Tag Archives: socialization

Mantrailing — the movie

Life and work has been insanely busy, which means I haven’t posted in a shamefully long time. (I even have half-finished articles that were never posted.) Sorry!

One of the activities that has helped Spencer come to terms with strangers — both ignoring people who aren’t relevant and approaching strangers more confidently — has been mantrailing. It’s hard to video mantrailing. The person recording is usually behind the handler, so you mostly see the handler’s back. In our case, having a third person lurking to the side and pointing a camera at Spencer could trigger a negative reaction.

But thanks to our coach Paulina Druri, I have a fabulous video to share.

We were tracking on a very windy day, so Spencer missed a few turns, because the wind blew the odor off the trail, creating false positives in places where the “victim” hadn’t gone. In each case, though, he had no trouble finding the real trail and getting back on track.

There are also a few pauses where we had to wait for passersby to, well, pass by. In one case, it was a woman who seemed to be afraid of Spencer and, in another, a dog that we didn’t want to get too close to. However, Spencer is a real pro and very good at going into standby until we can return to tracking.

This was taken on 8 December 2018 in Coulommiers (the origin of a very good creamy cheese and a very cute little town).


An extraordinary encounter

Coming home from our walk yesterday morning, Spencer and I passed in front of the municipal pool which is about 100 metres from our house. A women leaving the pool was on a diagonal path to intersect our path, in front of us. I stopped Spencer and gave him the command to wait. The woman stopped just in front of us, and made a kissy noise to get his attention. She saw his muzzle, and this is where people normally ask me, “Is he mean” But she didn’t. She asked, “Is he fearful? ”

I was surprised, but delighted. “Yes, ” I replied. “Very.”

She immediately dropped into a squat, slightly held her hand out in front of her, and called him again. Timidly, her moved forward and started to sniff her hard and her face. Worried that he would suddenly decide she was scary, I kept the leash too tight and kept reassuring him in a calm voice that she was nice, and he should be stay calm. He did. and I called him away fairly quickly. Always better that a shy dog’s first contact with someone new be too short than too long.

I told the woman that I couldn’t believe it. She must have a gift. Normally, he reacted very easily to strangers. “Reward him!” she said. (I was already giving him chicken.)

I wanted to hug her. It’s so rare to bump into people who truly understand our special needs puppy. I hope we see her again soon.

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.


Making school less scary

One of the principles of managing reactive dogs is to help them learn to make positive associations with Scary Things. For any dog — and especially fearful dogs — it’s important to try to introduce new things and people in ways that the dogs can find the experience pleasant and even enjoyable. This means to not push the dog out of it comfort zone and to pair the new thing/person with something nice like a treat.

One error that people make is to ignore the first part of that sentence. The treat alone is not enough to make the experience pleasant for a dog that is feeling highly stressed. In fact, it is often counterproductive. Continue reading

She started it!

This article is a true story, told from Spencer’s perspective, followed by some commentary from me.

Kristen has been showing me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought. Strangers, barking dogs and buses with terrifying hydraulic brakes all make liver, chicken and cheese appear. And the closer they are, the more goodies I get! I’m still not comfortable getting too close to people I don’t know, but if Kristen shields me, I can now let people walk right past us on a narrow sidewalk, and most of the time we can walk by people, although I’ll keep my eye on them, just to be sure.

I’m also learning that I don’t need to worry about other dogs (but I’m not always convinced). A lot of times, we just walk by them, and Kristen gives me a treat so I don’t get tense. The thing is, a lot of dogs bark at me for no reason. Sometimes a dog across the street starts straining at its leash and barking aggressively when I haven’t even looked at it. Kristen says it’s because my size and my muzzle make them nervous, but it’s unfair. I don’t bark at them! If I strained at my leash like that and barked for no reason, people would say I was a mean dog. When little dogs do it, no one seems to think twice about it.

Anyway, Kristen is teaching me not to freeze when I see another dog, and it does seem to limit the frequency of them being aggressive. This morning, I got to meet a nice little dog. We were cutting through the “park” in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings, and two women were chatting with their small dogs next to them. Kristen and I started to move away, but one of the dogs was off-leash and came trotting over to say hi.

I was a little nervous, but he seemed friendly, so I didn’t mind sitting down when Kristen asked. Sitting is a way to let the other dog know that I don’t mind him coming closer. At the last minute, I did get a little overexcited and jumped towards him, which I’m not supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to mind and then we were able to great each other calmly. And then he started playing with me! I was happy.

His mistress came over and said something to Kristen, but she was moving slowly and calmly and didn’t come too close, so I didn’t mind. Kristen asked me to move away from them, and I tried, but the other little dog kept following us because he wanted to play. Finally, he disengaged and trotted away. The woman turned away.

Suddenly, my new friend came running over again after checking in with the other little dog. And then, for no reason, the woman veered towards us and charged while yelling angrily! I didn’t know why she was being so aggressive, but I was scared and lunged back and started barking, “Go away! What did I do to you? Back off!”

She backed off, and my new friend left too. I realized Kristen didn’t seem worried and was asking me calmly to come back to her. I stopped barking and turned to her. We moved a few feet away and then she told me that she understood I had been scared but was glad that I had stopped barking and lunging. Because she wasn’t worried, I calmed down right away, and we didn’t have any problems for the rest of the walk.

There are a couple of points that I’d like to stress from this story:

  • If you’re going to have your dog off-leash, please make sure that s/he comes when called.
  • There is a reason my dog is muzzled and leashed and that we move away from you. Please respect our space.
  • If your dog does come over to us, remember that since my dog is muzzled and leash, there’s very little harm he can do to yours. At this point, best just to let the dogs be unless you actually see your dog being in some mortal danger.
  • Calling your dog back in an angry voice isn’t compelling. When your mother called you in a stern voice, did you think, “Yippee! Can’t wait to go find out what Mom wants!”? Or did you drag your feet trying to delay the confrontation as much as possible? If you want your dog to always come back, practice calling him or her in a happy voice and rewarding him with a treat for obeying. We’ve done this with Spencer, and he’ll now even stop barking at something in the yard and come running into the house because he knows that coming back in is the more enjoyable option.
  • It is entirely possible that the woman in this story thinks that Spencer lunged at her “out of the blue”. After all, she’d been near him for several minutes, and he’d been calm (even surprisingly relaxed). But, in fact, he had reacted to a perceived menace. She knew she was yelling at her own dog, but Spencer didn’t. From his perspective, she was threatening him, and he didn’t have to think twice before his self-protection instincts kicked in.
  • Finally, the leash holder’s reaction can make a world of difference. If I had yelled at Spencer angrily, it just would have fed his tension. It’s an incredibly hard exercise in Zen, but learning to gently reel the dog in makes a huge difference in the duration of episodes and in the dog’s ability to recover quickly. I can’t tell you how hard this has been to learn. The good news is that it serves me in my relations with other human beings too. I think this is the lesson of “turning the other cheek”; you can either contribute to the vicious circle as emotions spiral out of control, or you can try to short circuit it.

Pleased to meet me, or is that just a bone in your pocket?

For human beings, few dog behaviors are as embarrassing as their dog inappropriately humping. Spencer does this often when he meets other males, which I’ve always understood it to be a dominance ritual. Most people tend to think it’s sexual (and we know at least one presumably homophobic dog owner who doesn’t seem to appreciate that his dog doesn’t “stand up for himself” when Spencer jumps on his back). However, an article that I’ve just stumbled on (thanks to Scientific America’s “28 Santa-Approved Dog Science Articles”) suggests some other reasons for this behavior that make more sense in the wider of context of who Spencer seems to be:

  1. As bizarre as it might seem to us, humping might be one way a dog says “Like me, like me”. Kind of like that drunk guy at the cocktail party who is just trying waaaaay too hard. This seems likely in some cases with Spencer, like when he jumps on poor Gus, a much smaller Bassett Hound who seems to adore Spencer since he has known him most of his life.
  2. Overexcitement. Spencer doesn’t really do this, although sometimes when he’s really happy, he gets a fleeting puppy “boner”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
  3. Humping is apparently a displacement behavior for conflicted feelings and anxiety. This sounds spot on for Spencer, whose reaction to a new dog can usually be summarized as freezing in fear until the dog passes and then running into the dog’s wake to soak up its odor (often accompanied by whining). He seems to want to be social, but to be terrified by the possible contact.
  4. Self-soothing. Self-explanatory. Not Spencer’s thing.
  5. Dominance. It may be a dominance ritual. but maybe we had that one wrong, like so many things we believed about canine dominance for decades.

Read the full article “Lessons from the Schoolyard: Why Do Dogs Hump?” on the Buzz, Hoot, Roar blog.

Our threshold has moved

As Spencer started to show significant progress this past winter and spring, we made the resolution to use this summer to socialize him as much as possible. It’s easier in summer because the days are longer, providing better conditions for walks, and we can have visitors in the garden, which is less stressful for both the people and the dog.

Based on the results, I’d say it’s paying off immensely. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by saying that Spencer is making progress everyday. There are many signs: Continue reading