Above the fray

When I was first learning to drive, our instructor took us to the nearby city of about 10,000 people (Jamestown). I remember driving in downtown and feeling so overwhelmed by everything coming at me so fast. The instructor patted me on the knee and said, “It’s OK, Krissy, just take it one thing at a time.” Today, I drive in Paris and I laugh when I return to Jamestown and find the roads absolutely tame.

One of the things that has become clear over time, is that when Spencer moved into an urban environment with us, it was the equivalent of my driving in Jamestown for the first time. Except he wasn’t able to figure out how to take things one at a time. He was just overwhelmed, and it was all scary.

This is perhaps one of the hardest things with a reactive dog. You want to find the fix, but the reality is that you’re going to have peel the fear back one layer at a time. I’ve also learned that there is no point working on some things until other, more basic things are dealt with.

For us, learning how much space and time that Spencer needs to work things out on his own and be comfortable was an important breakthrough. My advice to anyone struggling with their reactive dog: you’ve probably underestimated the space/time factor. I know we did for a long time.

As I’ve written before, the car was an important tool for us. It gave Spencer a safe space from which to observe the world. Once he stopped reacting to every passerby, we were even able to open the windows and let him get used to the smells of the world.

One of our local parks (the Parc de Sceaux) has also helped him make huge progress in recent months. Since we go there in the car, he is relaxed when we arrive (unlike the really close park which requires navigating through scary traffic). There are wide open lawns where I can put him on his long lead and we can run and play or even just sit, cuddle and watch the world.

In general, the rule is that a dog in motion is going to feel more comfortable than a dog forced to stay still because the dog knows he can always get away. But I realized that this adage is only true up close. Never letting the dog stop and look around means never giving him the time to adjust, observe and decide things are OK. When the dog is walking all the time (especially on narrow paths), then he has the sensation that everything is coming at him at once.

The other problem with path walking is that the dog has to constantly be in “work mode”, close to your side and listening to commands, with a relatively short leash (which often gives a reactive dog the feeling that Flight is no longer an option). On the lawns, Spencer can have relative freedom and learn that it’s OK to relax and play in the outside world.

Our walk today was a tribute to how far he has come as a result of this approach. Several times people walked towards us on a narrow path. He stayed close to my side and looked up for treats while the person passed. This was true when the person passed on his side as well as on my side.

At the very end of the walk, three rowdy young men came to the water fountain just after us. I had been able to guess their destination, so after I filled Spencer’s bowl, I moved us a couple of metres/yards away. I fought to stay absolutely calm and reassuring as they came up, jostling one another and basically hedging us in since there was a chain-link fence behind us. I kept talking to Spencer reassuringly and giving him treats. He was clearly a bit worried, but kept eating his treats and watching them warily around my legs. It seemed like an eternity before they walked away, but when they did, we both breathed a sigh of relief, and I told Spencer how proud I was of him. A couple of months ago, he would have been barking and lunging to chase them away.

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