Working with a reactive dog is a bit like riding a roller coaster. There are horrible days that make you cry. You wonder why you ever thought you could do this, and you desperately wish that for once you just had a normal dog. And then there are good days. Wonderful days. Days where you know, without a doubt, you have the best dog in the world.
I had one of those days this week.
Maisy and I had our obedience class on Thursday night, and I had been dreading class, because the last time we’d gone, it had been horrible. We’ve been off since then due to holidays and snow, so that rotten experience has really had time to build itself up in my brain. But we went, and I’m so glad we did.
We had a substitute instructor, which made me worried. Our regular instructor knows that Maisy is a dog with “rules”- her term for Maisy’s reactivity- and is very good about modifying exercises for us. I had intended to tell the sub when we arrived that Maisy is reactive, but we were running a bit late (see above re: not really wanting to go), so I didn’t get the chance.
I’m glad I didn’t, actually, because she would never have believed me. Maisy was that amazing.
We started class with group heeling exercises, something that Maisy has always found a bit too stimulating in the past. All those dogs moving quickly and so close by is crazy-making for her. In fact, during previous classes, I’ve had to take Maisy outside the ring and work on the other side of an opaque barrier in order to get anything resembling heeling out of her. Still, I thought I’d give it a whirl, and positioned myself so that I could make a quick getaway if needed.
And Maisy did just fine! In fact, she did better than fine: she was heads up attentive, making fabulous pivots on the about turns, and in almost perfect position! I reinforced the heck out of her, clicking and treating as fast as I could. After several laps, Maisy began taking treats just a bit harder. This phenomenon, which I call “shark teeth,” is very common with reactive dogs. The harder mouth like this is a sign of stress, and it’s a very reliable predictor of how Maisy is feeling.
Since I felt shark teeth, I opted to quietly move Maisy outside the ring. The instructor looked at us a bit oddly, but didn’t say anything about it. After a few laps, Maisy and I returned to the ring, and she finished up the group heeling exercises admirably! She even did a few laps off leash!
Sometime during all this, a small spaniel, about the same size as Maisy, joined class. Another classmate, a rottie, lunged at the small spaniel and growled. Maisy also growled quietly, but she didn’t lunge, and she remained attentive to me. I quietly left the ring with her, played a bit with her stuffed toy, and gave her a drink of water. Once things calmed down, we rejoined the class.
At this point, I considered leaving. We’d spent about 20 minutes doing some intense work, and Maisy had performed wonderfully. I’m not sure why I decided against this. I guess something inside me just said “stay.” I’m glad I listened, because it got better!
We worked signals next. Since this is a pre-novice class, the instructions were to stand in front of the dog and request position changes with hand gestures only. Maisy and I were working at 20 feet. She did really well, and only confused my sit and down signals once, and that was because I gave the sit signal wrong, and made it look more like a down signal. Good thing to know, and once I figured it out, she did great.
At this point, two people walked up right next to the ring barriers and stared at Maisy. This is against The Rules, and she… well, I want to say she lunged, but that’s not what it really was. It was more like she pulled the leash taut and then returned to me. She was a bit upset about the people Breaking The Rules, but she didn’t freak. Didn’t even make a noise. I ignored the small lunge, avoided eye contact and waited about 10 seconds before asking her to get in heel position. When she did, I gave her a steady stream of treats until the Rule Breakers went away.
Despite that mild blip, Maisy’s mouth grew continually softer, and the shark teeth went away. She took treats softly for at least half the class, which is completely unprecedented. I don’t think that even happened way back when we were in puppy classes!
Next, we did stays. Stays are our nemesis, mostly because Maisy gets so stressed during them. I’m not sure why she finds them stressful, though I think it’s the combination of not moving and feeling like she’s supposed to be doing something rather than nothing. I modified our stays, too, but I didn’t put her behind barriers like I usually do. Instead, I stood about five feet away and gave treats at 5 second intervals. We did 45 second stays in class, and each time, when I released her, there were no sweaty paw prints on the ground! The same thing happened when we worked on stand for exams- no sweaty paw prints! In fact, she had that big, loose tail wag, and she really wanted to say hi to the instructor.
We ended with retrieves. The class is at the level where the dog should pick up a wooden dowel from the ground. Maisy did great, but we’ve been working on this one at home quite a bit. She was even picking up a wooden dumbbell about twice as big as her white plastic one. I was impressed!
Right at the end of class, she did another of those half-hearted “lunges” towards another dog, although I’m not sure why. Maybe he was staring at her? I know that’s against The Rules, and we have a few stare-y dogs in class. Still, she was quiet, and it was more of a rushing than a lunge. I just kept walking, and she did great. I was so proud!
Overall, it was an awesome class. Although she had a few stressy moments, I was really proud that she was able to keep herself together and even relax and enjoy herself. In addition to her shark teeth abating, she had a “helicopter tail” intermittently throughout class. I’m also really proud of myself for being able to recognize when she needed me to adjust criteria to make it easier for her by leaving the ring, and when it was okay to do harder stuff, like go off leash. What a great night! Maisy and I are really becoming a dynamite team!