WOOF! Handler Error

You know how no parents think their baby is ugly? Sometimes it’s hard for parents of reactive dogs to see their dogs as scary.


I’m not completely delusional. Leo is a 98-pound dark German shepherd. When he barks and lunges, I know he’s a frightening sight. But I’d like to think, and this is the crazy dog momma in me, that sometimes, if he barks only a few times, maybe other people see him like I do, just a dog being a dog. Maybe they aren’t thinking, “Who is that woman with the vicious dog and why does she let him out of the house?”

We had a great walk Tuesday at the community parking lot. Mia came with, and even though Leo barked a couple of times at a slow-moving jogger, I didn’t think he sounded too ferocious, and the jogger had headphones on and may not have heard him at all. Then, a group of teens — two on foot, one on a bike, and one on a skateboard — crossed the parking lot right in front of us and Leo did NOT bark OR lunge!!! Instead, he watched them with keen, alert interest.

The next day, at the beginning of our walk, I congratulated myself that this place where I started taking Leo to expose him slowly to bicycles, and continued taking him during the winter because it was mostly deserted, has also turned out to be a great place to walk him past numerous distractions now that the weather has turned glorious. I’ve found a great route that takes us past people of all ages and sizes, recreating in all sorts of ways at enough of a distance that Leo either doesn’t react, or if he does react, I’m not completely humiliated, and in the best of all scenarios, sometimes we have a great training moment like Tuesday with the group of teens.

While I was feeling awfully pleased with myself, a man crossed our path with a Husky. I maneuvered Leo away to try to hide behind a car, but he barked a little, and then a jogger passed while the Husky was still in sight and Leo barked a little more. Just a couple of barks. Not particularly low-pitched or menacing ones. (In my admittedly biased opinion.)

The distractions gone, we crossed the street to a kind of berm that runs along an unused baseball diamond. (I’m sure it’s used at some point during the year, but not so far during our walks.) I like this berm because no one else walks on it, and we’re pretty high above the other sidewalk activity, so no one can take us by surprise.

A motorcycle went by below, and my boy gave a mighty bark and a few good lunges. I had the dogs on a bungee-like double leash, so there was some stretch to his lunge, giving me just a hint of a scare that Leo might pull me off my feet and we’d tumble down the berm.

Leo didn’t used to react to motorcycles at all, and he almost never barks at them. His reaction on this walk was the result of trigger stacking. Even though he handled the Husky and the jogger pretty well (and even though he handled the group of partially wheeled teens like a champ the night before), this combination of triggers was too much and too close together in time.

We continued our walk and I tried to remember the word for stacking. I kept thinking piling. Then I thought, A-ha! This is what I will write my WOOF Support blog post about. I better get some pictures.

I walked the dogs toward the skate and bike park, letting them sniff their favorite patches of grass. Not much was going on in the big parking lot, but after I took my attention off my surroundings and started futzing with my mobile device, two bicycles whizzed by. Leo barked. I took a picture.

Fully recognizing my handler error, we meandered back toward the lot where I’d parked. The spring evening was so lovely, I sat down on a curb to take a few more pics of the dogs. Leo and Mia watched families walk to their cars after their hockey lessons or whatever happens weeknights at the Sportsplex. And of course, while I was trying to compose the perfect selfie, two joggers went by. Leo barked. I took a picture.

And that’s why you never take pictures while walking your reactive dog.

Do you have a reactive or fearful dog? Please join us and share your story. The Blog Hop is open through Sunday, May 11, hosted by Oz the Terrier and Wag ‘n Woof Pets.

Oz the Terrier

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T is for ThunderCap

Leo rocks the ThunderWorks brand Calming Cap, a.k.a. the ThunderCap

When we were first introduced to the Calming Cap, our trainer, Shannon, lent us a bright blue one.

“The idea is that it reduces visual stimuli by filtering a dog’s vision,” she said. “I held it up to my eyes and you can still see through it, but it just makes things kind of indistinct.”

Rob approved of the look. “Isis looks like a superhero.”

Of the pictures above, Rob said, “Leo looks like he has a bag over his head.”

True, the gray one isn’t as cute, but at least it matches Leo’s ThunderShirt. I’m thinking of sewing a superhero insignia on it. What I like about the pictures is that Leo looks happy and calm. The dog model on the ThunderShirt site looks a tad depressive.

Oh, sorry, did I bury the lead? What I really want you to know is that the ThunderCap WORKS.

As I’ve described, the Calming Cap was the ONLY thing that noticeably reduced Isis’s anxiety around Leo.

Even though Leo’s barrier frustration in the car had gotten really bad, Rob was reluctant to put the ThunderCap on him for their drive to and from the jogging parking lot. He thought 1) Leo wouldn’t like it because he wouldn’t be able to see anything, and 2) It would be embarrassing if anyone saw him.

I asked, “More embarrassing than having people see him bark like crazy inside the car?”

After their second car trip with Leo wearing the ThunderCap, Rob said, “I will never doubt the power of the Calming Cap again.” Leo can see movement outside the car window, but he doesn’t bark at it. And that makes for a more relaxing jog.

I highly recommend the ThunderCap for dogs who are nervous during car rides, or visits to the vet, or any other scenario where they bark at visual stimuli. Some dogs might not tolerate having the mask over their faces. Leo has been trained to wear a Halti or a muzzle, so he doesn’t mind it at all. If your dog has never worn anything on its face, I suggest taking the time to build positive associations with the ThunderCap, perhaps by following this handy step-by-step process (and intro to clicker training) to training a dog to wear a muzzle.

T is for ThunderCap


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How do I know if it’s working?

Name a technique or device intended to reduce dog anxiety or aggression and I’ve tried it. Acupuncture, Dog Appeasing Pheromones, Prozac, Thundershirt, Tellington Touch, Calming Cap…

Have to say, the Calming Cap was my favorite. The stretchy blue fabric over Isis’s head made her look like a superhero. We put it on her, sat her on her bed and Rob fed her treats while I paraded Leo past her. Her vision was sufficiently filtered that she did not stand and bark and lunge at Leo. Unfortunately, Leo, while still a puppy, had by then discovered his “big boy voice,” so those sessions usually ended with him barking at Isis.

At the time, Isis was also on Prozac and wearing a Thundershirt, but I think it was the Calming Cap that made the biggest difference. How can we know for sure? Maybe the Prozac was finally kicking in. As far as I can remember, though, she never lashed out while wearing the Calming Cap.

The Calming Cap was on loan, so we don’t have it anymore. Maybe I should get one for Leo. If he can’t see the bicycle, he can’t bark at it. We do have a Thundershirt, two actually, but I can’t tell if it works! He still is capable of having an explosive reaction while wearing the shirt; if he weren’t wearing it, would the reaction have been worse? What about the times he doesn’t have reactions while wearing the shirt? Would he necessarily have had one if he hadn’t been wearing it?

On Leo’s last birthday, his teacher asked if we’d ever tried a Thundershirt. I felt silly saying we had one but weren’t using it. Actually, I’d forgotten about it entirely, and then summer came, and it seemed cruel to make him wear another layer, but now that it’s fall, we’re using it again. He doesn’t mind it, so what can it hurt?

Same with Tellington Touch. When I told a trainer that I wasn’t sure whether it worked, she said, “Oh, you’ll know if it’s working.” But I really can’t tell. I enjoy petting my dogs in prescribed patterns. Sometimes it seems to relax them, but sometimes it gets on their nerves and they get up and move.

What do you think, fellow parents of reactive or anxious dogs? I’d love to know your experiences with Thundershirts, Tellington Touch, Calming Caps, and the like.


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