Sunday, December 29, 2013

More than Just Training: Changing Your Lifestyle to Change Your Reactive Dog

Maisy is a normal dog these days, health concerns not withstanding, of course. I take her places that I would have never dreamed possible in the old days, and I do it without even thinking about it. I put her into chaotic situations- block parties, playing with children, outdoor festivals- without worrying. I used her as a decoy dog for a BAT session with a German Shepherd, completely forgetting that that breed was once one of her biggest triggers.

And guys? It's pretty awesome.

But it took a lot of work to get to this point; our (former! Sad face!) veterinary behaviorist told me that she's only seen this level of improvement a handful of times in the past ten years. Maisy's normalcy is not, well... normal. And yet, here we are.

This progress was not the result of any one thing. Medication was a huge factor, as was some environmental management/change. And of course, I did a ton of training. But when you're working with a reactive dog, this training is not limited to attending class and doing your homework. This training needs to be happening all day long.

Back when I was in the throes of reactivity with Maisy, her days consisted of either management or training. That's it. I was either doing something to prevent her from reacting, or I was actively working on her reactivity. This required me to change my lifestyle in order to accommodate her needs.

Every single walk we took required a clicker and cookies. We played Look at That. I closely monitored her body language and used the Whiplash Turn to interrupt her when she got close to going overthreshold. Sometimes, I would turn around if there was a dog or a kid or a bike up ahead that I knew she wouldn't be able to handle. I reinforced good choices liberally. I did a ton of classical conditioning: every barking dog resulted in cookies. Every screaming child resulted in cookies. Every bike that whizzed by resulted in cookies.

At home, Maisy went in a crate when guests or workmen were expected. She did not go to many dog-friendly gatherings because I knew I would be distracted and unable to give her the undivided attention she would need. That made me sad (I love having her around), but it was the best thing for her. If I knew that something was reliably difficult for her (garbage day or the neighbor's house being re-roofed or whatever), I would put her in a quiet room with a chewy and calming music playing loudly enough to drown out the sounds. (Later, after we'd started using medication, I would also give her a short-acting, as-needed anxiety drug.)

I paid attention to the things that set her off at home, like the sound of a car door slamming outside or the mailman coming or even the cats boisterously playing together. I always had treats in a pocket, and every one of these things was followed by a cookie so I could change her association with those triggers from bad to good.

We did go to classes, and we did do our homework. You really have to; if your dog only practices skills in stressful situations, those skills become predictors of bad or scary things, and can actually add to your dog's stress level.

In other words, I changed the way I lived my life so I could help Maisy. Sometimes I failed. I was tired or sick or had a bad day and just couldn't deal with her. That was okay. I managed what I could and just promised myself I'd try again the next day. There were times that I put her in situations that required a judgment call- and I made the wrong one. Those, too, were okay. I would take note of the problem and work on it later. But over time, my consistent and constant work paid off with a normal dog.

My lifestyle had to change drastically in order to reach this place, but it has been worth it. Having a normal dog is freaking awesome, and I am thrilled beyond belief that I can enjoy her company in so many more situations now.


Chris and Mike said...

Crystal -

You and Maisy have accomplished so much! And by sharing with us, your faithful readers, what you've done, how you've done it, the mistakes you've made, the things that have worked, the information from your seminars: some of us have come a long way, too. Habi and I are so thankful we stumbled on your blog several years ago, as it has been a constant source of information and inspiration. We're not quite as far along as you and Maisy, but we're so much further than I ever believed possible. This post is a great summary of it all.

Now you're going through another phase of learning, as Maisy and you deal with her health issues. We hope that you have a long, happy and healthy future together, but, as you said at the end of your last post, each day is a gift. Enjoy each and every one of them.

Hugs to you all!

Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck said...

it's like a fairy tale!

Kristen Sukalac said...

We're still in the constant management/training phase with our reactive Cane Corso. I get so tired of justifying to people that yes, I carry treats with me all the time. But he is making progress and being happier and healthier all the time. I can't wait until he starts realize that there are tons of people dying to play with him and give him love, just as soon as he's willing let me them get close to him.

Anonymous said...

It is really heartening to know that so much can be achieved. I am going through the same with my RR at present - everything that is done is done to accommodate him pretty much. It is hard work (very!!) but tales like yours keep me at it; it will be worth it in the long run!

un piloto inmenso said...

This is just what I needed to read today!