This Saturday was National Pit Bull Awareness day, and Balton celebrated in good form by joining up as a member of a club that devotes itself to Pit Bull Awareness. He’s very passionate about social education and advocacy with issues pertaining to his canine buddies!
Okay, so really it was more of a happy coincidence that he happened to meet up with this group on this very important holiday, but we were super excited to join them, and Balton is very proud to be an honorary Pit Bull.
Let’s backtrack a bit. A few months ago I had started reading up on structured social dog walking groups and found what I was reading fascinating. Groups like Chicago Sociabulls, KC Pittie Pack, and Positive Pittie Pack Walk. In fact, it was a post about PPPW featured on the Chicago Sociabulls group that first drew my attention to the idea. See it here to get a sense on why I was so inspired.
I loved the concept behind these groups. While part of their effort is to change perceptions about bully breeds (mission point #1 that I love), they also strive to help dog owners offer safe and structured environments for dogs. They provide opportunities to be in group settings with other people and dogs, allowing the opportunity to work on leash manners and have good experiences with dog owners who won’t judge them. And, there are rules. Rules about where dogs fall in the lineup, rules about not allowing dogs to greet before, during, or after walks. We love rules. We love tools that facilitate those rules to be followed, like providing special colored bandanas to make it clear which dogs need more space, and dogless walkers to offer a buffer between the group and dogs and their owners who were not with the group. We love a kindhearted understanding that some dogs will need more space than others, and this doesn’t make them a bad dog. This was exactly the kind of support network Balton needed.
I started looking into Meetups to try and find a similar group and was disheartened to find other dog walking groups seemed lovely, but weren’t really conducive to what we were looking for. Many of them took routes where members could and would allow dogs off leash. I had visions of dogs and people rushing us and giving dirty looks since we walk him in a basket muzzle and need to respectfully request space. I pictured Balton and I both having a panic attack on a trail out in Virginia somewhere, with me wondering why people are so resistant to leash laws, and why I would put my dog in an environment that would effectively make future walks much more stressful.
A year with Balton has taught me some valuable lessons about taking hindsight experiences to improve foresight.
Then my friend and fellow foster Angel of Wet Nose Seeks Warm Bed told me that the Animal Welfare League of Arlington actually has a walking group. In fact, I had been following their offshoot group the AWLA Pit Crew for some time because of their awareness and education efforts towards myth busting, promoting adoption, and responsible ownership of bully breeds. But I had no idea they also had a structured walking group. A few emails and questions later (among which admittedly included “is it okay that my dog is not a Pit Bull?”) and I was reviewing their rules, submitting B-man’s info, and eagerly awaiting my first walk invite. I decided to attend the first group walk solo, so I could get a sense on how things are run. I wanted to (a) determine that this would be a good fit for Balton and (b) get out some of my own nervous jitters so that I could feel better prepared when I decided to bring Balton out. Everyone was so incredibly nice and welcoming, and dogs who had reactivity issues were designated with red bandannas so that other group members knew they needed extra space. That said, they require that walkers keep a minimum of five (5) feet of space between dogs even if their dog is a social butterfly (and note that some dogs will need much more space). As the walk progresses, some dogs may be able to shorten that distance, but they keep a strict no contact rule throughout the walk.
So, after my dogless walk, I felt awesome, and was excited to bring Balton out to this Saturday’s walk starting at the Marie Leven Butler Reserve in McLean, VA.
It was a cold start to the morning, and there was a lot of novelty for Balton. Fortunately, the DINOS stars smiled on Balton and it was a pretty small walk this week. There were only two other dogs (one of whom is dog reactive) and four other people. It didn’t stop Balton from doing a bit of introductory barking and lunging, but our fellow walkers were very kind and placed us in the way in the way back so we could control the distance between us and the group. There were dogless walkers able to alert us if there was a person/dog/car up ahead to be aware of, and would also help run interference so that we didn’t have any catastrophic run-ins. As the walk wore on, Balton’s comfort level increased and we were able to decrease distance with the dog and people in front of us. There were a lot of new smells and exciting things, but Balton did really well at checking in with me regularly and staying focused (at a high rate of reinforcement) when two dogs from outside the group bypassed us on the trail. Having heads up and emotional support from the group made these encounters so much easier to handle.
We crossed over a river by way of a rock path, we saw a lot of beautiful houses, and we sniffed a lot of ground (well, Balton sniffed). And when we were done, we had a short reconvene with our new friends (no greeting, just standing around for a moment before parting ways) and B was in a really good place.
When we got back to the car he had this look on his face that seemed to say “Holy wow, did I just walk with a bunch of new people and dogs and enjoy myself??? I’m gonna have a party here in the back seat!”
And then he pretty quickly realized that he had covered a lot of ground (physically, mentally, and emotionally), and it turned out he was pretty exhausted. So he napped the whole way home.
While some might argue that these structured walks don’t exactly make for a “social” setting, this was a huge day for Balton. For him, this IS a social event, and what’s more important, it’s a social event that allows him to change associations with humans attached to on leash dogs. He doesn’t really get the chance to go on walks with anyone other than Nick, our dog walker Alex, and me. And other people walking dogs is something that stresses Balton out a lot when we are out in the world. We’re good at keeping distance, but we don’t get the opportunity to use those one-off encounters as good learning experiences for him because we cannot trust strangers to be understanding or respectful of his space or fears.
Keeping below threshold is not easy, and dogs on leash with their people are the scariest thing for him, triggering his worst reactions. I believe this bizarre reaction has something to do with fear of humans, but also frustrated greeting for the dog. He really likes other dogs and wants very badly to get more info on them, and in fact got to be okay with Alex, (who he did not start on good terms with) after I took him on a walk with Alex and his dog, Hank. Hank started coming on walks for awhile after that, and Alex was greeted much more favorably when he came to our home. Since then, Alex remains one of the few in Balton’s trust circle, which is incredibly fortunate for us. However, we had fallen into a pattern for awhile of on leash dog = total cluster of leash gremlinism, with no clear way to help generate a better experience.
So, creating a positive walk experience in the company of other humans and their on leash dogs is kind of a big deal, and the more he gets to do it, the better I think walks will be in general for him. To that end, yesterday we had an amazing walk with regular check ins and happy demeanor, even when we had to bypass a scary (by Balton standards) man raking leaves and a gaggle of screaming children running every which way. Nick and Ollie help to provide a great buffer zone, but Balton was so much less stressed on yesterday’s walk than I think I have ever seen him on a walk.
I can’t help but believe his good time Saturday carried over, and can only hope that more of these walks will help Balton continue enjoy himself on walks, which, honestly had been very difficult for a very long time.
I’m so, so grateful that the AWLA Pit Crew exists, and am so grateful they have been so welcoming and supportive of Balton and other dogs like him with specific challenges. Having said that, the AWLA Pit Crew Walking Group is not just for reactive dogs! It’s a social group that is welcoming of all dogs and has amazing volunteers. They also are always in need of more volunteers to get involved and help host walk sites, which we plan to do after attending a few more walks.
To learn more about them, visit www.awla.org/volunteer/pit-crew/ and to find out how to join the Pit Crew walking group, email firstname.lastname@example.org