We welcomed Buddy, a 1 year old small Boxer mix, into our home February of this year through the foster-to-adopt program. He was a stray from California and not much was known about him, so we prepared to work on training of all sorts – from manners and house training to basic obedience. As we got to know him, we realized just how lucky we were – he was already house trained, was not destructive, did not counter-surf, was great with our cats and grumpy old senior dog, and he loved to meet new people. He also cuddled like a champ! He was perfect! Almost. There WAS one thing: he was reactive to other dogs when he was on leash. What that meant for him was vocalizing (whining, escalating to barking), straining at the leash toward the other dog, hackles up, standing on his hind legs, and otherwise letting everyone know he both sees another dog AND has an opinion about it.
We live in a fairly densely populated neighborhood where lots of people are walking their dogs at all times, so walks became difficult. We sought the advice of a wonderful trainer who helped evaluate him and develop a few techniques to redirect his behavior. It didn’t appear that his reactivity was aggression, necessarily, but more a quick escalation to a hyper-stimulated state, which could be interrupted. I stocked up on treats and got to work practicing those techniques at home. We worked on basic obedience (sit, down, stay, off, come, and leave it) until he was reliable inside. We then practiced outside. Then we practiced those commands while he was leashed on our walks. We added in “touch” (touching my hand with his nose – gives him a target to focus on) and “follow” (my hand that is holding a treat). Walks became treat-a-palooza for him! When he would see another dog and his hackles would go up, I would start dropping treats on the ground. He would break his attention from the other dog and eat the treats. Success! Then, I would ask him to “follow” my hand, and have him walk all around me – weaving around, sometimes walking backward, anything but a straight line so he had to pay attention to me. I was able to make this routine work pretty well to keep him from getting to the point of pulling/barking/rearing up. For the times when he’d already started to escalate before I could interrupt, I carried a squirt bottle filled with water. He really doesn’t like getting squirted, so it is extremely effective in interrupting the unwanted behavior. Once interrupted, I used the follow/treat techniques to keep his attention. This was our routine. It wasn’t perfect, but at least his behavior was mostly manageable on our short walks. He had successfully met several dogs while we had been on walks (admittedly, not always behaving perfectly before the greetings) and I began to notice the differences in his “I really want to meet that dog” reactivity and his “that dog makes me nervous and I need it to go away” reactivity.
The true test of our progress came when we attended the annual family “camping” trip at South Beach State Park in Newport, Oregon, in July. (I use the word “camping” loosely –the location was a crowded state park campground, so definitely not the tranquil natural environment you might first imagine when hearing the word “camping.”) This was Buddy’s first major outing with our extended family, so the pressure was on to make it a successful one for all involved. Neither Buddy nor I were perfect at the campground, but we both learned quite a lot. We had lots of practice seeing other dogs walk by, meeting other dogs, meeting new people, and walking on leash near strange dogs. He did react, but it was better controlled. He was often able to sit as another leashed dog approached (not always, but many times). Sometimes that resulted in him getting to meet the dog (Yay! That’s what he wanted!), but not always. We definitely learned how much fun running on the beach (on a 50-foot leash) is AND how much better behaved a tired dog is!
The trip was a success largely because we got to deepen our relationship with each other. I learned to understand what he was “telling” me when he was tired and just couldn’t do another “new” thing until he rested. I learned how to manage his reactivity in a much more chaotic environment. I learned that he’s ALWAYS ready for a treat. He learned that I will pay attention to him and give him rest when he needs it. He learned that other people give him delicious human food sometimes just because he’s so cute. He learned that running on the beach is the BEST way to spend a morning. Mostly, we learned to trust each other more, and that’s the true foundation of any training.