Monday, May 26, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Threshold Success

Tajji, our newly-adopted retired seeing eye dog, came to us with strong reactivity to pedestrians and especially to other dogs. She would bark and lunge as soon as she saw any “triggering” stimulus, and her vision is excellent. Sometimes, she would be triggered when the other dog or person was 1/8 mile away. This distance is called the threshold of arousal, meaning that stimuli farther away don’t cause the dog to “go ballistic.” Tajji’s threshold was so long, she basically didn’t have one. If she could see the dog, she reacted.

We’ve been working on decreasing her reactivity and giving her alternative, highly rewarded behaviors. These have included teaching her eye contact (“Look!”), hand targeting (“Touch!”), sniffing (a self-calming activity), and puppy zen, a calming exercise. We have also been as careful as we can to remove her from any situation where she is overwhelmed.

After a time of regular practice, we noticed that when we turned and walked her briskly away from the other dog, she calmed down in a shorter period of time. We were able to turn her back around to face the other dog, rewarding her for calm behavior. One of the lessons was that we would protect her, that she could trust us to not force her into a situation she couldn’t manage. Then we started to see her attempt to calm herself, mostly by sniffing, but occasionally using the non-threatening gesture “Look Away.”

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that Tajji’s reactivity to pedestrians was markedly reduced. Using the calming techniques that were now familiar to her, we helped her to tolerate increasingly short distances from the folks walking in our neighborhood. Eventually, she was able to do a “pass by” without becoming reactive.

But would she ever be able to do that with dogs?

The first sign of improvement came in her ability to manage her distress when walking past a house where there was a barking dog inside. She couldn’t see the dog, although she could hear it, and this was less triggering for her. (She’s a highly visual dog, which makes sense in a seeing eye dog.)

Again and again, every time we saw another dog on a walk or a dog in a yard, we’d turn around and quickly walk the other way, all the time making happy noises at Tajji. As soon as she was able to accept food (which she won’t if she’s too reactive), we’d play “Find It!” by throwing a small treat on the ground. This kept her moving in the desire direction and mimicked sniffing, so it encouraged calming.

Several times in the last week or so, Tajji has been able to look at another dog without losing control. She tenses up, but we can see her trying to calm herself. Her biggest achievement was tolerating a good-sized dog, quietly in a down, at about 100 feet. This is a far cry from the barking and lunging at 1/8 mile! She has also been able to manage walking ahead and in the same direction as another dog at about twice that distance. To be sure, she would glance back, but she didn’t bark or lunge.

One of the keys to working with any dog is to ask for small increments of change. Set the dog up for success. Give them much praise and many tasty treats. Convince them that you are the source of all good things, you will always keep them safe, and the world is a wonderful place!

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