It’s been a few months since I’ve posted our adventures in rehabilitating our retired service dog. Tajji, a 10 ½ year old German Shepherd Dog, could no longer perform seeing eye work due to extreme reactivity to other dogs and sometimes strange people. We’ve had her a year now, and most of that time has been spent working on making her retirement calm and happy.
When Tajji came to live with us, she was not accustomed to cats, although we suspect she had been exposed to them in her pre-training foster home. Our two dog-savvy cats, black male Shakir and brown-tabby-and-white Gayatri, patiently taught her “cat manners.” She in turn taught them fun games. Shakir in particular will invite play with her and the two of them romp about the house. Tajji will gently place a paw on Shakir’s back and he must not mind terribly, because he never hisses or lays his ears back. We haven’t found them curled up together yet, but they often sleep within inches of each other. On the few occasions that Gayatri has escaped the house, Tajji has happily “herded” her back. (Since our neighborhood is also home to coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion, we keep our cats indoors.)
One source of stress for Tajji was the entrance of human visitors into our yard. We put up a sign on the back gate, asking folks to ring the hanging bell or call us so that we could settle Tajji in her crate before letting them in. After some practice, Tajji became comfortable just being in the house. Recently, we have found her sitting inside the gate when a friend (or sometimes she’s never met) comes to call, politely waiting to be introduced. Her greeting skills have improved, too. Since she knows “touch,” we ask the visitor to hold one hand at their side, palm out. We tell Tajji, “touch,” and the moment she does, we call her back for a treat. She now understands that it is not okay to jump on people, although if she gets excited, she will jump sideways in front of them.
By far, Tajji’s biggest challenge remains other dogs. After a break of about a month from her “reactive rover” practice sessions, we expected some backsliding when exposed to a strange dog in the class setting. Our teacher paired her with a fairly relaxed young female Golden Retriever, who had a short threshold for dog reactivity. She placed the Golden outside a round wire pen used for agility training, and Tajji outside on the opposite side. At first, they walked parallel to one another, then one would stay still while the other moved, since movement increases reactivity, and gradually the distance was lessened. Somewhat to our surprise, Tajji sailed through the session without a single bark. In fact, when it was her turn to remain still, she lay down with her back to the Golden, a sign of relaxation. Clearly, she has continued to process and integrate the training of other dogs = good things, no danger.
Tajji has had particular difficulty with small dogs. One day, while Dave was walking her, a small terrier mix got free from its yard and charged her, yapping away. Tajji went into bark/lunge arousal. Since we know she has excellent bite inhibition, he dropped the leash; dogs who are restrained — on a leash or, worse yet, tied up — are much more reactive than dogs who are free to take care of themselves. Tajji rushed up to the terrier who turned tail for home. When called, Tajji returned to Dave with a big happy doggie-grin and much less arousal. In fact, she has been less excited by small dogs ever since.
We have worked with Tajji on recall (coming when called) since we’ve had her. We did this using highest-value treats (like freeze dried liver or lamb lungs) and settings when there were no overwhelming distractions, until she was solid. By solid, I mean that within a second or two, she runs full speed back to us. Most of the time, she will come to a sit right in front of us. This training was put to a test a couple of weeks ago when we tried her out on deer. Deer are a perennial pest to all gardeners, of course, but the drought has driven them down from the hills in search of water. The mountain lions follow the deer (and one has been seen near the elementary school, so this is not a good thing). A small herd of deer hang out in the meadow adjacent to our property and they have gotten very bold. Noticing three of them, I waved my arms and yelled, “Shoo!” but they just stared at me. As an experiment, we let Tajji off leash. It took her a moment to focus on the deer as she does not have the high prey drive of most German Shepherd Dogs, high prey drive not being desirable in a guide dog. She lunged, the deer took off, and she got the idea. She chased them out of the meadow at a full-out run. Just as they were heading up the hill on the other side of the street, Dave called Tajji. She whirled around and raced back to him, tail wagging. The deer may be a good game, but making her people happy is even better.