Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worse Than I Expected: Napi's First Reactive Dog Class

Friday night, I took Napi to his first reactive dog class. I knew going into it that Napi is reactive; I've seen him bark and lunge at people. I've also suspected that he might be a bit anxious, as he seems to have trouble settling. When he and Pyg play together, Pyg will want to take breaks. Napi doesn't. More than that, it seems like he can't. My overall goal for the entire session is to evaluate if he would benefit from medication.

For the first night of class, my goal was to get him settled on a mat – even briefly- and to teach him about the clicker. We did not accomplish these goals. Instead, I had to revise them to simply eating treats in class.

Napi is a lot more fearful than I thought. Upon entering the building, he immediately piloerected (hair on his back stood up), and tucked his tail. As soon as he saw the instructor, he started barking and growling. I scooped him up, stuck him behind a barrier, and started offering him bits of bacon and turkey. It was a no go. He was not interested in eating.

Hiding behind me, but eating!
I switched to using soft praise and petting. Napi liked this, and for the rest of the hour, whenever something scared him, he would hide behind me and press up against me. I was really happy to see this because I believe reactive dogs need to see their person as safe. Since we don't live together yet, I wasn't expecting to see this.

Napi did eventually start eating treats, although he would occasionally refuse them if things got too overwhelming. He never did go on his mat (he seemed scared of it, actually), and he never really did settle. In fact, it might not even sound like we did anything. It's true that I didn't teach him any exercises or introduce him to the clicker. But we actually accomplished a lot. I began the long process of counter-conditioning. I established myself as a safe person. I learned about the kinds of foods Napi likes and doesn't like – info that will be invaluable in coming weeks.

I also learned that although he could make a lot of progress with just training, it will not only be easier but also be more humane to start him on medications. Napi's fear response was extreme, far worse than I remember from Maisy. He was louder and more intense in his reactions. He was difficult to distract, even with food. He was slow and stiff in his body movements, and there were times he just shook from head to toe.

It's true that these reactions appeared worse because I took him out of his comfort zone. It's also true that this could be avoided by not “forcing” him to go to class. But the truth is that simply being in a new place does not change a dog's underlying personality and response to the world. The fact that he was terrified says a lot about what he's experienced and who he's become as a result.

That is no way to live. Even if Napi has carved out a little part of the world where he feels (mostly) safe, all of that anxiety and fear are still underneath. Leaving a living being to suffer like this is not kind, not when I can do something to help.


Holly Marsh said...

I'm so glad I found this site. Napi's experience in class is identical to my dog Freyja's first 'Fiesty Fido' class over three years ago. She braced, shook, frothed at the mouth, and would spit out treats at the mere site of another dog.
We eventually found a behaviorist that suggested Fluoxitine, which she tolerates very well.

I'm eager to watch Napi's progress in your blog, thank you so much for sharing it.

Roo Roo Fee said...

I realized about a year into my fear-reactive dog's life that, as you said, it's more humane to medicate sometimes. Domino's reactions are immediate and off the charts. A combination of 2 meds allowed her to - literally - exhale for the first time, to concentrate a little on training, to build some confidence by being involved in 'pack' activities (as did positive introduction to a Baskerville muzzle - which was also a hard decision). We've tried to enroll in a reactive dog class, but when we're available, it's full; when they've openings, we're traveling; but we keep trying! Kudos on building your bond with the dog and best of luck in finding the dog's happier place. :) - Charlotte