Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rubi's Outdoor Adventures

Question: How do you know your reactive-dog rehab program is working?

Answer: Your list of triggers gets smaller.

Who cares about dogs when you can roll in this awesome grass?

Rubi and I are currently taking an outdoor class for reactive dogs, and as we meandered our way over to the rest of the group on the first day, I had a chance to consider how far we've come. It used to be that all dogs tipped Rubi over the edge. As we went on more walks, dogs in yards became mostly okay. Then, familiar dogs came off the list, followed by dogs on leash in familiar areas. Now, unfamiliar dogs in unfamiliar places are pretty much okay, as long as a ten-ish foot bubble is observed.

Dogs barking where Rubi can't see them still throw us for a loop, though. When a dog in a house on the other side of the park started barking, Rubi had to stop everything and try to find the dog. I suppose that isn't actual reactivity, though, since she wasn't screaming or insensible. But it was annoying to me because we had to stop anything we had been doing until either the dog stopped barking, or we had enough counter conditioning episodes that Rubi was able to focus on me again.

Dogs barking where Rubi can't see them also reduces her threshold to the dogs she can see. So if she's in, say, a group class, and a dog starts barking, Rubi may redirect her frustration and start warbling at the dogs she can see. Nothing else has changed in the class - just the sound of a dog barking somewhere else. So far, I've been able to stay on top of her and prevent any big outbursts. But I'm starting to wish people would make their dogs stop barking after a reasonable, say, five minutes.

Yes, there is a dog over there. No, you cannot say hi. Can we do something else now? No?

Overall, I've been pleased with how well Rubi's in-building course work has translated to outside. After all, outside is very different from inside. There are more sounds, more smells, more sights, and more factors we can't control. But Rubi has lost little of her control and working skills in spite of the new environment, new dogs, and the obnoxious barker on the other side of the park.

Don't get me wrong, though, it's hard work for her. Because I know it's a safe environment, I've been pushing her harder than I have in a long time. Each class we take together, I learn something new, and one of the lessons I've picked up from this class is that I should probably try to stop interrupting Rubi's displacement behaviors.

A displacement behavior is an activity an animal does when presented with two highly desirable behaviors that cannot be done at the same time. The displacement behavior is not usually related to the two highly desirable behaviors, and it's usually self-soothing of some sort. For Rubi, she can work with me, or she can scream at other dogs, but she can't do both at the same time. So she disengages and starts aggressively sniffing the ground. This usually happens right at the moment when I'm trying really hard to get her to do something else, and as a result, I tend to get annoyed and try to make her pay attention. This is what's called "not helping."

I suspect that if Rubi is trying to self-soothe, I should encourage that. Or at least not get in the way. Given Rubi's history of making horrible choices with speed and enthusiasm, I should be pleased that she's taking steps to calm herself down without me cuing her. I'm just, you know, too busy being annoyed to appreciate this. Because she's not doing what I want, dammit.

Best. Grass. Ever.

So here's the new plan: when Rubi disengages, I'm going to stop with her, take a deep breath, and be glad that she didn't choose to scream at other dogs. Then, I'm going to figure out how to change the situation in two ways: first, I want to make the situation less intense so that Rubi does not feel the need to self-soothe. Second, I'm going to try to make the decision I want much more powerful so that she will be more likely to make the right choice (aka, the choice I want her to make).

Concrete example: during class yesterday, we got too close to the other dogs, and Rubi's nose got stuck to the ground. Instead of being annoyed and trying to get her to refocus, I stop and let her suck all the dirt she could possibly want into that pretty blonde head of hers. Meanwhile, the rest of the class is continuing with their walk, slowly moving farther away. When Rubi is done snorting dirt, we stay where we are and practice some counter conditioning. We move closer to the other dogs only when Rubi is well under threshold and able to easily focus on me.

Sounds like a good plan, right? *sigh* Hindsight is such a pretty, perfect thing.


  1. Interesting observations! Lots of food for thought here.

  2. "Hindsight is such a pretty, perfect thing."

    Oh dear lord, yes. But it's also called EXPERIENCE. This post may be wistful in tone, but it's also a little victory dance that you have LEVELED UP!

    And I'm sorry. My fear reactive dog is one of those barkers. And for years I did not know what it was or how to deal with it. It's under control now, but it was a long, long journey.

    I so appreciate Rubi's progress, and yours! You guys are awesome!