Walking: two case studies

One of the things I love best about my job is finding the methods that work best with specific dogs. I’ve blogged about walking before (a lot), and now I’m going to do it again.

I’m looking at two very different case studies: Darcy and Obi. Both dogs are highly leash reactive (which means aggressive toward other dogs when they’re on their leashes, but fine when they’re off leash).

1. Darcy

Darcy is a 40-pound mix, very leggy and energetic, around 2 years old. She was rescued around 1-1.5 years by her lovely family, who work very hard with her. To look at her, you’d guess she’s a border collie mix of some sort, with some shepherd or doberman or rottweiler, given the color on her legs.

After working with Darcy for nearly a year with improvement I would normally expect to see in a few months, we decided I should take her out on my own for a few days to see what I could find that would work for her. This is what worked.

First we used a slip lead. A martingale would have worked, too. A prong collar increased her anxiety and aggression, and a face harness — because of the leaping, flipping, and lunging she does — could be dangerous. Though Darcy knows a perfect heel, I quickly found that when she was already stressed out or feeling reactive, confining her that way made her worse in the long term. We did a lot of no-pull walking, but I didn’t focus on whether or not she was right beside me; just that she was on a loose leash and relaxed. If I saw a dog coming or we neared a stationary dog, I would do soft reversals (not reprimanding her, just turning away) and let her feet move. We did a lot of circling — in the horse world, it would be called lunging, when the animal circles around you at the end of their lead. Keeping in motion kept her calmer overall.

Now, I couldn’t have her at that length when another dog walked right past, because even though she stayed calmer overall, she was still aggressive. So as the dog neared I would ask her to sit and focus on me and my treat. We then did puppy push-ups: “Down! Good, here’s your treat. Sit! Good, treat. Down! Good, treat. Sit!” And so on. This worked short term to get a dog past successfully, but I found that if I tried it as the dog was approaching from a distance, over the long term the inability to burn off her energy by circling, and the intensity of following commands ramped up her anxiety, stress, and aggression levels.

As soon as the dog was past, we went back to circling to burn off the energy created by a passing dog. When she looked calmer, we would walk forward.

As I mentioned, I didn’t keep her to a perfect heel. I asked her to get no farther forward than hip-to-hip, and if she pulled farther than that I reversed or circled to bring her back. (Her mom’s verbal “whoops!” also worked to remind her.) I also didn’t worry too much about where her ears were. In most dogs, correcting for forward ears/wrinkles solves most of the problem. With Darcy, it didn’t solve the problem and only made her more stressed, inching up her levels of aggression. Instead, I focused on keeping her feet moving when we could, distracting with treats when we couldn’t, and reversals or circles to keep her nearby. There was virtually no correcting of any sort, just re-directing and distraction.

The closest we got to a correction was to force her into a circle or reversal with me when she leaped toward another dog, which was definitely a physical dragging her around with me if she was really intent! Even then, however, I wasn’t telling her she’d done something wrong, I was just telling her she had to come with me, silly puppy.

When passing other dogs, we would circle away, and as we came back around I would put a handful of treats in front of her nose, to catch her attention before she saw the other dog again. As she was working at getting the treats, we were able to walk closer before she fixated on the dog. When she did, we circled and started again with the treats. As she realized that lunging didn’t work — we just circled away — and we were able to burn off energy, she was able to stay focused on the treats and walk by.

In talking with her “mom” I learned that her walks after this were relaxed and easy, and her stool was normal. This tells me that she wasn’t too stressed out or becoming more aggressive. The current plan is to do “normal,” easy, non-dog walks 4-5 days a week to keep her calm, and work in heavy dog areas 2 days a week. This should give her time to practice without ramping up her energy/excitement/aggression, as she is easily ramped up.

2. Obi

Obi is a 80-90 pound pit bull/boxer mix who is about 2 years old. He was brought home as a puppy but not socialized on leash, and is now struggling with learning NOT to be leash reactive. Much like Darcy, he’s very nice off-leash.

We tried many things with Obi before we found what works.

Obi does best if we can get him to remain calm and contained. When we first started he couldn’t walk on a leash at all. We put him on a prong collar (which he ignored). Then I started. Every time he drew ahead of me (which was every step), we stopped and he had to sit. He got a treat, and we moved on. One more step, stop, and sit. Treat. Walk on. This creates a very SLOW walk, but after a week he knew to walk beside me with only occasional sit reminders, and because the prong collar was always loose, it now became a deterrent: he realized pulling was uncomfortable.

We also stopped and sat any time he wrinkled his forehead (focused on something to the exclusion of me). Like I said. Very. Slow. Walk.

First off, this creates an automatic sit. What that means is that your dog’s cue to sit is that your feet stopped moving. It’s really handy. It also means that if Obi is seated, he’s not lunging. (Note that he CAN lunge simply by getting up, but repeating this pattern starts to teach him to sit, remain seated, and stay calm.)

Once Obi got to a point where he was walking automatically by my side (head to hip), I would correct if he wasn’t. His correction was five quick steps backwards by me (not turning around; just walking backwards) with 3-5 hard, sharp yanks on his prong collar. Obi is expected to remain in a perfect heel, because it keeps him calm. Running like Darcy does makes him much more aggressive. (Note that this is a heavy duty correction.)

Next, we started practicing focusing on me and treats, stopping to sit as we neared a dog until, finally, we were able to walk past the dog. If I knew that Obi would lose focus no matter what and get aggressive at fifteen feet, then we started walking past at sixteen feet. He was probably wrinkling, maybe whining, but he wasn’t lunging. When he was behaving (not wrinkling) there, we got closer. We worked with a lot of stationary dogs behind fences or tied to things. (We walked outside the dog park A LOT.)

If the dog was coming toward us, we worked on sitting and focusing on the treat. If Obi lunged, I picked him straight up as high as I could (I want his weight on his back legs, not hanging off his neck/the collar), waited until I felt him try to sit down, then let him go down and sit again. We finished sitting, calmed, got a treat, and moved on. Bit by bit, he’s been able to stay seated when a dog walks by.

As he got better walking past dogs as well, I would allow him to first focus on a treat as we went past. (When he refused them, I stopped offering; he was too interested in the other dog.) Then he started getting his treat only after we got past. We were also able to add the same five-steps-backward correction as he improved around other dogs, which initially only increased his aggression when he was fixating on dogs. Now he knows it’s us (not the dog), that he’s doing something wrong, and he needs to tune in.

Obi is still a work in progress, but he’s significantly better. He does best with a walk daily around other dogs. He gets obsessive and backslides fairly easily, so the more often we can work around other dogs, the better. In addition, instead of getting worked up he gets exhausted and sleeps the rest of the day. That’s a bonus!



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