Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups

Helping dogs on the road to forever, forever finding ourselves as we walk that road with them.


9 Comments

Balton the Brave: Super Hero Flight School

Life as a superhero in training is perhaps a little different for Balton than the average caped crusader. While other heroes are working on leaping tall buildings in a single bound or using superhuman strength to carry cars over their heads, Balton works on not sweating the small stuff and using superpuppy self-control to keep calm and carry on.

Following Balton’s beautiful stranger moment, I didn’t think it could get much better for the week in class. But it did, because our classmate wasn’t the only one who had noticed Balton’s good behavior. After nearly a year of hard work and much practice, Balton earned a new cape.

baltonorangebandana

Okay, not a cape, exactly. But close. This orange bandana is what they give to Rowdy Rovers when they are allowed to go to a “regular” class. It means Balton has  shown enough confidence and skills through his behavior modification to try one out, so he can work on his training skills in a new environment. Much like the capes that he’s worn before, this orange bandana must be worn in his new class, so the other students and new teachers can easily identify he needs space, and Balton can learn without getting overwhelmed by other people not familiar with Rowdy Rover protocol being too close or making him uncomfortable. But unlike those other capes, he’s earned this one. And he’s going where no Balton has dared to go before.

Our caped crusader’s next adventure is going to be different. It’s going to be new, which means it’s probably going to be just a little scary at first. But I know his teachers will help me to help him feel safe, just as a good super hero sidekick helps to provide backup. And if we do a good job, B will have found one more not-so-scary place in this world.

We hope you’ll wish us a little extra Lucky Dog luck this week, but more than that, we hope you’ll send us lots of encouragement for superhero courage.


11 Comments

Reactivity Activities: Balton Joins the Pit Crew

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!

pitbull shepherd

Once upon a time, the Shepherds were the breed of choice to pick on as inherently dangerous, and many GSDs are still banned from many apartment buildings here in the DC metro area, so Balton totally empathizes with his Bully brethren.

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.

baltonsmile

Heeeey, good job Ma! You’re making great progress in your training!

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.

20131028-125017.jpg

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.

20131028-125032.jpg

Out on the trail, with a big smile on his face (and a red bandanna – just like adoption events days of old – ah, memories).

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!”

baltonpitcrew

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.

20131028-132336.jpg

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 pitcrewwalks@awla.org 


8 Comments

Muzzle Up!

“In the world of dog behavior, one of the most essential pieces of safety equipment we have is the muzzle. Unfortunately,  their appearance and the judgments associated with them prevent their usage, sometimes with tragic consequences.”
– Maureen Backman, Mutts About Town & The Muzzle Up! Project

Social media is a beautiful thing sometimes. Last week, an article on my Facebook news feed led me to my most current “I am so excited about this” thing. And let me tell you, I am excited about it.

baltonbigsmile

Those of you who know this blog, or the dog in training who inspires much of it, know that Balton has been a work in progress when it comes to his reactions to people on leash and in the home. While it makes me happy to report that many of his learnings in doggy school seem to be translating to real life, and his confidence in new interactions continues to improve, he is still in training. Because his reactions to the things that scare him lean to the “fight” side of “fight or flight”, and the outside world is unpredictable sometimes, we use a muzzle as an extra layer of management.

For a really long time I was wary of using a muzzle, and I regret not embracing its use earlier on in training. My reason for being so wary was because I was afraid of the stigma that would be attached to it. I read articles about how muzzles are great management tools while training reactive dogs, like this one from Best Friends Animal Society, or this one from Fearfuldogs.com.

I understood the message: Muzzles are important. Muzzles keep people safe. Counter-condition your dog to using the muzzle, and do it, because it is the responsible thing to do.

But, nowhere in these wonderfully informative articles do they address the hangup I had, or the hangup that I suspect a lot of people have with them: Muzzles look scary, and I didn’t want to taint my then foster dog’s public image any further by using one.

Eventually I had a wake up call, and with it, the basket muzzle became staple on all walks. Even the most experienced handlers, trainers, dog walkers, whomever, are susceptible to accidents. No human is immune to human error, and I never again want to find myself in a situation where a dog who may potentially bite actually does, because I was too stubborn and insecure to put a muzzle on him.

It’s now an accessory that accompanies Balton on every walk, every time.  But still, I felt by putting a muzzle on him, I was basically telling the world he was bad. He was broken. He was mean. He was a menace. When in reality, what I wanted people to know was, yes, he’s a DINOS. He’s got his issues that he is working on. But he is a GOOD DOG.

Even for the number of photos I share of my dogs here, and on Facebook and Instagram, I was always wary to post photos of Balton wearing his muzzle for fear of public opinion. I guess there’s an element of identifying your “kid” is not like all the others, but not wanting to plaster it everywhere for people to editorialize about.

Enter the Muzzle Up! Project to help people like me get over the hangups, and be proud to promote muzzle wearing pups like mine. The movement “promotes safety and education on muzzles and dog behavior, and aims to reduce the stigma associated with dogs who have to wear them…It’s not unreasonable that we should be wary of muzzles. After all, their main usage is to prevent dog bites, something we’ve been conditioned to fear. But which scenario is more unsettling: Encountering a dog whose owner has taken the protective measure of using a muzzle, or encountering a dog whose owner is aware of the potential for aggressive behavior but refrains from using one? While the second dog may not look as scary, the lack of muzzle presents a much more dangerous situation.”

So. Very. True. I wish I had this insight six months ago.

But, learning is a process, so while I can’t go back in time, I can pay it forward right now and encourage you to join B and me in spreading the word that muzzles are to be respected, but not to be feared. To help send that message home, here are a few photos of Balton living, loving, and “nuzzling his muzzle”.

To join in the movement, visit The Muzzle Up! Project site or follow them on Facebook.


2 Comments

Reactivity Activities: TTouch Much?

This is the first official entry in my ongoing series about Reactivity Activities. Though not meant to substitute for actual training, these extracurricular activities are meant to serve as complements to our ongoing training efforts in order to reduce stress and thus, reactive episodes, for Balton as he takes on the big scary monsters (well, perceived big scary monsters) of the world. Today, a recap on our first session with a TellingtonTouch (or TTouch) Practitioner.

Balton and I trekked up to Woodside TTouch in Silver Spring MD this past Sunday to meet with Pam Wanveer, a Level 3 TTouch Practitioner. I knew very little about what TTouch involved but had seen it referenced in a few places during my continued self-education, and our trainers at All About Dogs had suggested Woodside TTouch as a resource for “helping a dog learn to be more relaxed, confident, and secure in the environment.”

I also had learned about Linda Tellington-Jones (developer of TTouch) during my reading of Suzanne Clothier’s book, Bones Would Rain From the Sky, officially one of my favorite books ever. Suzanne Clothier’s relationship based training methods are heavily influenced by Linda Tellington-Jones. I had to learn more about the person who inspired she who so inspired me.

bones

Last month, Your Dog’s Friend was offering a TTouch group workshop, which once again nudged me into thinking this might be something worth looking into. Uncertain that a workshop setting would be helpful for Balton (and therefore, its other attending students if he acted up and started an uprising) I emailed ahead to explain his situation and gauge if I should sign up for it. Ultimately, Pam and I decided that one-on-one TTouch time would probably be best for him. After several emails, sending a copy of Balton’s most recent behavior evaluation, a phone call, and some back and forth schedule conflicts, we were able to set up a time to get together this past weekend.

TTouch was developed by Linda Tellington-Jones in the 1970s. Its origins are with horses, but the practice has since been developed for companion animals, and even humans. According to the TellingtonTouch website, TTouch “is a method based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body. The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence…Using a combination of specific touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to release tension and increase body awareness. This allows the animal to be handled without provoking typical fear responses. The animal can then more easily learn new and more appropriate behaviors.”

For those of us who are more visual learners, check out the video below for a demonstrative summary.

(if you can’t see the embedded video, click here to go to the YouTube Page)

Sound like new age, sort of crazy medical magical mumbo jumbo? You betcha. But was I intrigued? You betcha. There have been lots of research studies done on TTouch and it is accepted worldwide. Training is helpful for skill building, but proactive efforts toward overall stress reduction will (I hope) ultimately assist in continued learning.

Much of our first session was focused on helping me understand a little bit of the science behind TTouch, while also working to set up a positive relationship between Balton and Pam. She put on some beef stew to get the room smelling yummy, and had a number of cozy blankets for Balton to lie on. She had chicken in butter, as well as other high value treats, at the ready for him and made a point to interact with Balton in a non-threatening way, capturing and shaping behaviors that showed relaxation (deep breaths and laying down without being prompted to, for example).

I had thought that TTouch was sort of like doggy massage – which it kind of is – but not quite. Instead, the idea is that “a system of non-habitual touch is believed to activate unused neural pathways and even create new, more complex neural connections within the body and the mind, to sharpen awareness, mind body integration and the ability to learn new information.” (source) – I guess if I had to come up with an imperfect analogy, it’s a little more like doggy yoga in the sense that the mind becomes calm through awareness of body. The touches are very light, but very purposeful.

All the while she talking to me about neurotransmitters and pathways, lobes in brain and shifting states. If I’m being honest, a lot of it went over my head because I was half focused on making sure Balton wasn’t getting keyed up and deciding he wanted to attack our new friend. If he stood in one position for too long I called his attention, but Pam assured me she was getting a lot of blinks, which is much better than a hard stare. He also was willing to turn his back to her as time wore on, and started begging her for food. Like, hard core begging, coupled with lots of whimpering, barking, and other vocalizations. The same sort of noise we get at home when Balton is attempting to demand something from us – like going outside or playing with him. I was pretty embarrassed.

But then Pam smiled and said “I’d rather he be bored to tears than intently focused on getting me.” Which, I suppose was a fairly good point. He soon started to figure out if he laid on the mat instead of barking, he would get the chicken.

Still, enough of it processed and resonated that I wanted very much to learn more. Among what was discussed was this concept of an awakened state of mind. “Studies suggest that horses move into an awakened mind state when training with Tellington Touch techniques. The Awakened Mind reflects a state of balance and optimal functioning that is expressed in a particular balance of delta, theta, alpha and beta brainwaves. Enhanced intuition, creativity, insight and spiritual awareness can occur. The body is relaxed and the mind is alive and capable of learning with ease. As described by Linda Tellington-Jones, the horse that is working in the awakened mind state learns more quickly and is safer to ride because the horse’s capacity to think helps it to override primary instincts to flee in novel or startling situations.” (source – with cool charts to help illustrate the delta/theta/alpha/beta balances).

Pam used an analogy of when you are taking a test and struggling to recall some bit of information and totally freaking out about it, then all of a sudden you have an “ah ha” moment and a flash of important info just sort of comes to you. This is sort of what the awakened state of mind can be likened to.

We spent the last bit of our session practicing TTouch on Balton. Well, I practiced and Pam supervised, in the interest of keeping session #1 a good one for B. I don’t really get how little circular touches have such a big impact, but after only a few minutes of practicing TTouch, it was remarkable how Balton’s face just softened and he laid in a position that exuded relaxation. I guess you had to be there to really get it, but I was amazed. I left feeling my own mind in an awakened state, and Balton slept in the car the whole ride home.

I still feel like I have much to learn, but I am fascinated and officially a believer. The only issue is too many in person appointments will get to be very expensive very quickly. Coupled with the weekly training we are already doing I know I will need to limit how much professional TTouch we can actually afford. But, if it will ultimately help Balton continue to excel in his training, and become equipped to find a sense of calm, I believe it’s worth it, and no matter how much professional help I can manage to get, this is definitely something I can (and plan to) do regularly at home. We’ve only scratched the surface but I can’t wait to dig deeper!

baltonsleep


8 Comments

Persistence Drive

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:

20130805-105709.jpg

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.

20130805-081428.jpg

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.


5 Comments

Balton the Brave: Out-of-Towner Encounters

For those of you who don’t already know, Balton the Brave is a name that developed during what I might identify as a turning point in our training efforts. Balton the Brave is more than a name at this point, it’s an emotion. A feeling that is in a class all its own, which identifies every singular snapshot moment where I can clearly identify how hard he is working to be good, how well he is working to manage his stress, how brave he is in that very moment.

I love Balton in so many moments – our quiet moments, our playful moments, our learning moments, and our challenging moments. But when my superhero dog shows up, I don’t think I could possibly love him more.

From Wednesday night to Saturday morning, my parents and my husband’s family were in from out of town. My parents and their dog stayed with us, and in the weeks leading up to their visit I was planning for it. We painted, we cleaned, and we made a plan for Balton.

In previous encounters with in-home visitors, my well-intentioned efforts often involved introducing him to people in an effort to “socialize” him when he quite simply wasn’t ready, or crating him in the kitchen so he could see what was going on, and guests could move about freely but he could be in his safe little den. These misguided methods inevitably led to high stress levels all around, but most especially for Balton.

One of the things I’ve learned is that common training knowledge has exceptions when you’re dealing with a dog who doesn’t generally deal all that well. As it turns out, the “safe place” of a dog crate for a fearful dog does little to help him when you have it positioned in a place where people would walk towards it to walk by it. Womp.

One of the other things I’ve learned through these encounters is that humans aren’t so great at following instructions. Or maybe I’m just not that clear in them? I don’t know – but in instances where I have advised guests not to look at the dog or talk to the dog, they do both within seconds. In instances where I say toss treats on the floor, they somehow want to try and toss them into the dog’s mouth. Which requires them to pay attention to the dog. Womp, womp.

 

photo (3)I’ll have you know I am not the problem here. Human error is the problem here. 

So, this time around I took the “take no chances” approach, coupled with a “the best defense is a good offense” approach. The latter approach has been implemented by Balton on a few occasions and gotten him in some trouble, so the cornerstone to success this go round was that I would be implementing it on his behalf.

Before the visit, I readied my stockpile of Kongs and Marrowbones with my housemade recipe of frozen yummables. It was sort of like a doggie stew with chicken stock, ground beef, dehydrated food, and kibble. Hardly a gourmet recipe worth reposting, but here are some good quick recipes for stuffing your own Kong at home. While the boys are fed their meals in a Kong so they have to work a little at them, the frozen and high value delicious treats I stocked up on are few and far between, so his receiving them marks a truly special and wonderful occasion.

Our trainer had taught us the importance of two forms of management when we have people over as we continue working with Balton on his training. So when we are out on walks or have people in our home, we need to have a two piece management plan in case one piece fails. We also want to make sure we’re working to keep Balton from practicing unwanted behavior, or getting stressed out, and allow him safe opportunities for positive association building with the guests in our home.

Wednesday night was the night with the most people over, as the in-laws also came by for dinner. So, Balton was given a good run at the dog park before we went home to our guests, and when we came through the front door, immediately ushered upstairs to our bedroom, given a delicious frozen yummable, and asked to “go to bed.” He settled into his crate (management 1) and was given a stress relieving activity to work at and make him feel good, then closed in the bedroom (management 2) safely behind a closed door.

After we had wrapped up dinner and the dishes were washed, and everyone sitting calmly around the table, we practiced a little counterconditioning and desensitization. I went up with my treat pouch, a leash, and a basket muzzle, and hung out with Balton at the bottom of the stairs. Again, we had two forms of management and a stress relieving activity, as well as an easy out so he didn’t feel cornered (could easily run up the steps to escape the scary monsters invading out home if needed). He is becoming an old pro at offering behaviors and paying attention to me for rewards, thanks to our work at Rowdy Rovers class and out on our walks. Our visit was brief, and he happily focused on me for a few minutes and did sits, downs, and touches before we retreated back upstairs – notably before Balton was given an opportunity to get stressed out. No reactions, no incidents, no fear.

We continued this pattern over the course of the next few days, and Balton perhaps spent more time in our room than he would have liked to.  Friday after I got home from work, we allowed him to come out of the crate and stay in the kitchen, draping a sheet over his baby gate so as not to cause visual stress, and muzzling him. My parents were good at letting me play host (i.e. not going towards the kitchen) and Balton settled on his bed or the cold kitchen tiles (it was also about 100 degrees during this visit…yuck).

bmuzzle

Super Hero Sa-nooz-in. Mom’ s got the scary monsters under control.

We even took him on a walk with my mom Friday, and again on Saturday morning. My mom handled her dog and Ollie, and I walked Balton.  We walked side by side, let them walk ahead, and let them walk behind us. Balton was unfazed, which was a big, big deal for us. Balton has met my mom on a few earlier occasions, and it’s clear that he has gotten to be pretty okay with her – when she moved around at home he didn’t bark, but when my dad did he would woof about it some. This is also super encouraging behavior though, since it shows as people give him time and space, he can come around if they just take it slow.

Saturday morning the house cleared out – and while Balton’s interactions were incredibly limited with our guests (he was more around them than engaging with them) – he shined. I think he felt like we really did keep him safe this time. In turn, he was able to relax and feel good about himself when they came, they went, nothing bad happened in between, and he could return to his usual spot on the couch.

balton

Saturday afternoon – life back to normal and a very proud pooch!

While he might not be the dog who can hang out during house parties, we have an Ollie for that who will happily oblige to seeking out attention and accepting snacks from guests. Nevertheless, knowing we can have strangers and Balton under the same roof, and even in the same room for little bits, with a little bit of advance planning and management (while we keep on truckin’ with the training), is a cause in my mind for celebration and superhero fanfare.


4 Comments

Reactivity Activities: My Fair Balton

When Balton entered my world, I got a crash course on what it means to live with a reactive dog.

It means spending days cuddling up on the couch and laughing at the silly grunts and groans my dog makes when he sleeps. It means delightful games of tug and fetch. It means finding myself caught between teaching polite manners and loving the fact that a dog can be so excited to see his people that it takes every fiber in his being to keep all four paws on the ground when he says “hi”. It means enjoying in each other’s company and looking at a happy, wonderful, relaxed dog and wishing that everyone could see what I see.

relaxedbaltonThis, for example…

In those moments, I look in his eyes and ask him “why are you so normal here, and so whacked out to the outside world?” He’s yet to answer me back, unless a doggy smooch or this look with his head on my lap counts as a response.

baltonface

It means bracing myself when I grab the leash, and praying for as few encounters as possible. It seems curmudgeonly to not want to see my neighbors, but saying “hi” to someone across the street or not darting off with an enthusiastic “let’s go!” when I see someone coming from behind could disrupt the balance that hangs in my hands by way of a leash. It means avoiding trails, sticking to roads, and gathering as much info about a person I see off in the distance about where they are headed so I can do my part keep them at bay, and so B doesn’t feel like he needs to be the one to create space. It means never leaving home without my best treats and a clicker, because the street outside the front door is always a high stakes training environment.

I should probably preface this next section by noting I was a Theatre major in college. I was never really brave enough after graduation to pursue that career path, and have a deep level of respect for to all my fellow alumni who are making careers on stage, in film, or behind the scenes. Nevertheless, I remain a bit of a theatre nerd, which remains a useful presentation and learning tool in many facets of my life. So, forgive me now for the theatre nerd about to emerge.

When I think of Balton, I can’t help but think of Eliza Dolittle from the musical “My Fair Lady” (or “Pygmalion” I suppose, but I was always more fond of musicals). I picture her whimsically signing “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” in one scene one moment, and yelling “You oughta be stuffed with nails, you ought!” in another. I honestly wonder if maybe that’s what Balton is saying to people when he barks and lunges at them on walks. Sure sounds like it in dogspeak.

The Eliza Dolittle we first see behind closed doors isn’t exactly delicate, but a more subdued version of the Eliza the world sees, with a good heart and sincerity. She is crass to people, but I believe she is that way out of self preservation. Much like My Fair Balton.

eliza

Julie Andrews as Eliza Dolittle the Cockney Flower Girl – I swear I see Balton make this face almost daily (source)

I would hope to be equated to more a thoughtful Colonel Pickering than a selfish Henry Higgins in our lessons of “My Fair Balton” the musical, but sometimes, our sessions together can be a bit exasperating. And sometimes, we have a “The Rain in Spain” moment.

To supplement our training, we implement some management methods to prevent the practice of unwanted behaviors. To keep track of them and where they lead us, I am going to document some of them here to make notes on what develops, and what we learn from our “Reactivity Activities.” Activities such as:

  • Obstructing view outside the front window
  • Head halters and harnesses in training and on walks
  • Working with triggers from a distance (and eventually, closing that distance)
  • Working with the Manners Minder (and other manners minding methods)
  • Thoughts on Thundershirts
  • Experimenting with essential oils
  • And more…

As we continue to give a little, listen a little, respond a little and try not to trip on our toes during our ongoing dance, I hope we may be able to get the perpetual feeling of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

I hope we continue to spread our wings, and do a thousand things we’ve never done before.