Tag Archives: woods

The Soak-a effect

Regular readers will know that we have an adorable friend named Soca. I don’t know if she’s 100% Labrador, but she is definitely a retriever. Soca loves water. She’ll sit in a ditch for the sheer joy of it. I’ve seen her do it. 

This makes her a bit of an odd couple with Spencer who is basically afraid of water. Continue reading

The dreaded water bottle

Someone recently gave us one of those folding water bottles for hiking with your dog. The bottle is covered on one side by a case that you flip open to use as a trough. You squeeze water out of the bottle into the trough. Very handy.

Water bottle for hiking with dogs


I took him out to the woods the other day. It was very hot and most of the small ponds had dried up since we hadn’t had much rain recently. So I quickly took out the water bottle and put some water into the trough.

Spencer scurried to the end of the leash and started to walk in circles around me, trying to stay as far from the bottle as he could. Nothing I did convinced him that this object was OK. Continue reading

Wanna bet?

As any of our dedicated readers have seen, we do our best to stay out of trouble. We avoid situations that look like they have unfavorable outcomes and have worked really hard to get Spencer to the point where he sees someone come around a corner or towards him and veers away. (He did that twice this morning before I even saw the person come around the corner!)

So it is very frustrating when people and events seem to conspire against us. However, I have noticed that a common denominator in many of these cases is that people have much less control over their dogs than they think they do. Continue reading


A few days ago, Spencer and I took our first solo walk in the woods — without Soca or Sherlock — in a long time. There weren’t many people around, and Spencer was supremely relaxed, so I had him on the long lead for most of the walk. At one point in time, we neared a major crossing, so I asked him to sit and wait for me while I caught up with him and put him on the short leash to have greater control over the situation while we crossed potentially near others.

Just as I reached him, I heard a man bellow, “Get back here!” I glanced up and saw a Jack Russell Terriers had just turned down the path towards us. Some of you may know or remember that Spencer doesn’t have a great history with JRTs. His social ineptitude and their high-strung nature is generally a bad mix.

I quickly clipped the short leash onto the harness and looked up to see that the JRT had already reached us, as the owner said, “Oh great. And it’s a big one.” I feared my nightmare scenario, where an angry owner comes charging up to us to fetch his dog and sets off Spencer’s defensive reactivity.

The dogs said a very polite and quick hello: a nose touch or two, circling the bodies and then the JRT went trotting off to catch up with his people, who, thankfully, had not come for him. It was a perfect encounter for Spencer — just enough contact to satisfy his curiosity without it being long enough for him to be socially awkward and jump on the other dog.

As the JRT reached his master, I heard him say to the dog, “You’re lucky he was nice.” I couldn’t help chuckling to myself and reflecting how we label people and animals as “being” one thing or another. Had he provoked a reaction from Spencer, I’m sure he would have a totally different opinion about how Spencer “is”!

Elementary, my dear Watson

More new friends!  Yesterday we met Sherlock — an adorable but reactive nine-month-old border collie — and his people, Noemi and Frank. They are also students of Irène’s. Having a reactive dog can be a socially isolating experience, so it’s nice when it occasionally is a way to meet people.

Noemi and I had already agreed to help each other with dog training — sometimes the hardest bit is finding a decoy to stand there while you teach the dog not to react. And given Spencer’s recent mishap, I asked if we could benefit from the exchange first.

Noemi and Greg stood in the middle of a circle while Spencer and I walked around and stopped at “decision points” where he was supposed to gather information about the stranger and then politely disengage (this is from Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training technique for anyone interested in the technicalities). He tried to half-heartedly charge a couple of times in the beginning, but he very quickly calmed down and started to do really well. He sniffed all around, looked at Noemi occasionally and sniffed in her direction, but didn’t charge again, even though we gradually moved closer and closer. We ended the session when we were about 3-4 metres away (best to end on a good note rather than pushing the dog too far in the first session).

While we were working, Frank and Sherlock were walking around. At the end of the session, Noemi went back to Sherlock and released him, while I put Spencer on his long lead so the two dogs could play together. They romped rowdily until Spencer had had enough. They both like a very rough form of play that involves lots of running, wrestling and trying to “mount” one another (a common ritual game to express domination). Sherlock is much smaller than Spencer, so it was very cute when Spencer very clearly intentionally lowered his head and let Sherlock “mount” him. It was a clear non-aggression signal and one that required a lot of gentleness on his part.

Afterwards, we leashed the dogs and walked back to the cars together. Spencer pulled a lot because Sherlock was in front, and he clearly wanted to be up with his friend, but until he’s comfortable with Frank and Noemi being nearby, we can’t do that.

The walk back was interesting.

First, since Spencer had played hard, he was much more restrained in his hellos to other dogs. This tiny little ball of (fearless) white fluff came up to him, and that went very well. He was also very gentle with a shy whippet that weighed maybe as much as his head. (Strange dogs. To me they look like too skinny to have internal organs.)

Second, Sherlock is very nervous when bikes or runners go by. He jumps on his leash, barking and trying to chase them away. We’ve worked really hard over months and months with Spencer to teach him to step aside and let others go by. We’re not used to being pointed out as the “good students”, so it was kind of nice to hear comments on how obedient Spencer was. Two women stopped right across from us (and only 2 metres or less away) to comment on how handsome he is. It’s not an easy task to convince people that they really need to move on and stop staring at your reactive dog when he’s sitting there all docile being an angel.

We got back to the car, put Spencer in and stood talking to Sherlock and his family for a while. Spencer continued to be angelic, even when people walked right by the car.

All in all, it was a good day for everyone. We hope to see Sherlock and his people again soon…and next time we’ll remember to take pictures!

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.