Tuesday, February 9, 2010

feb 2008: disastrous class, or how to create leash reactivity

Vanya hadn't met new dogs since the first class hadn't worked out (except once on the bike trail, an unleashed big chocolate lab came bounding up to us. Vanya alerted and seemed very interested, but he didn't shriek or whine, and the lab ran off into the wood once he got to within 20 ft of us.)

I knew he needed to learn to be calm around other dogs, but because I wanted to be a responsible pit bull owner, I also knew I couldn't just let him loose to play with stranger dogs. So I signed up for a "barkers" class offered by a local trainer. I emailed with trainer, describing Vanya, and she said he would be perfect for her completely positive class. No aversives, she promised. None whatsoever.

Here's what I wrote, in tears, after the first class. 

Many of you have helped me with my questions over the past couple months about Vanya,our male neutered young pit bull rescue. He lives with 2 other female dogs, and he has learned to play with them very well and respect their boundaries. We live on a farm, so while he meets tons of new people (we have a guest house), he never meets new dogs.
When we adopted him from the humane society 3 months ago, they said he was very selective about which dogs he liked, and we haven't intentionally introduced him to new dogs, wanting to wait until we got him calmed down a bit. He has done incredibly well at the farm with a mixture of "control unleashed" and click-to-calm stuff and
relaxation protocol exercises.

Tonight we took him for the first night of a "barkers" class, with 3 other dogs and 4 instructors. It was supposed to be based on positive reinforcement and held in a very large space. The space seemed quite small to me, and the instructors warned us at the beginning of the class that they would use a water spray if a dog got out of control.

For some of the hour, Vanya was able to listen to me, responding to sit, watch me, look at that, and walk with me commands, and for much of the time, he didn't seem too anxious (none of the other dogs were barking, whining, or lunging). But interspersed with all his paying attention, he also started whining, louder and louder. When he started whining, I walked him away further from the other dogs, which calmed him down a bit. But then the instructor told her assistants to spray him with water because he was getting too excited, and these kids started following us around, spraying him constantly  whenever he whined (finally one girl commented that it only made him more nervous and wasn't quieting him down--what a surprise!). I was trying to click and treat him whenever he gave signals of calming a bit,or of watching me, or of listening to me, but when the assistants started spraying him, he started shutting down. I should have taken him out of the class at that point--I could tell he was glazing over, even behind the barrier and further from the other 3 dogs. 

After the other students had left the room, the instructor told me to stay for a moment. (After the first 5 minutes, she had completely ignored the two of us, letting her assistants chase us around the room).  The instructor told me we needed to use a slip  collar for the other classes. She put one on him and gave him a couple quick corrections (even though he was just wagging his tail at her).

I didn't argue; I was completely shut down by stress. I just took the slip collar she gave me and took Vanya out to
the car. On the way to the car, we passed a new dog--a shepherd-- coming in for another class (at about 20 ft away in the parking lot), and Vanya reacted like he's never done before: lunging, barking, aggression. And then Vanya seemed weird to my husband in the parking lot--not barking or growling, just very tense, and he wouldn't get in the car. When we got home, he got snarly with my other dogs (but calmed down when I called him and distracted him). Now he's asleep, exhausted.

So now I'm disappointed in myself, feeling like I've failed Vanya by trying to stay positive with him and follow the exercises in  control unleashed, and really failed him by not introducing him to more novel stimuli, and failed him even more by taking him to a class where he got sprayed and jerked and pushed after he went over his threshold.

I don't know what to do now--keep him out of the class, and possibly make him worse by keeping him away from new dogs, or take him back to class, and let the teacher jerk him around, which only seemed to make him aggressive with dogs (something new--he's been anxious and overeager, but never aggressive).

So I feel freaked out about this class, but I also feel freaked out about the training I'm doing with him. I think the aversives only made him go over threshold, and didn't do any good at all. But I also felt unable to argue with that trainer, and unable to get him out of there, and now unable to trust that positive approaches will actually work...

Thanks for advice and reassurance. I feel like I'm screwing up this wonderful dog."

This class really was not good, for it started an association for Vanya: new dog=bad thing happening. Nancy gets really stressed; people start chasing me around doing scary things to me, and all hell breaks lose. Damn. Guess I'd better scare off those new dogs before they get everything all flipped out. 

Of course, my reactivity increased as well. 

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad to find your blog. I haven't read all the way through yet, but I'm noticing a lot of similar reading and similar tactics, as well as a lot that I haven't done yet, so I'm excited to keep going. At the end of January, we took in a stray female pit, about a year old (give or take), who promptly went into heat. She looks a lot like your Vanya-- a smallish black and white piebald named Robin. She is the loveliest, cuddliest, wiggliest, smartest little pup, and she gets along well with our 15 year old male lab/setter X and 5 year old female black lab X. She's still learning her boundaries, but improves every day. She also does the 0-60 zoomies and gets way out of control. I'm hoping to work on some agility training at some point as an outlet for her.

    Unfortunately, I think being cooped up in the house immediately for a month because of her heat and watching people and dogs out the window made her a bit reactive. She had never worn a leash and was initially scared of wearing it, as well as carsick every time we went out. She barks at people when we are outside on the leash (not in the pet supply store or vet's office, and not really aggressively, since she barks similarly at me when I get home. I think it's frustration); she was making great improvement with the counter conditioning we were doing outside a coffee shop yesterday (people walk into the shop, ooooh yummy treats if she doesn't bark; we started this with clicker shaping in the park), until a woman walked up with an unleashed pomeranian. When the woman picked up the dog and stood staring us down, our little girl lost it lunging and barking and growling and I largely blame myself for not remaining calm when I saw that little puffball running up to us. We haven't introduced her to new strange dogs, so I was unsure how she'd react.

    At any rate, a very long comment, all to say that I am in a similar boat and excited to read what you have done so far. I adore this little pup and have high hopes for her...