Something that is rather to surprising to me is how little I’ve read about the usefulness of the car in rehabilitating a fear aggressive dog. I would rate our car in the top two catalysts to the progress that Spencer has been making in recent months.
Greg looked at me like I was crazy the first time I told him that I was taking Spencer with me when I drove him (Greg) to the train station in the morning. Since then, it has become a family ritual and something that Spencer looks forward to immensely.
It all started with me thinking about one of the vicious cycles of having a fear aggressive dog: the dog is more stressed and reactive the less that it is exposed to novelty, but it’s stressful and worrisome to expose the dog to new people as long as he’s reactive. I decided to try an experiment where we use the car as a “mobile crate” to teach Spencer that he’s safe in there and let him be exposed to all kinds of new people and activity from the safety of that haven.
The basic principle is that whenever someone gets near the car and Spencer doesn’t bark or otherwise act aggressively, he gets a treat. As well as doing this drill when I take Greg to the station in the morning, we also use it when running errands on the days we are all home. Greg goes into the store while Spencer and I watch people go by and have treats.
In this video, you can see how after a person walks by, Spencer looks down at the treat bag instead of reacting to the passerby. For the rest of the video, he watches people who are less nearby, so he doesn’t need the reassurance of asking for a treat. At one point, if you pay attention, you can see his nose twitch: this is when he saw a couple of dogs across the street.
This technique has helped us in several ways:
- Spencer, who was initially very agitated and stressed in the car, now adores it. We’re pretty sure that car rides outrank walks in his list of favorite things.
- Spencer no longer reacts to anyone within 3 metres of the car, which has lowered everyone’s stress level.
- Getting used to people being nearby while we’re in the car has made it easier to be closer to them when we’re not in the car.
- Because stress is cumulative, eliminating this source of stress has helped Spencer be calmer in other ways.
- Spencer can now be left in the car for short periods without panicking. Our newest variation is for me to park the car somewhere where it is unlikely for many people to walk right next to the car and run into the store or the post office. He’s always calm when I come out, and one day he was even eating the chewstick I had left him, which indicates a significant level of calm and relaxation.
To sort of give credit where it’s due, the title of today’s article is from the joking remark someone (and I’ve forgotten who) made when I explained how the car had been helping with Spencer’s socialization. “Like the Popemobile…the Spencermobile!”