Tag Archives: park

Indignation…and new friends

The other day, we had a glaring example of how people see what they are convinced they are going to see.

Spencer and I were at a park that we haven’t been to very frequently, but I’ve started taking him there more recently. So we’re just starting to meet people and dogs.

At one point, we saw a group of 4-5 dogs and roughly the same number of owners. Spencer was watching them with stiff body language, but whining, so I wasn’t really sure if he wanted to meet them or was anxious. Given the ambiguity of his body language, I decided to be cautious.  After a few minutes of him watching them, I persuaded him to follow me in the other direction.

A few minutes later, we were isolated in the middle of a big space, with Spencer on his long lead, when I noticed the group moving in the same direction as us.

Suddenly, one of the dogs detached from the group and came running towards us. The dog, who was roughly half of Spencer’s size and maybe a bit smaller, ran straight up to him and engaged him in a wrestling hold. First, this is a very impolite way to greet an unknown dog, and second, Spencer doesn’t have any social graces, so this is pretty much how he greets other dogs, especially males. So Spencer responded in kind. Even though Spencer wasn’t doing anything that could hurt her (I don’t know for sure it was a female, but that will make the descriptors easier to keep separate), the other dog started to scream bloody murder. She detached and ran back towards he mistress who was panicking by now and yelling frantically to call her dog back.

The dog stopped about halfway to her mistress and stared at Spencer again. It was clear to everyone that she was planning another run. The mistress started running toward her dog yelling more and more frantically to try to get the dog back. To no avail.

The dog came tearing towards us. Spencer stepped behind me as the dog neared, a clear sign for me that he was afraid. Just as I was about to step forward and try to scare the other dog, whose mistress was finally catching up, Spencer took a step or two forward and woofed at the other dog. It wasn’t overly aggressive, just a forceful “go away”. The other dog was still wavering on whether to come in for direct engagement, but by this time, I saw the other woman coming in close to catch her dog, and. worried that Spencer would consider her a threat, I was trying more assertively to move him away so the woman could catch her dog without incident.

She attached the leash to her dog as I tried to sooth Spencer in a calm voice that I would protect him need be. Then I heard the woman say to her dog as they moved away, “Come on. He’s a mean dog.” My jaw literally dropped. I spent much of the next ten minutes venting my indignation to Spencer, who, frankly, wasn’t really paying attention.

Happily, for the rest of the walk, things went much better. Spencer got to meet several other dogs and more considerate owners, especially the skittish Beagle mix Elka who teased him a bit because she wanted to play but was also a bit afraid of him. I was ever so grateful to her male owner who not only kept his distance, but squatted down, so Spencer wouldn’t see him as a threat.

A bit later, we met a group of about four dogs, and I was impressed that the one that felt most confident to walk right up to Spencer and start smelling him was the smallest — a Jack Russell Terrier. I wasn’t sure how that encounter would go since Spencer’s experiences with JRTs are not all good, but they managed to negotiate the encounter without any major stress.

Overall, Spencer seems to like this park and the possibility of meeting other dogs, but we’ll have to be cautious who we say hi to.



Horsing around

A few months ago, we discovered a new park not too far from our house. It’s an old manor house that is falling into ruins. There are very few people there, lots of open space and a loop trail that’s exactly the right length for tiring out Spencer without him getting overtired. They keep horses and donkeys there, which provides us with a great opportunity for working on Spencer’s fears.

Even though they’re much smaller, he seems to be much more afraid of the donkeys then the horses. Probably because of this guy:

A donkey we met on a walk Continue reading

BAT, BAT Black Sheep

In my previous post, I explained how Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) works. We haven’t been using it for very long, but in the past week I’ve noticed something interesting: Spencer has started applying the technique spontaneously.

Although our BAT set-ups focus on people. Scary People are his major trigger, but, for obvious reasons, the consequences of his reacting against people are much more serious than the way he reacts to another animal.

In the past week, I’ve seen him stop in the street on several occasions, look at a Scary Person and then position his body to indicate a desire to turn back the other direction. I try to pay attention to these signals and reward him by going the other way immediately, even if we sometimes come back and make another approach.

I’ve also seen him do the same thing with a strange dog. Ahead of me on the leash, he air-sniffed to gather information about the other dog and then scurried back to my side.

But the most flagrant example I’ve seen all week was Thursday morning at the Parc du Sceaux. Now that the temperatures have risen, the sheep are back out in their pasture. Spencer and I were on the neighboring lawn, exploring and frolicking when he caught a whiff of them. He turned towards them and took a cautious step or two forward. Since he was on the long lead, he had a lot more liberty to manage the situation than when he is on the leash.

Ears up, he peered at the sheep — including the strange, new black sheep that weren’t there last year — and sniffed, and then turned around and trotted happily past me like we were playing. So I trotted too, congratulated him in the Happy Voice, and when we got far enough away for him to feel safe, clicked and rewarded him. A minute or two later, he moved forward again, and we repeated the cycle.

We did that a few more times until he signalled that he was done, so we then headed back to the car.

It was one of those moments that seem inconsequential to a bystander and positively immense to someone with a reactive dog. He wasn’t just responding to a command that kept him out of trouble. He was actively (and successfully) applying a coping mechanism he had learned to a novel situation. This strengthens his understanding of the benefits and also contributes to his ability to generalize the usefulness of the technique.


Spencer against the swans

Sometimes there are moments that you really wish you had captured on video, and you didn’t. In both the park where we walk regularly and where we meet Irène the trainer, there are swans. For a long time, Spencer didn’t seem to notice them. Then in December, he went to drink out of the lake at the Bois de Vincennes, and the swans were much closer than usual. As they glided closer, he started barking frantically at them, and was impossible to pull away.

After that, I noticed him keeping an eye on the swans at the Parc de Sceaux and reacting if they got too close.

He was really relaxed during yesterday’s lesson with Irène at the Bois. At one point, we went down to the lake for a drink, and a swan was really nearby. As Spencer leaned out over the water (not barking) toward the swan, the bird glided closer, probably expecting to be fed. It leaned in and snapped its beak (fairly gently). Spencer backed up a few inches and then leaned back in. The swan snapped again. That was too much for poor Spencer. He barked twice in a clear, but calm, “stop that!” message. But it was perfectly easy for me to persuade him to turn and walk away, which is already progress over the first encounter in December.

The shock absorber

During the past couple of days, I’ve been asking myself if you can ever trust a reactive dog without a muzzle. Even if you’ve done years of work and the dog seems reliable in every situation you’ve tried, how do you know that you haven’t missed a key trigger? I first started thinking about this because I had left the muzzle in the car that Greg had parked near the train station before leaving for England. So I found myself with a big, reactive dog who wanted to go for a walk and no muzzle. My temporary solution was to use a head halter with a mechanism that closes the dog’s jaw if he pulls against the leash. Spencer did very well with it. I was very careful as we were walking, and we had no problems during two walks. Still, I was relieved when Greg came back and we could use the muzzle again.

Last night I took Spencer to the big park (castle grounds) for his first long walk since I got back from the US and he returned from the kennel.

When we first got there, he was pulling on his leash, but in a happy, let’s-go-faster way. His body language was relaxed, and he was enjoying checking how all the smells had changed in the week he’d been away.

He seems to be suffering from allergies, and the muzzle seemed to be really annoying him, so when we sat down by the canal, I took it off, as I often do when we are seated and I have him under tight control. As we were sitting there, I noticed his nose was bleeding. He gets these pimples that open and bleed and seem to be extremely itchy. This one wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to irritate it more than necessary.

Since he was behaving and we had plenty of space, I decided to take the risk of walking a bit without the muzzle and put it back on when we headed back to the car on paths. I was careful to keep a distance from other people. However, I was breaking one of the cardinal rules of dealing with reactive dogs: always have at least two separate “safety lines”. If the muzzle is off, you should have two different leashes.

We walked around exploring for a while. At one point, we were in the middle of a small lawn with various paths around us. People were walking and running by. The park keepers went by on a little electric car. Suddenly, when a woman ran by us and then turned to circle back around, Spencer lunged. I don’t know why he reacted to her and to no one else we’d seen. Earlier when he was muzzled, we’d been much closer to other people with no problem.

The shock absorber I had recently added to the leash — and which is supposedly designed for canine sports where the dog pulls you on a sledge — gave way, and Spencer was free. If he had been muzzled or on a second leash, this would not have been so serious, thus the importance of the cardinal rule.

I tried desperately to get him back under control and away from the woman before he could do any damage, but I failed. He bit her on the thigh. I’ll spare you all the minutia, but she required stitches under general anesthesia because of the depth of the flesh wound. She is not pressing charges, and we are insured, so this could be much worse, but I am sick over what happened and beating myself up for not having been more careful.

Thinking back on it, we’ve had several incidents right after one of my trips. I think there are probably two factors at play. 1. Because of my fatigue, my judgment is poorer than normal. 2. Spencer’s routine’s have been interrupted and he is feeling more insecure and therefore more likely to react.

I would like to forget this ever happened, but it seems important to share the incident so that others can learn from my experience and prevent another bite. This also reinforces the initial question I had. Can you ever trust a dog like Spencer to be around people outside the family without a muzzle?

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.