Monday, November 26, 2012

Jai Goes for a Walk

Yesterday, Jai joined me and twenty three other dog handler teams for the weekly Twin Cities Pack Walk. Piper and Maus have gone on these walks several times, and it’s a great chance to get around other dogs and handlers in a safe and friendly environment. Many of the other handlers have reactive dogs, so the group takes the whole “no on leash greetings, no off leash dogs” thing pretty seriously. I've hemmed and hawed for a while about bringing Jai on a walk, and I finally just went ahead and took the plunge.
Jai's in this picture. You can tell because my lime green coat is in this picture.
Photo by Paige

Jai’s been doing well in his regular level one class, but walks in general can still be difficult for him, what with all the places there might be zombies hiding, ready to jump out and attack us. Bringing along another dog often helps Jai relax, but it also increases his arousal in general. For him, there’s a fine line between distracted enough not to obsess over the environment and too distracted to work.

The pack walk definitely pushed that line hard, and I learned an awful lot about my dog in just a couple of miles. For one, he’s a horrible, horrible puller when there’s anything interesting going on. Apparently, my leash training skills are not what they should be, but, hey – that’s why god invented Gentle Leaders, right? I found that Jai pulled less and was much more comfortable if he could be in the middle of the pack as opposed to distanced away from the other dogs. Jai also took treats the entire walk, which was awesome because he’s not a terribly food motivated dog, and he stops taking treats as soon as he starts getting over stimulated.
Don't mind us, we're just pulling along here.
Photo by Paige.

Jai did have one bad meltdown on the walk when the pack had to turn around and start back toward the parking lot. This mean that dogs were coming toward us, and it was, quite simply, too much for my Fatty McCheesehead. Once we got through the other dogs, though, I pulled over to the side, and Jai recovered remarkably fast. Jai is a good dog, but he typically takes a long time to recover from going over threshold, with stressors tending to mount until he’s too wild eyed and traumatized to continue working. Not so this time.
Jai, about fifteen seconds after him meltdown,
looking happier and more relaxed than he does on most of our regular walks.
Photo by Paige.

Perhaps most remarkable yesterday was not so much what happen, but what didn't happen. Jai didn't have his ears pinned back and his tail down as is often the case on our individual walks when we’re in a new area. While in the pack closer to the other dogs, Jai was very good about minding his manners and not getting in the other dogs’ space. I didn't really expect that, and was pleasantly surprised. He also didn't freeze even once, which is a huge deal for him.

Jai’s freezing has been an interesting challenge. I've mentioned before, but Jai’s big problem isn't so much other dogs as it is suddenly environmental changes and unfamiliar places. Often times when there is a change in his environment – anything from, say, dogs suddenly coming toward him instead of moving with him to people stepping out of houses to a plastic bag blowing across the street half a block away – Jai will freeze mid step and need to stare at the stimulus until he decides it’s not a threat. While frozen, nothing exist for Jai other than that new stimulus: not me, not peanut butter, not the car coming straight toward us because he decided to freeze in the middle of the street.

Hangin' out, watchin' other dogs, not frozen.
Photo by Paige. 
I can pick Jai up and remove him from the situation, but it increases his stress level dramatically. I've found that the best way to handle Jai getting stuck is to be patient and wait for him to unstuck himself. The episodes usually last between ten seconds to two minutes, and as soon as he moves or looks away from the stimulus, I make sure to reward heavily. I’m not sure that I have any science behind rewarding Jai redirecting his focus after becoming frozen, but I figure dogs repeat what you reward, and maybe if I reward him for coming out of it, he’ll unfreeze faster and freeze less frequently.

I may not have any science, but anecdotally, this systems seems to be working pretty well. On our regular walks, Jai has gone from taking half an hour or more to walk a single block to freezing only three or four times a mile. He also doesn't freeze for nearly as long, and it’s been quite a while since he’s frozen for more that fifteen seconds.

And during the pack walk, he didn't freeze at all.

I’m not sure that we’ll be doing the pack walk again soon, but I’m glad we did it. I’m still on the fence about whether or not I feel it was too stressful for him. I do think that overall, Jai enjoyed himself, but I think we've more training that needs to be done before we jump into that situation again.

No matter whether we join the pack walk next week or never go again, I hope that Jai knows on some level how brave I think he is, how beautiful and smart and courageous. How delighted I am that he works so hard for me, even when things are scary. And how proud I am to walk – or wait still - next to him for however many miles we have to travel together.

My brave dog,
photo by Paige.


  1. Go Jai! You are an inspiration :)

  2. First two pictures he looks fabulously relaxed! In fact, he looks like he's having a great time!