Leo’s metaphoric ladder of success

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

leo forward

Leo would love to climb this ladder, but I doubt he ever will. He doesn’t seem to understand the nuances of his hind legs. Not that he’s disabled in any way. He can run and jump just fine. He is capable of jumping or climbing on the furniture, but half the time, he just rests his front paws on the bed or couch, leaving his hind feet on the floor. I help him out by lifting his back legs up the rest of the way. It’s weird.

I took this photo yesterday to represent a commitment to move forward. To help our Leo be the best Leo he can be.

He’s sort of a problem child. I found myself saying the other day, “Leo is not reactive like Isis was. When he barks at a bicycle, he’s doesn’t have a full-blown, out-of-his-mind reaction. We just have to watch out for his redirected biting … oh, who am I kidding? He’s reactive.”

Leo experiences barrier frustration. When he’s on a leash and sees a bicycle, he barks at it. Confined by the leash, he can’t get to the bike. He gets frustrated and lashes out at the nearest thing. Sometimes Mia’s head, sometimes our legs. Mia’s head can take it. Our legs are more sensitive.

Joggers and other dogs present a similar problem, but usually I can get him far enough away that he doesn’t bark. Lately, bicycles have become more of a challenge. Rob and I like to walk the dogs after dark, when there are fewer people around. Last Saturday night after 10 pm, we encountered two bicycles. I couldn’t get Leo far enough away. He barked and lunged.

I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of training this behavior away, because of what I went though with Isis. Writing her memoir, I’m still living those two years when I was obsessed with fixing her. With Isis, we got to a point where I could safely walk her around the neighborhood. I need to revisit those techniques to make Leo less reactive.

We started last week by taking Leo to a neutral location with Rob’s bicycle. Leo had no trouble walking beside us while we walked the bicycle. We got overconfident and tried walking around a larger area, inhabited by other people. A person riding a bicycle passed. I clicked and treated Leo, who didn’t react. Hooray. I let my guard down further and missed the approach of a second bicycle. Leo barked and lunged.

I burst into tears, something I don’t remember doing with Isis at this phase of her training. I failed him. Why is this so hard? 

Nothing is worse for reactive dog training than losing your cool.

I realized we need to go back before we can go forward.

We tried again yesterday with the goal of keeping it short and successful. Make sure Leo is calm before we get started, able to make eye contact with me. Have Rob walk by with bicycle. Click and treat Leo for calm. Have Rob ride bicycle slowly past us at a distance. End on success.

Leo became very agitated when Rob mounted the bike. He barked a high-pitched nervous bark (as opposed to the Big Boy ferocious bark) and I could get him to calm down. I moved him farther away, had Rob get off the bike and stand next to it.

Leo could not calm down 50 feet away from Rob standing next to a bicycle. Part of that could be anxiety because he wanted to get to his daddy, but it shows that we tried to move too fast.

So, that’s our starting point. Next time we will start with Rob standing next to the bicycle at a greater distance away. I will try some BAT techniques of rewarding Leo by moving him farther away when he shows calming signals.

We’ll take it from there. Move forward.

PTSD: When your dog bites someone you know

Isis bit someone once. She broke the outer layer of skin and left a nasty bruise and an ache that I’m told lasted months.

Fortunately, her victim didn’t require stitches, or even seek medical attention. Or report her. On the one hand, we were lucky that he was someone I knew. He told me, “No one could be more understanding than me. No one.” Then he referred me to a trainer who introduced me to the wonderful world of positive reinforcement and made a huge difference in Isis’s behavior.

But since he was someone I knew, I had to see him again. Not often, but enough to haunt me. Every time I saw him, I thought, “That’s the guy Isis bit.” Clearly the memory haunted him too, because he never failed to ask, “How’s your pup?” He meant well. I think he was trying to let me know that he didn’t blame me or hate Isis for what happened, but I didn’t need to be reminded of that awful day.

Once, he and I were in the same room with another person who was there the day Isis bit him. Years after it happened. He felt the need to say, “This is the woman whose dog bit me, remember?”

Yes. I’m pretty sure he suffers from post-traumatic stress too.

The first time I saw him after Isis died, he noticed a photo of her and said teasingly, “There’s the villain.” I took a small amount of sick satisfaction in saying, “She died,” thinking maybe now he’ll stop bringing her up every time I see him. Like it’s the only thing that connects us. Although to be fair, it is the strongest thing that connects us.

I saw him yesterday. In the same place where the bite happened. I had Mia with me. His first words to me, before he knew Mia was there, were, “I got a new dog, an Australian shepherd. You got another dog didn’t you?” Actually, he’d met Mia before, but seemed to have forgotten, so I introduced her again. In the very place Isis, a dog of similar size and appearance, viciously attacked him for no good reason.

I could have gotten out of the situation without his even seeing Mia, and I wish I had, even though he was perfectly lovely. Mia was perfectly lovely. I have no way to know for sure if he flashed back on the moment Isis seemed to come out of nowhere, backing him into a corner and biting his legs. I didn’t exactly flash back on it myself, but afterward, I felt a jittery sense of foreboding, because Isis’s behavior from four years ago still haunts me.

Is it possible that seeing Mia could have been in any way therapeutic? Seeing a very mellow, non-reactive dog who didn’t bite him? Because I hate the idea that he walked away thinking, “Every time I go to that place, some terrifying German shepherd comes after me.”

Isis devours her toys, Christmas 2008