One of the things we are trying to teach Spencer is to run away from Scary People and not toward them. This is a key point of rehabilitating a reactive dog. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned many times, our fence is a particularly sensitive point on the side facing the school. Not only can Spencer see the Scary People, but the strip of land between our fence and the school is narrow, so people come very close to our house and sometimes they have noisy, terrifying lawnmowers. (Cue melodramatic music.)
In the previous article, I mentioned the gardener passing by frequently to tend plants that are now along the edge of the school. His almost daily presence is making it easier to desensitize Spencer because practicing often is critical for a dog to master a concept like this.
Spencer likes to sit in the sunroom when it’s nice, which gives him a clear view on anyone coming near our house from the school. When he starts barking, I coming running from wherever I am, babbling like a crazy person in the Happy Voice on Happiness Enhancing Substances, “Oh! Is there a stranger near the fence? How wonderful! We love the gardener! This is amazing!” Then I encourage him to run to the living room which has thick walls and high windows (and his crate), where he gets treated for coming to his safe place instead of going towards confrontation.
Today, he started barking, and I went running with my crazed monologue. I wasn’t even at the bottom of the steps yet when he was already on his way out of the sunroom. He trotted calmly into the living room and then turned to me to get his treats. When I stopped handing them over, he spontaneously sat down, then laid down and then rested his head on his paws. We had a big treat party then!
Imagine a 3×3 grid of nine squares. Our property is like the one in the middle. We our property doesn’t touch the street. (You walk down an alley to our house, in case you’re wondering). One long side of our property borders on a pre-school, but we can’t actually see any of the kids, the way the entrance and playground are set up. So all-in-all, things are pretty calm around here, especially evenings and weekends and especially during the summer holidays.
That calm has both benefits and disadvantages for the fear reactive dog. Continue reading
Spencer makes peace with the lawnmower
Like many dogs, Spencer is afraid of the lawnmower. He used to remain in the house or the other half of the yard when we were mowing.But he’s making a lot of progress recently. Now, he can tolerate our lawnmower, as long as it doesn’t get too close. And he is more comfortable when he is behind it than in front of it. I can only assume that is because he sees me behind it and figures it must be safe there.
Today, we worked on approaching the lawnmower on command (“Touch”) when it was off and not making scary noises or moving.
Spencer supervises the lawnmowing
I put a chew toy on the patio and encouraged Spencer to consider that a safe spot (“couché” and “reste”). It seems to have worked, because he didn’t look too stressed while I was mowing.
However, he still goes crazy when the gardeners at the school next door start mowing along our fenceline. Apparently, Scary Men with Mowers are not OK when they are near our haven of peace. I’m working on desensitizing him. When they come, we get a comfortable distance away and he is rewarded for looking at me and sitting down instead of barking at them. It hasn’t “cured” him yet, but he gets less intense than he did before, so there are good signs that he’ll gradually learn to be Zen when they are working.
(Update February 2015: Based on what we’ve learned about the science behind dogs, I’d like to debunk a few of the points in the article below. First of all, Spencer’s discomfort with people in the house isn’t a territory issue in the way we traditionally think about territory. It’s more like feeling like his inner sanctum has been violated, and how scary that is. Imagine coming home and finding a complete stranger in your living room. Now imagien that person has been squatting in your house while you’ve been away. How would that make you feel?
Second, Spencer’s not trying to take over anything. It is possible that if he’s feeling threatened and we’re not giving him enough signs that we’ve got his back that he might feel the need to protect himself. It’s like troubled children — without structure they might act out, but that doesn’t mean they actually want to be in charge.
Despite these errors in the assumptions of our trainer at the time, the advice about what to do is actually helpful, although I would argue now, inadequate.)
So our trainer considers us to be advanced enough to start working on territory issues. It’s important to have a modicum of technique and authority over the dog before you can work on territory or it can all go terribly wrong as he realizes he can take over.
So our first two tasks are:
- Train Spencer to ALWAYS go to his bed on command. We’re following the protocol the trainer gave us, but we seemed to have managed a good bit of progress on our own.
- Break the association in Spencer’s head between the doorbell and intruders.