Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Tajji Diaries: Getting Out Of Dodge

A little over a year ago, Tajji, a retired German Shepherd Dog guide dog, joined our family. She retired partly due to her age (she will be 11 years old in May) but primarily because of her reactivity to other dogs and sometimes pedestrians. We have been working with her, using positive training techniques such as desensitization and reinforcing alternative behaviors. She has learned to make eye contact with us (something she never needed to do with her former, blind owner), to walk on a loose leash, and how to reduce her own anxiety, although this last is subject to her being overwhelmed with arousal. Her distance threshold for reactivity to other dogs is still quite long. She has excellent vision, and when she came to us, she would bark and lunge at any dog she could see. In class and real-life situations, she has now had many experiences of seeing another dog without “going ballistic.” Once or twice, in a controlled class environment, she has been able to remain alert but relaxed at a distance of 20 or 30 feet (as opposed to 1/8 mile).

Despite these achievements, there are many occasions in which she is overwhelmed. When walking on the street, another dog may come upon us suddenly, for instance around a corner or rushing up to a fence. Then it is no longer possible to teach Tajji — we as her human partners must manage the situation. Our primary tool is to increase the distance between her and the other dog: “Getting Out Of Dodge” (GOOD)

GOOD usually takes the form of human dashing in the opposite direction (or for the nearest visual barrier), using a happy voice, “Let’s go!”

When we first used this technique, Tajji had difficulty disengaging. She would continue to bark and lunge. The front-clip harness allowed us to turn her away from the provoking object, as well as preventing her from rushing toward it. Even then, she would continue to bark, glancing over her shoulder, until the other dog was no longer in sight.

With repetition, she learned that running away (GOOD) meant safety. She came away more easily, stopped barking sooner, and reduced the behavior of glancing back. At the same time, we had more instances in which she alerted but did not go into full-out bark and lunge. She “huffed,” an abbreviated bark, while still responsive to her handler. When she “went ballistic,” she was incapable of obeying commands she normally had no difficulty with, and she would ignore even her favorite treats. But in this “huffing” zone, she was able to do both. This meant that she was gaining a measure of control over her arousal.

Walking in the neighborhood, with all the attendant risk of encountering another dog, has many valuable aspects. Tajji gets to sniff — an amazing banquet of smells, I imagine, as the area is home to not only many dogs but to an array of wildlife. The stimulation is pleasurable and beneficial, and something she was not permitted to do while in guide harness. We often get to practice seeing another dog and immediately being rewarded (“see a dog, get a cookie” desensitization or “see a dog, get to a safe place” management). In the natural course of events, she’s had the chance to see and not react to a dog moving away from her at a distance, and occasionally perpendicular to her, also at a distance. Slowly she is learning that not all dogs are scary under all circumstances.

Sometimes dogs walk past our property. Tajji cannot see them, as the yard is enclosed by a 6 foot solid fence, but she knows they are there. From time to time, this occurs while she is in the front yard by herself. On sunny days, she likes to lie out on the patio. When the dog comes by, she will bark. Undoubtedly, she learned this bad habit from the neighbor’s noisy, territorial dogs. We see this situation as a time when she needs our help, so we intervene as soon as possible. At first, this meant going into the yard and physically leading her into the house, where she quickly calmed down. It didn’t take long before she would come readily when called. Recently, I have noticed her give a half-hearted bark or two and then run to the back door, tail wagging.

What next? We have yet to try the experiment of leaving the back door slightly ajar to see if she will come in on her own. Another option for taking the next step is to go out in the yard with her and practice relaxation exercises with the goal of making the back yard feel as safe as the inside of the house. Coming into the house is a form of GOOD management, but associating dog-in-street with happy-yard-play represents learning something new. With a dog this old, we will use a mixture of techniques. Either way, GOOD is our secret weapon!

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