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.

bakerdogs2-2017

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.

 

That one dog who ruins it for everyone

A peaceful alternative to the noisy dog park: lying in the grass by a ball field while Rob practices flying a drone.

A peaceful alternative to the noisy dog park: lying in a ball field while Rob practices flying a drone.

Dog parks are risky for reactive dogs – all dogs, really – but we’re lucky to have three off-leash areas that aren’t usually too crowded where we can manage our well-socialized dogs. We leave as soon as a small, uncontrollable child arrives, or at the first sign of an unstable dog.

We tend to rotate between these three areas. I was thinking about taking the pups to one of these tonight, instead of the same exact walk we went on yesterday and the day before.

Perhaps the one that’s close to a new Poke restaurant in town. Oh, but no, I don’t want to go there because that’s where the weird lady with the reactive long-haired shepherd goes. (If your dog doesn’t like other dogs, maybe don’t bring it to an off-leash area where there are other dogs. People are always asking if our dogs are friendly. No, they eat other dogs. We just brought them here for a little snack. How does yours taste?)

And we can’t go to the Good Dog Park, because that’s where that dog goes who lifts his upper lip when Leo chases him chasing his ball.

Worse is the Bad Dog Park, monopolized during all the afterwork daylight hours by this ponytailed dude and his spazzy dog. She’s an overly friendly dog who runs up and wiggles against everyone. She gets in Mia’s face. When Mia snarls and tells her to back off, she gets in her face again! She has this crazed energy that infects the whole park, and if I’m feeling particularly empathetic, I can imagine that this guy gets home from work and his dog’s been cooped up all day, so he spends his entire evening with her at the park or else she whines and chews stuff. Except, he doesn’t even play with her! He lets her run rampant while he 1) chit-chats with other owners, usually women, or 2) naps on the bench. And you just know he thinks it’s wonderful she’s so friendly!

So, each of our parks has one (1) dog that ruins it for us. Of course, we’re probably ruining it for someone else. But hey, all of this will be moot soon as we lose daylight and will be walking them around the neighborhood wearing headlamps.

Facing adversity with positive training and string cheese

Lovely Leo
Leo’s leash-reactivity has been so well controlled that I decided to increase the criteria with a more challenging walk.

Just kidding. We accidentally encountered unexpected triggers because we went later than usual.

We walk this route a couple of times a week, and it involves passing some sports stadiums. There are often games on these fields, but not usually on all of them at once. With members of the public attending. This evening, people had parked their cars along the sidewalk and were walking toward the entrance to the stadium in greater numbers than we’ve seen.

I successfully cheese-cheesed Leo from barking at the pedestrians, until one of them, apparently having forgotten something, turned and ran back toward his car. I saw him do it, but couldn’t get far enough away, so Leo barked and lunged. The ball-capped dude looked very apologetic and actually said he was sorry, so either he recognized that running at a German shepherd was not the best idea, or he was trying to get on my good side so I wouldn’t let my dog bite him.

At that point, we moved onto the grass in front of a fence around an apartment complex, to create some distance between ourselves and the pedestrians. The grass feels like a public space, even though I guess it’s not. My dogs shit here all the time. I pick it up every. single. time. But I have seen other dogs’ poop left behind there before. Which probably explains what happened next.

An old dude comes out of the complex and walks toward us. I’m strategizing the best plan of escape when he growls, “Get your dogs off the property.”

Okay, but I can’t because there’s nowhere for us to go that won’t lead to barking and lunging. I don’t say that, just turn and walk the other way, remaining on the grass until it’s safe to go back to the sidewalk. He mutters a couple of other things at me.

And Leo did not react! He only barked at the guy who ran directly at him, and only a little, and even that guy forgave him!

Honestly, I’m comfortable with where we’re at. I manage Leo pretty damn well. He doesn’t bark and lunge a lot, and when he does, I’m prepared, and I get over it. But that old guy bothered me.

Obviously, we couldn’t continue on our usual route, so I did something unorthodox and took them them down a wooded trail I’ve never been on before because I have no idea where it leads. What if joggers pass? Or bicycles? Couldn’t be any worse than the current state of our usual path.

We saw no one, and it was lovely, and I contemplated walking there again someday. We cut through the woods to a paved path that led back up to where I’d parked. A couple of bicycle cops looped around below me, and I had a flash of worry that the old guy had called the cops on the trespassing German shepherds.

As the cops started pedaling up toward us, I said, “My dog barks at bicycles, so . . .” And they kind of nodded, like, whatever. While they passed, I cheesed-cheesed him to a ridiculous degree, adding praise like, “I know! This is stressful! You’re doing so well!”

And. He. Did. Not. Bark.

Which would be a terrific happy ending, except then a kid whizzed downhill toward us on his bike, and I couldn’t get Leo cheesed fast enough to keep him from barking.

Oh, well. Two out of three ain’t bad.

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Surf’s Up with the Pups

Just kidding. They don’t swim. A better title would have something to do with the dead crabs littering the rocky beach.

We are so lucky to live in a place where we can regularly find safe places to play with our pups off leash, both in the snow, and on the beach! (But see Monday’s post about how even our Best Dog Park can be a recipe for disaster.)

Here’s Rob with the doggies at Cherry Point.

One more important thing. I recently updated my Reactive Dog Resources page with a new book called The Midnight Dog Walkers. If your dog barks and lunges, or if you’ve ever found yourself timing your walks to avoid seeing other dogs or people (like, say, at midnight?), you must read this book!!

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What happens at the dog park

Pups at the best park

I try not to write too many posts about the wacky and/or horrifying things that happen at the dog park. I know and trust lots of dog professionals who think off-leash parks are terrible places where bad behavior gets reinforced by clueless dog owners making the wrong choices for their dogs.

I agree. But I also have a well-socialized dog who is leash-reactive, so when the weather’s nice, it’s easier to exercise him off-leash in a park with other dogs than it is to walk him anywhere on leash. (Pacific Northwest people and their bicycles! Oy. They’re everywhere.)

And while it’s incredibly trite for me to regale you with anecdotes about the badly behaved dogs and stupid humans we encounter… I’m going to.

I’ve long since given up my dream of politely telling prong collar parents that it’s unsafe for their dog to wear the collar inside the park. (Trust me. I’ve been the idiot dog owner who leaves the prong collar on.) But a couple of times recently, I wished I had a tactful way to tell another dog parent that they’re doing it wrong.

1) Dog A was crouched in a hole of his own digging when Dog B tried to join in. Dog A got snarly. Dog Parent A said, “He hates to share. I wish he wouldn’t do that.” Dog Parent B: “The more you bring him, he’ll figure it out.” Dog Parent A: “Yeah, we need to bring him more.”

No! Bad plan!

2) This one really cleared the park. Our Best Dog Park has a significant design flaw: Only one entrance. Leo and I were chasing a ball at the opposite end, fortunately, when we heard a major Barkapalooza by the gate. Not your healthy, “Hey I’m at the park, yay!” barks, nor your “I have barrier frustration, but once I get in there, I’ll be fine” woofs, but full-blown reactive barking. Rob had a better vantage and saw the man enter with his dog on a long ropey leash. “He was pretty determined to barrel his way in,” Rob reported. This dog snarled and lunged at another dog, and the two had to be separated. The man continued to walk through the park with his dog on leash.

Now then. My guess is that his dog does not have good recall, so he planned to keep it on a longline at the park. My guess is also that he does not understand that his dog likely was barking and lunging because it was on leash. (Unless it always acts that way, in which case, it has no business at the dog park.)

But what can I say to that guy? “Hey, your dog is experiencing barrier frustration. He probably will be better without the leash.” Because I don’t know that. So I just said to Rob, “We should go.” And we went.

One more dog park story, but this one is a cautionary tale to myself.

3) We arrived close to sunset when no one else was there except for a couple sitting on plastic chairs looking at their phones while their dog lay down a ways away. Nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, but I dislike it when people expect their dogs to entertain themselves at the park. Of course the point is for dogs to play with each other, but their people should be alert and involved. Dog parks are not a substitute for spending time with your dog.

After a little bit, the man got up and threw a ball to his dog, which got Leo pretty interested in this dog he had been ignoring and who had been ignoring him. When Leo blocked the dog and prevented it from retrieving the ball so the man had to go get the ball himself, I muttered to Rob, “Whatever, I don’t feel anything for people who just sit around and look at their phones while their dogs do nothing.”

Then I realized the girl with him was young, probably his daughter. And I wondered what circumstances might lead a man and his daughter to spend a Friday night at the dog park with no other dogs, and not play with their dog. I imagined a divorced dad with the daughter for the weekend. Not much to do at his divorced dad pad. When they get back, she’s going to go to her room and not talk to him for the rest of the night. This time at the dog park is the only time they have together.

Turns out, I did feel something for them. I don’t know what their story really is, but it’s none of my business. There’s nothing to be gained by mentally criticizing anyone. You never know what they’re going through.

How about you, friends? How often do you judge your fellow dog parents? Can you hold your tongue when you see a disaster in the making?

 

When you know better, you do better

I accidentally posted the perfect blog last week for this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme: Improvements/Successes. If you haven’t read Leo vs. the Track Team, check it out after you read this one, and be sure to hop on down the Linky List of my fellow bloggers.

To continue on the theme of Improving as a Trainer, I’ll share a Maya Angelou quote that resonates with me: “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” (I’ve seen several versions of this quote, and I don’t know which is her exact phrasing, but this is the one I use.)

Many of us in the Positive Pet Training world have pretty strong feelings against the use of aversives like prong collars, e-collars*, or throwing cans of pennies at our dogs. As someone who used a prong collar for a couple of years before I knew better, I’m tempted to run up to every dog wearing a prong collar that I see and tell their people what I know.

But to be honest, I’m weary of dog owners telling each other what to do. Does anyone ever change anyone’s mind? Have my fellow positive pet training blog friends ever gotten into it with someone on the other side, an aversive trainer (or as I believe they call themselves: “balanced trainers”) – and actually gotten through to them?

It’s easier to communicate with people who are like I was: uninformed. My strategy is to tell people what worked for me, and why those other methods were counterproductive for me, and hope to plant a seed. That’s why I wrote Bark and Lunge.

I spoke at a couple of Amazing Pet Expos this year, which was awesome because they have an all-positive policy. No shock collars or prong collars or electric fences sold there. Plus, I was pretty excited at the Seattle Expo that a couple of German shepherd rescues were there. And then pretty disappointed to see prong collars on their dogs.

Maybe they just need to read my book, I thought, approaching a pair walking German shepherds past my booth. I handed them a postcard for my book, explaining that it was about all the mistakes I made with my first German shepherd, and how I learned to fix them.

“Did you use a prong collar?”

“Yes, that was one of the mistakes I made. Positive reinforcement is what worked for us.”

“We don’t allow adopters to use positive reinforcement.”

“What?”

“We don’t want our dogs to come back. We require people to take training classes using prong or e-collars.”

I was thrown, and kind of embarrassed. This was just a few minutes before I was scheduled to give a speech about how a prong collar messed my dog up. Was this rescue group going to think I was specifically going after them? Did they even know that the Expo has an anti-aversive stance?

Kari speaks

It went great. Most of the people pictured bought books. And then the expo rep asked me to speak a second time after the guys from that Animal Planet show Tanked skipped out early.

The rescue woman’s remark really rattled me. It is unfathomable to me that positive reinforcement is being blamed for dogs being surrendered to shelters. I can accept that there are dogs trained using aversives who turned out fine, but I haven’t heard any actual examples of dogs for whom positive training failed utterly.

It’s a scenario that just does not make sense. “Well, I tried rewarding my dog for what I wanted him to do, but I find we have a much better relationship when he does what I want because he’s trying to avoid getting a shock.”

I follow a lot of German shepherds on Instagram. The other day, one posted a video practicing a perfect recall. In the comments, the poster described how she used an e-collar, “just to get the dog’s attention.”

After a big sigh, I wondered if I should unfollow this pretty little German shepherd. Or should I speak up? Am I overreacting? Are e-collars harmless? Are they better than positive methods?

I’m grateful to this blog hop and Lauren at ZoePhee in particular for sharing Kikopup’s video about positive interrupters, reminding me of a way to get your dog’s attention without electrical stimulation.

*E-collar stands for electronic collar, or shock collar. Funny aside: On the board at the shelter where I volunteer, it said “Use e-collar if needed” next to one of the dogs. I almost had a heart attack until I figured out that they meant Elizabethan collar, as in the lampshade dogs wear after a vet visit so they don’t lick their stitches.

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Leo vs. the Track Team

Leo vs. Joggers, May 2014

Leo vs. Joggers, May 2014

Leo redirected on me last week during a walk. Things had been going just smashingly and we hadn’t had a reaction worth reporting in a long time. On this walk, he was triggered by a pedestrian and a bike on the other side of the road. He barked, lunged, and redirected twice on my leg. His teeth didn’t break the skin, but the experience is quite like getting bitten. It felt like a setback.

One bike. One (admittedly sketchy) pedestrian. One after another. I thought I could manage the situation by hiding behind a partial wooden fence, forgetting that this technique has backfired in the past. I have turned “Quick, Leo, let’s run and hide!” into a cue something scary is coming.

A couple of preceding events may have helped push him over his threshold:

1) I came home smelling like three strange dogs from the Humane Society.

2) Minutes earlier, Rob and I saw a deer. I do not think the dogs saw the deer, but they definitely smelled it.

Whatcha gonna do? It happened and it was a bummer.

Walks around our neighborhood are challenging because it’s tough to escape an oncoming trigger. The secret to a successful Managed Training walk (I just coined that term) is visibility. I need to be able to see the bikes and the sketchy pedestrians coming in time to decide whether to manage the situation by preventing Leo from seeing the trigger at all, or whether this is a training moment when I can counter-condition him to the thing by feeding him cheese as we pass it.

That’s why I like to drive my dogs to their walks. This time of year, we’ve been having a great time parking by a baseball field, walking up a hill toward a sports stadium, and circling the neighborhood. Even though we encounter some bikes, even though there are people playing on the fields, and even though last week a toddler ran straight toward us – I’m able to see the triggers in time to manage or train.

The hill I speak of is just camera-right of the photo below from May 2014.

On our most recent walk, we’d gotten about as far as the grass in the background when I saw a man jogging toward us. I didn’t have time to race ahead and get away, and since I was armed with at least eight sticks of cheese, I veered off the path to counter-condition Leo.

So far, so good.

As soon as the man headed down the hill, I looked ahead and saw a little kid running toward us, with an adult just behind him.

Argh. Oh well, let’s see if we can keep the cheese party going until they pass.

Miraculously, he continued to take the cheese calmly.

Once they passed, I looked ahead again and saw …

TEN more people about to run past us. The whole damn track team!

Feeling doomed, I considered asking the joggers to stop, but instead pulled out more cheese.

It cost me four or five sticks of cheese, but Leo did not bark! Nor did he take the cheese particularly hard.

This might have been my proudest moment.

Leo biggest achievement here is that he counter-conditioned me. Next time the Track Team heads toward us, instead of cringing and bracing for the reaction, I’ll remember how it felt to stand next to a calm Leo as joggers pass.

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