Sunday, October 24, 2010
Protecting Our Dogs, Part 2: Practice Makes Perfect
As we discussed in my last post, there are a number of different ways to protect our dogs. I’ve chosen to use citronella spray in order to protect Maisy from off-leash and out-of-control dogs. Today, I’d like to tell you about what I did to prepare both Maisy and myself before I had to use it for the first time.
The first time I bought citronella spray, I bought two cans. One was for protection. The other was for practice. No matter what method you choose to protect your dog, it seems wise to figure out the mechanics of how it works. In the case of the spray, I needed to learn how to quickly disengage the safety lock so that I wasn’t fumbling around with it in the heat of the moment. Once I was able to do that smoothly, I practiced using it so that I understood the range and how to accurately hit what I was aiming for.
After I felt comfortable using the spray alone, I brought Maisy into the picture. Part of the reason citronella spray works is because it has a strong scent that dogs typically want to avoid. Since I didn’t want to add to the stress of being rushed by a strange dog, I conditioned Maisy to associate the smell of the spray with good things. I started by squirting a small amount away from Maisy and giving her a high value treat. As she became comfortable with this, I slowly sprayed it closer and closer to her, until I was aiming directly over her head. (Full disclosure: I got the idea to do this from the amazing Sara.)
This worked well, and the first time I had to use the spray, I felt comfortable with it. While Maisy was upset by the incident, I knew that I had done everything I could to minimize the impact of the spray as a stressor. (Incidentally, after every use of the spray in the real world, I wait for a week or so, and then repeat the conditioning exercise with whatever is left in the can.) However, I found that I wasn’t sure how to both use the can and manage Maisy at the same time.
The solution was to teach her to hide behind me. We’re still working on this, because a behavior has to be incredibly strong to even have a chance of working when a dog is stressed or over-threshold. Still, Maisy is learning that when I step forward, move in front of her, and use the arm closest to her to sweep back towards her, it means that she should go behind me. I’ve been telling her to “get back,” but I also think “go home” would be a nice cue, because that’s what I say to the other dog. When I teach the cue, I try to use a louder, sterner voice than I usually do with her so that when I yell at the other dog, it doesn’t surprise her as much.
These two simple steps have prepared Maisy and I for the vast majority of the encounters we have had with off-leash and out-of-control dogs. I really wish that I didn't need to spend so much time and energy worrying about such encounters, but the truth is, they really set Maisy back in her training. The residual stress impacts her for at least a week, if not longer. Plus, there is the very real risk of physical injury. Thankfully, having prepared both of us for potential encounters makes them less stressful when they do happen.