Friday, June 27, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Rehearsal and Reversal

 We’ve started the Reactive Rover class given by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs, in order to help Tajji with her reactivity to dogs and, to a lesser extent, people she doesn’t know. The first two sessions were watching videos about reading canine body language and specific relaxation techniques. We’d recently seen both, as Sandi invited us to attend the “classroom” part for a previous class that was full. Because the dogs work individually in the “fieldwork” part of the course, each class limited to four dogs. So watching them this time was a repetition.

We felt Tajji had made progress on her walks. She’d gone from barking at pedestrians to looking at them and walking by. Although she still reacted to other dogs, even at extreme distance, we were piling up more times when she came away with us readily, sometimes with a bark or just a huff. There were even instances where she was able to look at the other dog – the old black Labrador who shuffles very slowly up and down the street and then lies down in the sun, in particular – without barking. 

So when Sandi, our teacher, said to not give our dogs any opportunity to “rehearse” reactivity, we thought we were doing pretty well, anyway. The idea is that the more times the dog reacts – barking, lunging, (heaven forbid) biting, piloerection (that’s hairs standing up along the spine), etc., the more deeply that behavior gets “etched” into the dog’s brain. She compared it to a road, where each passage digs deeper and deeper ruts, ruts that become more progressively difficult to jump out of. While we are creating new, positive behaviors, we want to not give our dog the chance to “rehearse” the old ones as well.

We thought that because Tajji had instances of positive behaviors (looking without barking or lunging, walking quietly by, coming away without barking or lunging) that we were making progress. We paid attention only to her successes, not to the times when she was over threshold.

“Over threshold” is like being underwater. The dog is no longer making choices, she’s in going-ballistic mode. Our actions as humans are now no longer trying to teach the dog anything, they’re last-ditch remove-and-rescue efforts.

Separately, Dave and I noticed that Tajji wasn’t really improving. In fact, she was getting worse. She was starting to bark at people again. When a dog would walk by our house, she would bark – not just one or two huffs to let us know something was going on, but full-out going-nuts barking. Sometimes, a walk would be relaxed and uneventful; other times, a dog would charge its fence without warning and Tajji would go nuts. We had not considered how this unpredictability added to her anxiety and lack of confidence.

The situation was made worse by the necessity of repairs to our front door. For three days in a row, workmen came to the house to remove the old door, repair the damaged framing, and install and paint a new one. Instead of greeting them politely, she “went off” barking. We couldn’t let her run free in the house, so we put her in the yard with gates preventing her from running around to where the workmen were. Poor thing, she stood at the sliding door with this puzzled expression. What did I do wrong and why have you abandoned me when there are these scary men?

We monkeys took a while to get the message. As soon as we brought her in the house, in the same room with us, with the door closed, she began settling down again. On the second day, her barking was much reduced. 

Following Sandi’s advice, we decided to put neighborhood walks on hold until Tajji – and her resident monkeys! -- has some better, more positive coping skills. We made a list of other ways we could give her some exercise:

  • Playing ball in the back yard or keep-away in the hedge maze;
  • Making use of Sandi’s training field, a huge grassy area, mostly fenced; the drawback is that it is forty-five minutes to an hour and a half drive, depending on the time of day. Because you have to sign up to use it, we can be sure there will be no other dogs;
  • Several areas of hiking trails on private property where we have permission to take Tajji and no other dogs are allowed;
  • A little-known but public hiking area that is open to dogs (nope, won’t tell you where!)

All these except the first involve loading Tajji and relevant equipment into the van and driving somewhere, a thing I’ve been resisting. Alas, the river in which she is depicted having a wonderful time will be off limits, unless we can find a one-dog-only access. But it seems a small price to pay for a calmer, happier dog.
Stay tuned for more reports as Tajji progresses through her class!

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