Leash Monsters: Part II

Cricket* on a walk in the Presidio.

“Leash monsters” are far from a unified group. Dogs of every size, age and breed are Cricket’s* classmates including a 20lb Brussels Griffon, a Boxer mix, a Shepherd mix, a Lercher, and a Pit mix. Cricket is just as different as the rest – a 3 year old Patterdale Terrier weighing no more than 30lbs. The “monster” form they take also varies. Cricket has a subtle response to other dogs – he freezes, but in doing so, his tail is often high in the air and his mouth open so that, to the untrained eye, he doesn’t look particularly concerned. Many other dogs, including the Shepherd mix in class, have an explosive reaction to other dogs; the Pit mix is attending class because he is so excited to see another dog that he bounds towards them, dragging his owners along, and frightening the dog (and owner) that he is headed for. The Brussels Griffon is snarly and snappish.

The significant variation among Cricket’s classmates makes me really respect Kelley and Pamela’s versatility. As teachers, they can show us techniques that can help to manage a dog’s stress and fear while on leash, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution; every dog is different. This makes it all the more amazing that, this week, every member of the class reported having seen some improvement after diligently working on last week’s assignment. In general, every dog was more tolerant in its walks and had fewer freak-outs. So it was time to up the ante a bit.

Last week, all six dogs (and owners) were placed around the room a safe distance from one another. This week, we created a close circle with each dog only a couple of feet from the next. This raised the tension in the room. Cricket and I sat in between the Brussels Griffon and the Boxer mix but, when Cricket figured out that the Griffon’s mom had yummy treats too, that became his focus rather than the fact that his nose was only inches from the other dog’s butt. Kelley added a new command to our repertoire, sort of grade school level version of what we had learned at kindergarten level last week: instead of just praising the dog for looking at another, we asked our dogs to “Be nice”, praising them only when they looked back at us. Some of the dogs got this quickly but it was a bit difficult for Cricket while we sat in the circle. He was distracted by the proximity of the other dogs and had trouble focusing on me to follow through the whole repertoire. When we worked on this same sequence while moving, he did far better. This, combined with the “blast past”, quickly walking by the scary object, would be our primary homework for the week.

We also learned how to distract our dogs while walking by another scary canine. Counter-intuitively, the dog should be on the side of you that is closest to the scary object, not farthest away. This is because when you distract your dog with a delicious treat in your far hand, he turns his head away from the other dog. If the dog were on the far side of you, looking at the treat in the near hand, he would be forced to stare straight in to the face of his perceived enemy. Eye contact between dogs is often the spark that ignites a full-on brawl so avoiding that possibility is crucial.

When Cricket and I ran in to Kelley with several dogs on Clay Street the next day, we got a chance to practice our “be nice” for the teacher and I realized one of the limitations of dog reactivity – how do you stop and chat with someone walking a dog when your own pup might flip out? Trying to work out a solution in my head, I pulled Cricket over to the side after our first two runs through “be nice” and did a distraction technique when I should have practiced our “blast past.” Cricket didn’t mind, though, he kept his eye on the treat and, afterward, merrily continued on his way.

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