Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A real dog!

Today, after a week of Miss Plushy, I got up the nerve to do meet and greets with a real dog--a huge, intact male yellow lab, who is the calmest, least reactive dog in the world, so far as I can tell. The dog lives in a kennel along the bike trail in Monticello, and several weeks ago, Vanya ran up to the dog and greeted him (separated by a fence) reasonably well: play bows, low wagging tail, some wiggles, which is a huge improvement over the usual screaming, lunging, tasmanian devil imitation.

Today, Vanya was very good with the real dog, able to approach him calmly on a loose leash, and actually pretty uninterested in him once he got a chance to go sniff and greet (they were separated by the kennel fence). Vanya was much, much more interested in greeting a person who walked by than in greeting Real Dog. I've never seem him so calm around an actual dog, so maybe this many-times a day encounter with Miss Plushy is working! To be honest, I think the most important thing about Miss Plushy is that she shapes calmness in ME. I've been so worried about screwing something up in actual dog encounters and ending up with someone else's dog hurt, that no matter how hard I try, I get tense. The first few times with Miss Plushy, I could tell my heart was racing, even though the stakes were low. So I'm getting calmer each time, and so is Vanya.

We've ordered another fake dog: the sitting Cavalier King Charles spaniel, complete with a little tongue flick.
Melissa & Doug Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in Plush
Why are we letting Vanya meet the fake dogs? Sarah Kalnajs of Blue Dog Training mentioned that some trainers who work on assessing reactive dogs will let the dog meet the stuffed dog, in order to assess whether the test dog is likely to attack new dogs, or just likely to be a goofy Tarzan around them.

There's a specific protocol she described: start by letting your test dog see 4 actual dogs at a distance without being allowed to get near them; then round a corner and have the test dog suddenly encounter Fake Dog. Let test dog off his leash to run up to Fake Dog. If test dog, primed by seeing real dogs at a distance, immediately attacks Fake Dog, that suggests a different prognosis than  if Test Dog runs up wagging and licking Fake Dog.

We didn't have 4 real dogs to set up this protocol correctly, so instead I worked on shaping calmness in Vanya in the presence of his triggers: dogs, real or fake. When Vanya was able to stay calm with a loose leash around Miss Plushy, I decided to reward him by letting him interact with her. I was, of course, curious to see if he would attack her or try to greet her.

If Vanya had launched into a scary attack of Miss Plushy, I would now probably  be focusing on management strategies and getting him to be reasonably quiet when we pass leashed dogs off in the distance. But since he seemed so happy to greet Miss Plushy (and has been the same way the few times we've encountered dogs and he's been off leash), working towards Vanya having a few real dog playmates seems like a more reasonable goal. My ultimate goal, when 14 year old Tiva eventually dies, is to be able to get a second dog--in part because we live in dog heaven (20 fenced acres, 2 people who do much of their work at home, 2000 acres of wildlife land around us, a super-abundance of bunnies in the meadow ready to be tracked) and in part because I like living with 2 dogs. We had assumed a 2nd dog would be impossible because of Vanya's reactivity, but Sarah K thinks it might be a reasonable goal, so we're hoping for the best.

Today we also went ski-joring with Vanya along the bike trail (in between meet and greets). When we turned back after a couple miles to go back to the car, we got about 1/2 mile and then saw a person on the trail with 2 unleashed dogs. Oops (I had been wondering why Vanya was pulling so well as we ran back towards the car). Luckily, I had been rehearsing to myself what we would do if this happened, so I was able to turn around on my skis, calls out in a happy voice "this way!" (our 'reverse direction' cue, which we practice in calm places), and ski back, away from the car. I knew that in a few hundred yards, there was a place I could ski off the trail, back into the woods. So we did that, found some good bunny tracks to play tracking games, and waited for a while, hoping the person and dogs would have gone on by. They hadn't yet. So we turned around again (still calmly), playing some more tracking games in the woods, then tried again, and by this time, the person was out of sight.

Vanya could probably still smell them, because when I gave him the hike command, he took off and pulled like mad for the entire 2 miles. Since I'm working on his pulling, I encouraged this, letting him pull all my weight, and even snowplowing a bit to slow him down (and to make possible a quick dash into the woods if the dogs popped up suddenly). We made it back to the car, after greeting 4 snowmobilers (Vanya LOVES snowmobilers, of course), and then put the skis away and did another meet and greet with the kenneled dog. Very calm on Vanya's part (of course, he was probably exhausted after doing all the work on the run back to the car). Then a brief walk around the block in the village on the busy block, saw a dog a block away, no reaction, back to the car, and even reasonably quiet in the car. So a good outing.


  1. When the time comes (but hopefully no time soon) that Tiva dies and you're ready for a second dog, Inara and I would be more than willing to come live with you. 20 fenced acres??? I can earn my keep. :-)

  2. Tiva is never going to die, we decided. Actually, we're worried Tiva's cancer may have come back, but the vet visit/biopsy keeps getting rescheduled because of snow storms (our vet comes to our farm in her big van, which includes a surgery suite, but which can't make it down our long driveway if there's much snow). Tiva is a tough old bitch, so even cancer can't slow her down. She'll live longer than all of us. I hope.