Our new-to-us retired seeing eye dog, Tajji, has been making good progress with her reactivity to other dogs and sometimes to people. A great deal of this progress has occurred in the “Reactive Rover” class taught by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs in Soquel, CA. This does not necessarily mean Tajji can and will take what she’s learned (“good things happen when I look calmly at another dog”) and apply them to other places and other dogs. Dogs do not generalize. To them, every situation is unique. This is why practicing in as many environments and with as many diverse combinations of stimuli is necessary.
At the last formal meeting of the class, only two dogs attended: Tajji (with both of us) and George-The-Labrador (with his surprisingly spry 90 yo owner). We practiced with a small (real) dog decoy behind a blind. This means that the little dog was behind a three foot high screen, and her handler brought her out where the “student” dog could see her. At first, the exposure was just a peek-a-boo, then standing still but constant, then moving. Movement draws a dog’s attention and is therefore more strongly stimulating. The student dog was rewarded for calm behavior by getting to run away, then praise and a treat. The retreat is a “functional reward” – that is, the thing that makes the dog nervous becomes farther away, and since dogs are highly sensitive to distance, the dog becomes happier and calmer. Gradually, we waited until the student dog disengaged with the decoy: a Look-Away, a lip lick, or even the sideways flick of a perked ear. All these things signal that the dog is not longer “locked and loaded” on the decoy. The dog has chosen to step back from confrontation. A Look-Away is particularly powerful because a direct, fixed stare is threatening. We then reward our dog in the same manner as before for lowering the tension of the visual encounter.
At the end of the class, both dogs were doing so well that Sandi offered us two additional sessions with just these two. Instead
of a small decoy handled by one of her associate teachers, each dog would be the decoy for the other. This sounded promising for several reasons. One is that Tajji is more reactive to small dogs than to large ones. George-The-Labrador is basically your happy-goofy Lab who’s had a rough time (his dog-buddy and his dad-monkey died within a short time of one another, and his mom-monkey moved to a different location); his threshold (the distance at which he reacts) is much shorter than Tajji’s – that is, another dog can get much closer to him before he is stressed. Thirdly, each dog comes to the field to play, so the passing of time reinforces “this is a happy place” associations.
We began the session with peek-a-boo exercises for Tajji, who was behind the blind. We’d lead her out so she could just barely see around the blind, let her get a peek at George, who was hanging out with his owner, and zip her back to visual safety. Gradually, we lengthened the distance and time of exposure until we could lead her out from behind the blind and walk toward George (at a diagonal because head-on is more threatening). After a time of this, we put the dogs back in their car crates to think about things and chill out.
Our second round included walking the dogs in a big (excuse me, B-I-I-G) circle in the same direction, staying on the same diameter. After they relaxed a bit, we had them sit and marked the places with flags, then walked them around to the place where the other dog had sat and let them sniff (with much praise and many tasty treats! Smelling another dog = good!)
At the end of the class, the dogs were about 30 feet from one another, watching each other but not fixedly, and fairly happy. I say “fairly” because Tajji was not entirely relaxed, but she was able to manage her anxiety herself. This is a huge improvement over her barking and lunging at the sight of another dog 250 feet away.
Stay tuned for our next report!