Separate Walks

Remember how eight months ago I vowed that I was going to conquer Leo’s bicycle reactivity? Well, I’ve finally started cracking down on that.

All spring and summer, it felt like enough to let the dogs run around the backyard and take them for the occasional romp at the off-leash park. But as the weather turns, I feel guilty about how much time they spend cooped up. It’s too dark to walk them around the neighborhood after work, and even if it weren’t, we’d get derailed by a bicycle.

I took a page from the Isis playbook and started taking Leo to parking lots where we are likely to see bicycles. We can practice walking near stimuli, but at a far enough distance to keep him under threshold. I’m employing some functional rewards techniques from BAT. We’re having success, and I’ve lowered my expectations. My goal is not for Leo to be a bomb-proof dog, simply for him to stretch his legs and get a change of scenery, and if his reactivity improves, allowing us to take him to a wider variety of places, so much the better.

Mia’s recent escape attempt alerted me that my focus on Leo’s problem behavior caused me to neglect my perfect dog. Mia just wanted to get out and see the world. She’s been watching forlornly from the window as I take Leo on training excursions. Even though we’re not gone very long, she sees Leo going on an adventure while she has to stay home. Sure she’s a senior dog, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need exercise.

Quite a dilemma. I can’t walk both dogs at the same time and still focus on Leo’s training. What to do?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I chewed on this for a couple of days before I remembered that I can walk Mia around our neighborhood.

See, the old pattern was, I’d take Mia to work, so she’d get a midday walk or off-leash romp on a ball field. Leo would go to daycare or I’d walk him around the neighborhood before work, strategically timed to avoid the bike commuters. I was not in the habit of walking Mia by herself closer to home.

Once Leo became “trustworthy” enough that he didn’t need to be crated while we’re out, I stopped bringing Mia with me. Who knows what kind of trouble Leo could get into without his big sister to keep an eye on him?

What better way to find out than to leave him alone while I take Mia around the block? On Wednesday, I walked Mia before it got dark, and then took Leo for his training in a university parking lot.

Walking Mia reinforced how unsafe our street is for Leo. It also reminded me how bicycle reactive I am. Me, not Mia. As we walked, I saw a bright yellow raincoat on the horizon, whizzing toward us on two wheels. Mia has never expressed the slightest interest in a bicycle, and yet I tightened the leash, thinking, “Oh god, oh god. What if she’s learned from Leo that she’s supposed to bark at those things? Oh god, oh god.”

Of course she was perfect when the bike went by. And she was perfect when we passed a dog who strained at his leash to get to her.

The amazing part? Walking Mia calmed me. “That’s right,” I remembered. “Walking dogs is fun.”

Mia’s positive reinforcement was so powerful that on our next walk, I didn’t flinch when a bicycle rode toward us on the sidewalk. I took her on the windy wooded trail where a mountain bike came at us out of nowhere. And we passed Isis’s nemesis’s house. Not only was the golden in the front yard, but her neighbor, a black dog, was loose in his yard, and the same dog that strained at Mia the day before was headed our way. It was a collision of four dogs. Mia’s hackles went up, but she sniffed politely and we went on our way.

My next post will deal with some of the calming tools recommended to ease dog reactivity and anxiety. Can you tell Leo is wearing a Thundershirt in the top picture?

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My “normal” dog

The magic of Mia is that I can take her anywhere. Truly. She doesn’t even need a leash; she sticks right by me. Even on a leash, she doesn’t bark and lunge at any of the usual suspects.

My original plan for the Festival of the River was to take Mia with me both days, but then I decided to leave her at home the first day while I set up the booth and got a feel for things. As last year, I watched dogs walk by all day long and looked forward to having my buddy with me the next day.

When Rob and the doggies joined me that evening, we left Leo in the car while we picked up a few items I’d left at my booth. After we set up our tent in the woods, I took Mia on a second trip into the crowd to get a slice of pizza. Both times, she was an exemplary ambassador for the German shepherd breed, accepting oohs and aahs of admirers with a quiet grace and politely greeting other leashed canines large and small.

mia tent

The next morning, as we walked Leo and Rob back to their car, I said, “I’m so proud of Leo. I consider this weekend to be a complete success. Of course, now that I said that, probably Mia will have a complete meltdown. Ha ha ha.”

At the booth, I tethered Mia’s leash to a table as I rearranged my display boards and put out brochures, stickers and temporary tattoos. I set out a bowl of food and water. Early arrivals strolled between the booths, and before I even noticed the white pit bull and its owner, Mia barked at it.

Oh, no. No no no.

A few minutes later, another pair of dogs sparked the same reaction. A biologist working a booth across from me called out, “Kari, I don’t think your dog likes pit bulls.”

True, one of the pair was a pit bull, but I knew this wasn’t a breed-specific reaction.

“If she’s going to bark at every dog that passes by, this is going to be a long day. Ha ha ha,” I said. But I was thinking, If Mia barks at every dog that passes by, no one with a dog is going to stop at my booth, and people who are afraid of German shepherds aren’t going to stop here either. This was a really bad idea.

What am I going to do now? I can’t leave her in the car. I can’t just leave the festival. I have no cell phone reception, so it’s not like I can easily call Rob to come get her.

I had these thoughts because I have a history of owning reactive dogs. Leo’s barrier frustration makes him bark at passing dogs. If he were off leash and allowed to run up to every dog he saw, he would be perfectly friendly. I think. But because he is a redirected biter, I will not test this hypothesis.

Mia is not reactive. I knew she didn’t mean any harm by her barks, but her intent was irrelevant. I could not have a barking German shepherd at my booth.

Mia was unconcerned about other dogs on leash the night before, so what was the difference? Being tethered to a table?

Maybe I’ll just undo her leash and let her roam around my booth. Mia walked to the edge of the booth, nearly touching a vendor of geode wind chimes, and peered behind my vinyl curtain. The geode vendor gave me the stink-eye, so I leashed her back up.

I kicked myself for leaving Mia’s rubber Chuck-It ball in the car that Rob drove home. I tossed her an apple-shaped stress ball in hopes that she’d occupy herself with tearing it up for the next twenty minutes. She sniffed and ignored it.

Think, Kari, think. You know how to solve this problem.

Positive reinforcement. I filled a poop bag with treats and stuck it in my pocket. The next time I saw a dog approach, I gave Mia treats. My initial strategy was to get her to associate treats with the passing dogs, but Mia is so food-motivated that she was distracted enough to seem not even to notice the other dog.

An airedale, the same one we saw tethered to an RV earlier that day, lingered with its owner at a neighboring booth. Mia noticed her and barked a few times. I redirected her gaze in the other direction and wondered, Am I going to have to do this all day?

As it turned out, no, I didn’t have to do it all day. Either the positive reinforcement worked, or Mia just got used to the idea that other dogs were going to walk by. (Or both.) I gave her treats every time I saw another dog coming, but I also worked my booth, meaning I put temporary tattoo application and fish consumption rate explaining above Mia management. One guy entered my booth as I was treating Mia and I thought she might bark at the approaching dog as soon as I took my attention away from her, but she didn’t make a sound, and when I finished with the other guy, the dog was long gone.

While Mia may have driven off a dog-fearing festival-goer or two, she was a major attraction for many, many more people. Far more people asked, “Can I pet your dog?” than asked me to explain the importance of raising the state’s fish consumption rate, although you can bet I used Mia as an opening.

Here, Mia proved to be the bomb-proof dog I know her to be. At one point, I was concerned briefly she might frighten a toddler mid-pet by barking at a passing dog, but she did not. Perhaps strokes from a toddler are as positively reinforcing (and/or distracting) as a handful of treats. Other children cuddled her, rolled on top of her, and even put their sunglasses on her. (I wish I’d gotten a photo of that one.)

Mia and I both relaxed and I was so happy to have her with me. Her presence brightened my day. Gave me someone to talk to during the slow stretches in the afternoon.

As much joy as she brought me, and as much as I know she loves being by my side, it occurred to me that Mia might not actually be having the best time ever.

I had a similar feeling the night before, blissfully snuggled with Rob and the doggies in our tent. Rob had gotten stuck in horrible traffic on the way into the festival, and nettles scraped his legs as we set up camp.

“Are you having fun?” I asked.

“I’m just trying to get through it,” he said, perfectly amiably. I love that about Rob. The outing didn’t meet his expectations, but he didn’t punish me for it. Like Mia, he was there for me, making sure that I had a better time than I would have alone, but not getting all that much out of it himself.

That’s what our dogs do for us. If you asked Mia, she’d tell you she’d rather go with me anywhere than get left at home. But as the responsible adult, I recognize that bringing Mia to the festival was more fun for me than it was for her.

She was bored, lying on the grass beside me for hours on end, with the occasional break to walk to the port-a-potties. Worse, the constant assaults from strangers took a toll. Late in the day, a man asked if he could pet her and Mia barely raised her head to him before letting out an exhausted sigh. Sure, whatever, I’m here for your amusement.

My last post illuminated what I learned last weekend about managing my barrier-frustrated dog, Leo. I also learned a lesson about my perfect, normal, senior dog, Mia. Next year, I won’t force her to work the festival with me. (And Rob doesn’t have to drive down to camp out with me. Unless he changes his mind.)

Sleep tight, Mia Bear, you worked hard.

This post is part of a Senior Pet Awareness blog hop, brought to you by BlogPaws.

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Leo wants to do fun things, too

I have a T-shirt from Dog is Good that reads: “To my dog, this I promise you: I will love you unconditionally; for who you are, not who I’d like you to be. I will protect you and keep you safe. Always.”

I love this sentiment so much that I bought the shirt despite the who/whom error. It beautifully expresses the takeaway from my memoir about Isis.

This promise nagged at me when I couldn’t fall asleep Friday night. I was scheduled to work all day Saturday and Sunday at the NWIFC booth at the Stillaguamish Festival of the River in Arlington. The festival is awesome for a variety of reasons, not least being that dogs are allowed. Last year, they paraded past me for two days, and a couple of enormous Great Danes even stopped for a spell in the shade of my booth. Next year, I thought at the time, if it’s not too hot, I’ll bring Mia.

We planned for Rob and the doggies to drive down Saturday night and take advantage of my vendor’s perk: overnight camping. We like to sleep in a tent exactly one night a year, usually after a strenuous hike. This year’s lack of a strenuous hike was what I most looked forward to.

As I lay in bed on Friday, eyes wide open and mind racing, I worried about Leo. Barrier frustrated Leo. He gets along with everyone at the dog park, barely noticing the people. A bike can ride past and he doesn’t care. If he’s off leash. But, like Isis before him, he barks and lunges at so many things while on leash. Which causes him to turn his head and bite whatever’s closest. Usually Mia’s head or Rob’s thigh. Mia can handle these redirected bites, but human skin is more sensitive. His redirected bites have broken the skin. By accident of course. He’d never bite a person. Oh no, he’s friendly. But if I’ve learned nothing else, I recognize that Leo is not reliable in uncontrolled situations.

So what was I thinking, bringing Leo to a festival that attracts 6,000 people a day, where he would have to be on a leash around other dogs? I was thinking that he did just fine on-leash at Dog Days of Summer last year. I was thinking, worse case scenario, he sleeps in the car.

I was thinking that I wanted a dog I could take camping. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Leo at home while Mia went to the festival. I wanted Leo to be able to do fun things too.

I couldn’t sleep Friday night because of that promise I’d made Leo. I will protect you and keep you safe. Always.

Was I breaking that promise to put him in a situation where he might not feel safe? Where he might bark and lunge and scare people, or worse, hurt someone?

(I also might have been feeling some social anxiety about having to set up and staff a booth by myself for eight hours two days in a row.)

When I got to the festival Saturday morning, I found a shaded parking spot near an available tent site removed from the festival grounds. See? It’s going to be fine, I told myself. We’ll just keep Leo away from the crowds.

Unfortunately, someone else stole our tent spot during the day, so when Rob and the dogs arrived, we headed deeper into the woods, scratching our legs on nettles to get to a secluded spot for the four of us to snuggle into our three-person tent. We tethered Leo to a tree when he wasn’t inside our tent. Mia, of course, was allowed to wander free, since she never went far.

I was so proud of my boy. Sure he barked at a couple of people who passed by, but we kept him safe by setting up camp far enough away from the trail. I had my best night of sleep yet in that tent. I think Leo did too.

In the morning, we fed the dogs their breakfast beside the car. We didn’t push Leo over threshold by forcing him to encounter hundreds of people, but we did expose him to a dozen or so strangers in the parking area. He blithely ignored an Airedale tethered to an RV about a hundred feet away, and walked parallel to a couple of yippy dogs without incident.

Before Rob and Leo left for the day, we took the dogs down to a little river nook, where we let him off leash. Yes, we ran the risk that he would get the zoomies and escape from us, as Isis did once at the Port Townsend ferry terminal, but here at least Leo was far from vehicle traffic, and we assured ourselves that he’s perfectly friendly off leash. 

My pulse quickened when he raced up the steep stairs carved into the bank, but he came right back, and I was happy to give him those few minutes of freedom to romp and splash in the river. You can see on his face how much he enjoyed it.

leo splash

With Leo, I have to strike a balance. The back of my shirt says, “We will do enjoyable things together every day. I will guide you through this world. But above all, we are a team. I will do my best to be worthy of your love and trust.”

This weekend reminded me that my guidance and his trust in me are absolutely the key to doing enjoyable things together every day.

In my next post, I’ll tell you how Mia enjoyed working the booth with me all day Sunday.

The Accidental Teacher Dog

Mia is perfectly happy entertaining herself, thank you very much.

Mia is perfectly happy entertaining herself, thank you very much.

Mia and I helped socialize an 11-month-old Great Dane today.

Back when Leo was a puppy and needed lots of stimulation, I sometimes took him to a large ball field at lunchtime hoping to find like-minded dog parents with suitable playmates for him. We also took him to doggie socials on weekends, but since he couldn’t play with Isis at home, and there were no dog parks near my work, this was my best weekday option.

A handful of times we found dogs to play with. The rest of the time, I threw tennis balls to him with a Chuck-It.

Now that Leo is a big boy, and NSFW, I take Mia to that ball field when the weather’s mild. We don’t care if there are dogs to play with or not, and she doesn’t even let me throw her the ball much. I chuck it once, then she runs around with it in her mouth while I eat my lunch. Maybe she’ll drop it while she poops and I can get another throw or two in there, but the point is, she likes the fresh air and chomping on the rubber ball. (We stopped using tennis balls since they became single-use items – she’d destroy them with one chomp).

Sometimes we see another dog way on the other side of the field, but Mia doesn’t run away from me to greet them, not the way Leo would. I’m aware in a shift in my attitude. I would rather not have strange dogs or their people approach me to play. I don’t know their dogs, Mia doesn’t need the socialization, and I have far too much experience with volatile dog interactions.

Today, I saw a man walking a large black dog in my direction. Mia was off doing what she does and wouldn’t even have noticed if the dog hadn’t come within 15 feet of her. As they got close, Mia trotted up to the dog, which I could tell was a Great Dane and not very old.

I delivered my expected, cliched, yet meaningless line of dialogue, “Is your dog friendly?”

The man said, “Yes. I just wanted to come up to talk to you first in case she runs up to your dog, which she probably will.”

And I’m thinking, please just unhook your dog’s leash from her awful prong collar, because the dogs are sniffing each other, and Mia’s starting to dance around and bark. I recognize this as play behavior, but I don’t know his dog, and really, I haven’t seen Mia play with very many other dogs besides Leo, and certainly none restricted by a leash. Who knows what could happen?

I call Mia to me, and she complies, having dropped her orange ball right next to where the man and dog are standing, so I can’t even throw it to her.

After he unleashes his dog, the pair go off and running. Mia’s barking, and her hackles rise a little. I’m not sure how much fun she’s having.

“She doesn’t really know her boundaries,” the man says of his dog.

And I think, well, Mia will certainly let her know if she oversteps them.

I retrieve the ball and throw it and both dogs run after it. Mia wins. Then she drops it and the Great Dane grabs it and runs circles around the ball field, reminding me quite a bit of Leo, gleefully frolicking after winning the toy.

The man and his lady friend say, Wow, that’s the first time she’s ever shown interest in a ball. And I worry that Mia won’t find the Great Dane’s victory lap as adorable as I do, so I get a blue ball from the car.

Now each dog has a ball, and the Great Dane is really gnawing at hers. Granted, Mia’s jaw power probably exceeds the Dane puppy’s by about a million, and she hasn’t caused any damage to the orange one after multiple uses, but I start to worry that this strange dog will destroy the blue ball I very kindly lent her.

A few times, the Dane gets too close to Mia, and Mia lets her know with the snarl/bark (snark) that I recognize from hearing it directed at Leo on a regular basis. It means, “Back off, buddy. This is my ball.”

The Dane snarks back once, but then does then back off, respecting Mia’s boundaries. The couple seems troubled. “Oh, that’s not good.”

I’m not sure if they were concerned about their own dog’s behavior, or if they were worried by Mia’s possessiveness over the ball, or if they were just ready to go, but they moved on a few minutes later.

All in all, I thought the experience was completely positive and educational for the other dog. For a puppy who “doesn’t really know her boundaries,” she just learned how to interact with a mature, dominant female who didn’t want to share her ball. You’re welcome.

No matter what they thought about me and Mia, I related to this couple looking for a way to exercise and stimulate their puppy. There are no clear rules of engagement for people or dogs in off-leash situations, and even if there were, most people would either be ignorant of them or ignore them on purpose. I was sad to read The Fur Mom’s blog post about the decline of the charmingly named Strawberry Fields For Rover dog park in Marysville. It’s so hard to trust other dog owners, never mind their dogs!