when the people approaching had a dog. Except this one couple who took one look at Leo from afar and shouted at their own dog. Their doodle retreated behind their legs, and Leo stayed frozen, staring. Several hundred feet away from the dog. (Mia was close enough, and we leashed her). I called Leo, and omigod, he came right back to me! As I cheesed him, the couple passed, and the man said, “We just had a bad experience with a German shepherd,” explaining their panic.

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I felt that we and our dogs were behaving very appropriately and responsibly. It’s so rewarding to take them on outings that are more exciting than a walk around the sports complex or half an hour at the dog park. Everything was going just splendidly.

Until we ran out of cheese.

Not a problem at first. When a pair of slow-moving snow-shoers (actually, one was carrying her snow shoes) passed us, I moved Leo off to the side, plopped down in the snow and scratched his chest and told him what a good dog he was. He stayed calm, saw them, unconcerned. I was as proud as I could be.

After that, there were two or three incidents that did not go so well. The kind involving my holding onto his harness while he barked real scary-like. It’s not his fault. We ran out of cheese.

You know the spoon theory? It’s kind of like that. Also known, in the parlance of dog training, as trigger stacking.

While Leo was regressing, so was I. I had a flashback to the emotional, desperate, discouraging times when I felt like I couldn’t take Isis anywhere. To running up ahead of Rob on the trail to warn people that we had a dog with us that was freaking out. That nervous, awkward “ha ha ha, sorry about that” exchange, when really what I’m feeling is mortified and guilty. Why did I think we could bring our dog with us to a public trail?

That feeling faded once the cross-country skiers were out of sight, and we were back in the car. I reassured myself that we are allowed to take our dogs for a walk in the snow. Other people had off-leash dogs. Leo didn’t hurt anyone. We were responsible. And I tucked that little seed of a question away in the back of my mind: What if we just let him off-leash the whole time? Wouldn’t everything go better for everyone? Because no. I’d be less embarrassed, but I’d still be rude.

 

The Off-Leash Gray Area

Snowy Crime Scene Field

There’s this field near our house. We call it the Crime Scene Field. I consider it a de facto off-leash area because other people play with their dogs off leash there, and there’s no sign saying not to. Basically, if there’s no one around, we play off leash. If we see someone, we leash them.

On a recent snow day, I unleashed the dogs as soon as we arrived, but then I saw a man in the distance with an off-leash golden retriever. I called the dogs back and leashed them because I didn’t know if this guy wanted his dog to play with mine. It’s called manners. We kept walking, allowing him to see us and decide for himself. He called his dog and left. Asked and answered.

We alternated between walking on leash and off, and every time the dogs ran back to me, I rewarded them with cheese. As we were heading out, a big black dog barreled toward my leashed dogs. This was what I wanted to keep my dogs from doing to the golden retriever. Made worse because my dogs were on leash, and Leo is leash-reactive. This may be controversial, but when an unleashed dog comes up to us, my feeling is that it’s only fair for my dogs to be off leash as well. If Leo is unencumbered, the situation is less likely to escalate.

I unclipped Leo, which was uneventful. Mia barked at the other dog, and after I unclipped her, they got a little snarly. Leo stood his ground and barked at the other dog. Not a big scary bark, in my opinion. He does this at the park sometimes when he gets impatient with another dog. It’s a “hey hey hey hey” nuisance, but I don’t think it could lead anywhere good, so I always remove him from those situations.

The other guy called the black dog, who started to obey, but then came back at my dogs. After a few fruitless “heys” of my own, I chirped my dogs’ names and the magic word “Cheesy.”

And holy shit, they came to me. I leashed them and walked away, but the black dog barreled toward us again.

I said, “Can you call your dog? My dogs will fight back!”

He did and again the dog was torn between obeying and charging my dogs again, but we were leaving anyway.

Honestly, it could have turned really ugly, and this is the main reason I don’t muzzle Leo on walks. If that dog had been aggressive and an actual fight escalated, I’d want Leo to be able to protect himself. Despite his leash-reactivity, he is a really nice dog, and well socialized to other dogs.

Also, really really really proud of the way my dogs handled themselves!

An Inspiring New Dog Food Pyramid

Leo decorated his Pyramid with some scrimshaw (to borrow Theodore's term of art) before he figured out how to get the food out.

Leo decorated his Pyramid with some scrimshaw (to borrow a term of art) before he figured out how to get the food out.

This month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme is mentors and inspiration. If you’ve read Bark and Lunge (and I recommend you do!), you know I have a complicated history with trainers. The first few gave very bad advice. Then we met a positive reinforcement trainer who changed our lives by helping save Isis from our earlier mistakes, but in the end, the experience was mixed.

We’ve met lots of positive trainers since then, but have been become complacent in our own little world where we don’t train our dogs to do anything except not misbehave (too much). A trainer I wish I’d met back in the day is Annie Phenix, whose book The Midnight Dog Walkers is practically a companion piece to mine.

More and more, I find inspiration from dog people I only know online. These include the hosts of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days, both of whom have become Facebook friends, too. Other dog bloggers I consider internet friends and inspirations are Groovy Goldendoodles, Wag ‘n Woof, My GBGV Life, and ZoePhee.

Then there’s my weird obsession with dogs I’ve never met whose people I don’t know either. I’m often heard to say something like, “So there’s this dog I follow on Instagram…”

My absolute hero is Pibbling with Theodore, and I can’t remember how I first found him, except that it was on Facebook. He’s a fight bust rescue, and his mom is a trainer, and he is so handsome I just can’t stand it.

Shortly before Christmas, he posted a picture of a Nina Ottosson Dog Pyramid. Inspired, I ordered two immediately. (I’ve written before about how the benefits of food puzzles.)

And now, I hope to inspire you with this video of Mia and Leo enjoying their new food dispensers, which we call “Eggs.” See how much fun Leo has even when nothing’s coming out?


 

Positive TrainingJoin the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop! Hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days, the hop begins on the first Monday of every month and runs all week long. This month’s theme is My Training Mentor or Inspiration, but all posts about positive training are welcome.

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Our Christmas Tradition

xmas-family-2016-touched-up
Every year we take the dogs to a tree farm and pose in front of our tree before Rob cuts it down. Following on my earlier post this week, Leo continues to impress me. He sat down, even lay down, while I set up the tripod. People walked by, and I did reward him with cheese, but I don’t think I had to.

So so proud of my little bug. Mia’s no slouch either.

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BlogPaws Wordless Wednesday Blog HopHope you’re all having a festive December so far!

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The gift of Leo

This month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme is
The Gift of Positive Training.

Proving what a perfect boy he's grown up to be, Leo lay down and waited for us to set up for our Christmas photo shoot.

Proving what a perfect boy he’s grown up to be, Leo lay down and waited while we set up for our Christmas photo shoot.

Oh, what a gift it has been. Leo’s leash reactivity has gotten so much better. I’ve started saying he’s cured, which is not entirely true, because he still exhibits barrier frustration, but man, I’m going to have to scroll down a bit to even find the last time he had what I’d classify as a “reaction” on a walk:

Okay here:

Sept. 8, He barked at two bikes coming from opposite directions and an off-leash dog. Barely registers on the reactivity scale. A dog barks at an off-leash dog? Who wouldn’t?

June 7, We had a particularly challenging walk and he barked and lunged at a bicycle after successfully NOT barking at a bunch of other stuff.

That’s two leash-reactive incidents worth reporting in the past six months. What it’s shown me is that success begets more success.

It can be hard to wrap your head around when you’re in the thick of reactivity. While trying to get Isis to accept Leo, we had what I considered a debacle where the dogs played for a few seconds for the first time ever … and then got into a fight.

Me and Isis in front of our chosen tree in Dec. 2010.

Me and Isis in front of our chosen tree in Dec. 2010.

A trusted trainer, who wasn’t there at the time, said, “It does sound like you had some minor success. It might be better next time. Remember that repetition of behavior creates habit. It they have a couple of good sessions, it would increase the chance for success.”

At the time, I thought, Yeah right. How are they ever going to forget hating each other?

Sadly, they never had the chance, but six years later, I’ve seen the concept realized: repetition leads to habit.

Example: Leo barks at bicycles from the car. Unchecked, he’d develop a habit of doing this, so he’d get in the car, expecting to find things to bark at. We got him out of this habit by using a Calming Cap. Now, if we forget to put it on him, or if he takes it off himself (sneaky bugger), he’s not searching out the window for things to bark at.

We have to be careful they don’t backslide. On a recent solo afterdark walk with Leo, I noticed a flashing light behind me. Good thing too, because it gave me time to ready the cheese. Leo didn’t react to that bicycle as it passed, but the next time we encountered an unrelated flashing light, he flinched, expecting it to be something scary.

The gift I want to give fellow people with reactive dogs is: Have hope. Work to have more successes than failures. You will see improvement.

Leo’s gotten so good, that a few times recently, he has seen a trigger across the street before I do (because it’s dark). I’ll feel him tense up on the leash and then he whip his head back to me.

Hey, did you see that? I’m supposed to get cheese now, right?

Yes, my darling boy. You get all the cheese.

All the cheese

Proud of my Leo

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Join the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop! Hosted by  Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days, the hop begins on the first Monday of every month and runs all week long. 

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Sibling Rivalry

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, although it doesn’t deserve to be. It contains a few examples of what not to do, but hey, maybe that’s what I’m known for.

It starts with a success story.

Last month, my mom was in town for a week, and I’m thrilled to announce that we’re past the stage where I’m terrified of what my dogs will do when we have visitors. A month or so after we got Mia, the dogs got into a couple of scary fights during my mom’s visit. Since then, I hadn’t let Leo loose in the room with her. I’m not worried about aggression, but I don’t trust him not to jump on her when she enters the room. He’s 94 pounds and she’s 5’2″, so you know, that felt risky.

This year, I decided to usher in a new era. Mom was with me when we brought Leo home as a puppy, after all. They should be reunited! With my mom securely seated at the kitchen table, with treats in hand, I let Leo in from the backyard, and had her throw treats at him. Yes, of course that made him sniff around her more than she cared for, but only for a few seconds before he wandered off, and eventually, returning to lay down at her feet.

I cannot overstate how happy this made me. What a huge relief to not have to leave Leo outside. To have my family all together!

Everyone gets ice cream at my birthday party.

Everyone gets ice cream at my birthday party.

 

We had a hiccup a few days later. To celebrate my birthday, we had cake and ice cream. I served up two bowls of vanilla ice cream for the dogs, and wanted to take a picture to document the cuteness. Then I did something so stupid. I pushed the bowls closer together to get a better shot.

They got in a snarling fight about it. With Rob’s parents and my mom there to witness. Rob and I struggled to separate them and move Leo through two rooms to get him into the backyard (without him redirecting a bite on either of our mothers). Then I tried to reunite them too soon, and they got into it again, and in separating them on opposite sides of the chain link, I fell down, bumping and scraping my knee in the only injury of the whole kerfuffle.

I ran up the hill in the backyard and lay down on one of the mats outside Rob’s studio, hoping Leo would join me. He raced up, looked at me, ran back down the hill, then ran back up again. And down again. I lay there for a few minutes. I might have been a little drunk. We’d just come from kind of a weird dinner at a fancy restaurant where we’d had to wait 45 minutes to be seated despite having a reservation. They’d offered free prosecco while we waited, and I’d had a kir royale with my meal.

Not THE kir royale, but A kir royale.

Not THE kir royale, but a kir royale.

Everyone in the house assumed I’d run up there to cry. But I felt fine. This fight was not a big deal, and I totally knew what caused it. Me!

I walked back down to the chain link, got some dried lamb lung, gave it to each dog on either side of the fence, then opened the gate and let them reunite. All was right with the world again.

My mom asked, “Which one of them started it?” As if I could even tell. “Me! I started it.”

Rob was rattled, but if I know what started the fight, I know how to prevent it from happening again. No one got bitten. No one was bleeding. Not a big deal.

Think I learned my lesson?

A couple of weeks later, I was giving Leo his eye medicine near the back door. There’s something weird about this eye dropper, making it really hard to get the drops out. I was holding onto his face for longer than any dog should be expected to have his face held, with my face really close to his, and I could tell he was getting tired of it. Am I about to get bitten in the face? I wondered, just before he launched away from me onto Mia’s face.

Rob had just dozed off on the couch and was rudely awoken by the snarls and my shouting for him to come help me separate them.

Maybe I’m completely delusional, but again, not terribly troubled by this fight. Clear cut barrier frustration. I was holding Leo back, doing something unpleasant. Note to self: Do not administer Leo’s eye medicine when Mia is two feet away.

Again no one got hurt and a few minutes and a few pieces of lamb lung later, everything was back to normal.

I used to be really traumatized by this kind of thing, because it was a sign that I’m a terrible dog parent, and meant my dogs would never get along. But Leo and Mia have a five year history of mostly getting along, and most days, I’m an above-average dog mom. They have enough bite inhibition not to hurt each other, and Rob and I have figured out how to separate them without getting bitten ourselves.

Am I enlightened or just jaded? Do your dogs fight? How do you handle it?

Positive TrainingJoin the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop to read some posts about actual positive pet training. Hosted by  Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days, the hop begins on the first Monday of every month and runs all week long.

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