Every Thursday night for the last almost 4 months now, I have brought Balton out to our “Relaxing Rowdy Rovers” behavior modification class at All About Dogs. Each week I try to time my commute just so, so that I can zip from Tysons Corner to Woodbridge (almost 30 miles each way) by catching the HOV lanes right when they open, swing by home to grab Balton, a treat pouch and frozen/apportioned treats that I refer to as his “school snack”, and zip again to the other side of Woodbridge (another 8 miles door to door) so we can make it there by 7pm.
Sometimes I am late, and often I am flustered and feeling like I am just about to hit the run course of a Sprint Triathlon when I arrive, as a result of my calculated preparations, transitions, moments of panic, and yet still not being done for the day. I hit traffic, or I get home and realize I forgot to lay out the Thundershirt. Last week Nick beat me home, and his proactive effort to be helpful by feeding the boys was met with a crazed and ungrateful “Why did you feed him before class?!” Sometimes I think perhaps I should be in a class for Finding-Your-Happy-Place for Fido’s Frantic Female, or something to that effect.
All (human) students attend an orientation before their first class, and they tell us that they rather we show up late than not at all. So, while I try not to be late, I take that advice to heart each week. If I get there at 6:55 or 7:20, I show up, no matter what.
In some ways it’s nice to be in a class with other people and dogs like us. We never converse with one another for the benefit of our dogs, and going from our cars to the classroom and our individual condos (which, by the way, are not as luxurious as they sounds – but fashioned out of PVC piping and draped with a garbage bag) is like air traffic control, but in our own quiet, non-communicative way, we tell each other we get it. Nobody feels like they have to apologize for outbursts, and no one needs to be on alert to say “sorry, my dog is reactive, please keep your distance” to unknowing people who walk right at you with their dogs on retractable leashes that don’t seem to ever lock.
Some weeks are better for us than others, as might be expected when you are in a room with 5 other dogs who all have different levels of and triggers for their reactivity issues. It’s sort of a rolling admission class, so space is limited to no more than six dogs. If you’re identified as a Rowdy Rover, you’re placed on a waiting list until a spot opens, and you stay in for as long as you (a) need the class and (b) are able/willing to renew membership for. Some Rowdy Rovers are dog reactive, some are human reactive, some are both. Some have been in the class a few weeks, some a few months, some over a year. When I first signed up for the class I signed up for 4 months, thinking Balton would build some skills over the span of about a month or so and quickly graduate out to the basic obedience levels classes.
4 months later, we remain Rowdy Rovers and are preparing to renew – my long term goal remains to graduate and integrate into a class setting with “regular” dogs. I just don’t know how long it will take to reach that goal, and though I remain hopeful that he is on his way, our accomplishments are measured and celebrated in smaller increments:
- being able to eat, focus, touch, sit, lay down, settle inside the condo
- Being able to handle the extra stimulation outside the condo.
- Heck, I even count it a victory when Balton doesn’t pee on the condo.
For most, it’s probably not anything special when someone says “remind me next week that I am going to toss your dog treats.” For me, those words from our trainer equates to hearing we won some rally title at an obedience competition, because it means he’s getting closer to having positive human interactions in an environment where he can learn, where people understand his body language, and where they have reasonable expectations of how far he can go before he reaches his tipping point.
Our trainers identify him as a worrier, but he works hard each week. He often starts out excited to work, and after time wears on, the barking dogs around him from in class and the daycare next door start to wear on him. He doesn’t ever join in on the barking, but his ears move back and forth like antennae and he sometimes shows concern about what is behind him when I’m asking him to sit and focus on me. When we go back to the car, he is relieved to be done and my hands smell like the flavor of the week – sometimes chicken, sometimes lamb, sometimes fish. 45 minutes of being a good student tends to look something like this at the end:
And I can’t help but feel that way a little myself as we head out of the parking lot, after intently watching each signal Balton offers – to tell me he can handle it, to tell me moments later no, he’d rather not – and when he tells me that, finding a way to let him know he’s been heard and helping him relax within the limited confines of the classroom environment. It’s the delicate dance we do, the silent talk we have, in order to make sure he knows he’s safe, that he doesn’t have to act out, and that the strange people and dogs around him (who, to be fair, are starting to become familiar faces) mean there are delicious treats coming. In this talk, he also tells me he’s ready to practice our work of the day. He hasn’t lunged in class since week two, and his cut-off signals have become much more polite.
Translating our experiences in our classroom to the world outside it is bit different, and we still struggle to get through daily walks without reactions. Maybe he knows he’s in good company at Rowdy Rovers class, and that each week, no matter the worry, he gets his most delicious treats and makes it out okay. In class, space is respected, and in the outside world, the retractable leashes are still there, still not locking. The people still walk at us and are quick to judge if Balton isn’t okay with it because he can’t predict their intentions. Because of this, I know he’s not quite ready to graduate to a class with the “regular” dogs. Not yet.
And as we turn onto the road that our school is on, as we turn off it to head home, we pass the street sign that acts as a gentle zen landmark for me. Our school on Persistence Drive.
He may not be ready to move up next week, or the next, or the next. But one day, he will be, and so we keep at it. While I somehow doubt the placement was deliberate, this street sign sure helps my frantic-post work self take a breath on our way in, and helps me look forward to going back the next week.