Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Tajji Diaries: Pigs and Pups

The Story So Far: about two years ago, we adopted a retired seeing eye dog, a German Shepherd Dog named Tajji. She had significant reactivity to other dogs when on a leash, which we have been steadily working on with the help of positive techniques trainer Sandi Pensinger of Living WithDogs. Tajji has made enormous progress in learning a new skill set, including making eye contact with her handler and playing fetch. She is much better at greeting people politely and is unusually gregarious for her (notoriously aloof) breed.

The last few months have brought a couple of new developments to her life. We had heard from her previous owners that she enjoyed dog parks, which did not fit with what we observed in her on-leash behavior. A couple of incidents in which we watched her interact with other dogs off-leash convinced us that she has excellent bite inhibition and not-so-bad social skills with other dogs. So we decided to give it a try. On her first visit, upon leaving her car crate, she went into her usual barking and lunging routine, but as soon as we approached the gate, she quieted down. You could see the memories dropping into place.

We’d heard horror stories about dog parks, with inappropriate behavior on the part of both dogs and owners, so we watched Tajji carefully. This particular dog park is quite generous in size, divided into areas for small and large dogs, with water bowls and chairs for owners to sit. There’s a small “airlock” fenced area between the parking lot and the gates to the two sides. The surface is mostly wood chips and the area is kept quite clean (except for assorted tennis balls, rope pull toys, and an occasional stick).

On her first few visits, Tajji greeted a few other dogs, then wandered off on her own to sniff every wood chip and corner. She moved stiffly when trotting and didn’t run much. It’s not unreasonable for her to have arthritis, being 11 ½ years old and having worked hard for 8 of those years (her blind person was a large man, well over 200 lbs). After consulting with her vet, we put her on anti-inflammatory medication. This has made a great improvement.

Tajji being happy and relaxed around other dogs. I wasn’t able to get a shot of her interposing herself between two dogs who were playing roughly (“Break it up, break it up!”) or trotting around with the stick she had just snatched from another dog, looking very proud of herself.

Tajji greeting a puppy on its first visit to the park. The puppy is overwhelmed by the smells and number of (out of camera shot) dogs. Tajji is trying to reassure the puppy in several ways. She has lowered her head (sniffing is a “calming” signal) and not looking directly at the puppy. It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but her body is curved, another signal of being non-threatening. The owners respected how uncomfortable their puppy was and took him to the (then-empty) small dog side.

Now, about the pigs. Did I mention pigs? A neighbor down the street has acquired a couple of small pigs. We discovered this on a walk with Tajji, who stopped, stared, and then barked in a sort of perfunctory, default “when in doubt, bark at it” way. She came away easily (our “Get Out Of Dodge” ploy), then was able to look back at the pigs calmly but with puzzlement in every hair. She clearly thought they were interesting; they returned the favor.

What ARE those things? They aren’t dogs, that’s for sure. They’re staring at me; that’s rude. Their tails are sort-of wagging; that’s friendly. Should I bark at them, Mom? Okay, let’s walk on!

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