Tag Archives: Irene

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)


Treats that make Spencer go boing

One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities. Continue reading

Introducing Soca

Soca, the retrieverThanks to Irène, Spencer has a new friend. I asked for her help finding a large dog, preferably female, with whom Spencer could go for walks and play. Because dogs tend to stick to their owners, and Spencer still has the tendency to react to strangers, making contact with new dogs is hard. Further complicating things, few people understand the training techniques we’re using, and they often work against us, usually despite having the best intentions.

I figured the best way to find someone who shares our training values and who might be tolerant of a fear reactive dog would be to turn to Irène. We got several nibbles to her appeal, so we might have other new friends in future.

Today, we met Soca and her owners. Soca is a lovely, young retriever. She’s exactly what you dream of when you imagine a dog: crazy and cuddly, wallowing in mud puddles and running through the woods with joy.

The first encounter was a little rocky. There were tons of people at the intersection where we met in the woods, including a couple with a little dog that Spencer was fixated on. So he was a little tense, and suddenly there were people all around him. He barked at several of them, including Soca’s mistress and dragged me through the mud a bit trying to chase all these Scary People away. But I managed to get him back from the path, calmer and paying attention to Soca. The problem was that Soca was intimidated, probably by a combination of Spencer’s behavior, his size and the muzzle. Also, her mistress pointed out that usually she would pet the new dog to show Soca there’s nothing to fear.

Soca kept coming tantalizingly near, but running away as soon as Spencer tried to reach her. To keep him from getting too frustrated, we decided to start walking and see if things would work themselves out.

Spencer and I were ahead of the group, with Greg and Soca’s owners walking a bit behind us. Soca was all over the place, but still playing coy and driving Spencer a little crazy. We finally found a place where the trees were thinner, so I took Spencer aside and put him on the long lead. We then all worked to lure Soca towards him. Gradually, her running circles around him shifted from her being nervous to them playing…with me being dragged along since Spencer has to stay on a leash until he is more comfortable with strangers.

By the end of the hour, I even had both dogs sitting at my feet on command and each waiting its turn to get treats. While Spencer did not make direct contact with Soca’s owners today, he did quickly become much more comfortable with them being nearby and even took some tentative steps in their direction. Hopefully they will soon be in his enlarging circle of confidence.

In any case, since we got home Spencer has been napping. I think this outing did him a huge amount of good and let him use up a lot of energy. And while it exhausted me, it did me good to find canine and humans that we can hang out with. We’ve missed Hummer and his mistress since she hurt her shoulder.

The 3 reasons for pulling

According to “received wisdom”, dogs pull on their leashes because they’re trying to dominate us. So apparently all those sled dogs have really put us in our place! Anyway, snarkiness aside, as far as I can tell, Spencer has 3 reasons for pulling:

  1. The Flight response — In our anthropocentric perspective, we assume the dog is trying to get somewhere. When we first started working with Irène (our positive methods trainer), we asked her in perplexity, “If Spencer is actually frightened and not dominant/[insert other standard uncontrollable dog descriptor], then why does he pull out on walks?” I paraphrase, but her response was pretty much “He’s probably just trying to get the heck out of there. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He just knows that he’s uncomfortable here.” Well, that was a light-bulb moment.
  2. He walks faster than we do — It seems pretty laughable, but he has long legs.  Spencer pretty much has to drag his feet to adopt our pace. He does try to respect the length of the leash, but he’s quickly at the end of it. So his solution is to bounce back and forth between walking at a brisk pace forward and turning back to us (either waiting for us to catch up or taking a couple of steps back in our direction) to acknowledge that he’s not supposed to pull. He’s much better at not pulling when he’s on his long lead in the woods than when he’s on the shorter leash.
  3. He’s on a mission — Have you ever been with someone (or been that someone) who charges ahead to a planned destination, leaving the rest  of the group behind? Maybe you know exactly where the right department in the store is. When Spencer is tracking a scent, the outside world does not exist. He’s like a little tank charging along at his predetermined sniffer pace. To give an example, yesterday he was tracking deer in the woods, and he didn’t even notice when two dogs ran right past us! Normally he would have begged to go play with them. It’s a mission of a different sort, but when he’s looking for exactly the right place to poop, he also pulls.

Bonus reason: Apparently it’s instinctual for a dog to pull back against resistance. Again, think about sled dogs. But think also about tug-of-war. It seems a bit circular, but if you don’t want your dog to pull, then you shouldn’t let him pull.

We’re working on that. Spencer’s gotten a lot better about learning where the limits of the leash are and respecting them, but he’s not one of those dogs who spends all his time gazing adoringly at his walker as he goes along either. More about that in an upcoming post.

A walk in the woods…with friends!

Hummer the German Shepherd holds his flexi-lead in his mouth.

For a long time, Irène has been encouraging us to find another big dog that Spencer can go for walks with so that he gets used to just hanging with another dog and not feeling the need to jump on him constantly. This is, of course, easier said than done. You have to find someone with a similar schedule, who’s willing and able to walk at off-peak hours. You need another dog who likes the same rough-and-tumble style of play. Both parties need to be able to get to the woods, which eliminates anyone dependent on public transport.  Perhaps most importantly, we needed someone who understands Spencer’s issues and who isn’t going to try to be helpful by coming too close too fast or any of the other well-meaning things people do that complicate training for us.

So we were pretty happy a couple of weeks ago when we were sitting, taking a break on a path in the woods, and a friendly German Shepherd bounded up to say hello and his mistress said hi. I responded and then exclaimed, “We know each other!” as I recognized them. We had already met Hummer (the dog) and Pascale (his human) at our local park, where the two dogs seemed to enjoy wrestling together.

I haven’t been going to the park for a bunch of reasons that I won’t get into, but they range from realizing that walking there through local traffic was stressful for Spencer to the fact that some very tolerant people were maybe getting tired of Spencer’s outbursts.

Anyway, it was a delight to see them. Pascale is really good about letting Hummer play with Spencer, but keeping a distance that Spencer is comfortable with. And Hummer and Spencer like to play. For her part, Pascale seems happy to see us because Hummer is starting to cause her problems too. He’s a rambunctious adolescent and — among other things, has developed a bad habit of barking and biting at other dogs. It starts out as play and then he kind of boils over. So for us, this is a great opportunity to teach social skills to both dogs and to feel a little less isolated ourselves.

That chance encounter went well. Hummer was loose and Spencer was on his long line, so they could play well, which they did until it was clear to me that Spencer had had enough.

The following week was a little harder. We met at the parking lot with both dogs leashed and a surprising number of people (the result of mushroom season, school holidays and a lovely autumn day.)

We revised our initial plan of walking them side by side at a distance and staggered them instead, with Pascale and Hummer in front. Every so often, they would both seem willing to come together and play, which we would allow until any misbehavior broke out. Hummer kept sniping at Spencer, so we mostly just walked in procession.

Spencer and I couldn’t stay long because he had a vet appointment: he was suffering from swelling and bleeding on his muzzle. That probably didn’t put him in a good mood for playing, because any blows to the muzzle would have been pretty painful.

This week went better. There was less barking. Spencer is clearly ambivalent about Hummer: he wants to play with him, but Hummer’s pseudo-aggressive behavior scares him. Pascale and I watch the ballet and laughed. One time, Spencer and I were gradually getting closer, with me following Spencer’s pace to make sure he’s always comfortable. Hummer suddenly turned around, stopped and stared at Spencer, who made a u-turn and headed back up the trail behind me. But he doesn’t seem to get overly stressed, and once Hummer backs off, Spencer is willing to start following again and gradually move up and attempt contact.

The day ended with a play session that really started to get out of hand. For the first time, I was nervous that Hummer was going to bite for real. Spencer tried to walk away, and Hummer kept after him. I finally inserted myself between them and confronted Hummer while Pascale came up to leash him and help separate the two dogs.

We then sat on two sides of the path talking and resting while the tension dissipated. Once we do manage to separate them, Hummer immediately ignores Spencer, so it’s not like he’s going after him in cold blood.

While Spencer and I had a cuddle, Hummer got impatient and wanted to be on his way. Pascale kept chatting with me. So, to make his point, Hummer picked up the handle of his flexi-lead and started a game of keep-away with Pascale. Look closely at the photo: Hummer’s muzzle is not that boxy: it’s the flexi-lead in his mouth.