If you’ve been reading along for a while, you’ve probably seen me refer to Niles and Celia as “reactive” dogs. If you don’t know what a reactive dog is, it’s basically a dog who overreacts to certain things; most commonly, it means a dog who barks, growls and lunges at people or other dogs. For many people with reactive dogs, that reactivity has the biggest impact on their walks. Now, I have a fenced-in backyard, so reactivity on walks is less of a pressing issue and more of a nagging thing at the back of my mind. However, I feel for people who don’t have fenced yards and do have reactive dogs, because taking a reactive dog on a walk is basically asking to get continually punked by the universe.
Working on reactivity means counter-conditioning, i.e. raining treats upon your dog at first sight of the trigger like your name is Big Sean and Fido is a stripper making that ass boomerang. This is where it gets tricky, because you want your dog to see the trigger, thus associating it with the treats, but you don’t want the trigger to be so close that your dog says, “Screw the food, don’t you see that dangerous old lady with the visor and the fanny pack?!”
Distance is key to keeping your dog under threshold, and that’s the whole goal, to stay under threshold — not barking and lunging — the whole time. Distance can be a difficult thing to maintain because people are, you know, autonomous and shit, and they’re going where they’re going without thinking about how it’s going to affect your dog. Since I’ve started working on this with Celia, I’ve developed a hyper-awareness of everything that happens on my street, my head swiveling like an anxious meerkat. For all my paranoia, though, I get surprised all the time.
One day, I took Celia out in a light rain, assuming it would chase almost everyone else inside. #reactivedoglife, amirite? So we walk a little way, smell some smells, and head home. We’re nearly back at the house when I hear a faint hissing sound. I turn around, and my heart drops like a stone.
There is a man riding his bike down the middle of the street. In reality, he was probably a normal man riding a normal bike, but to me, he looked like Yao Ming riding a goddamn penny-farthing. The hissing sound was water spraying out from under the tires in a continuous mist, and his poncho was rustling and flapping like a parachute.
Despairingly, I turn back to Celia and start offering handfuls of treats and baby-talking a steady stream of complete nonsense. The high-wheeling giant rides by. Celia doesn’t make a peep. I breathe again.
I had a couple pleasant surprises like that, and I got overconfident. I took Celia out in the afternoon, on a sunny day. I was still careful; we walked to the corner, I looked both ways, and there was not a soul in sight. We turned the corner and kept walking, and suddenly an old lady came around the next corner. Celia must have been having a bad day already, because this woman was a good 45 yards away and Celia started huffing and almost-growling immediately. Well, okay, I thought, and turned around. Behind us, apparently having appeared out of the ether, were two teenage girls. Well, goddamnit, I thought, and prepared to cross the street. The previously quiet street suddenly had a steady stream of traffic, and I was starting to feel like I was in “The Truman Show.” Across the street, people started flooding into the parking lot as if the last day of school just let out.
The girls and the old lady were still approaching, and Celia was fully over-threshold at that point. I dashed us across the street in the hopes of regaining some distance (and hopefully composure), only to see another woman walking her white fluffy some 20 yards ahead of us. WELL, I’LL JUST KILL MYSELF THEN, I thought, but instead we ran back across the street, treats spilling everywhere. Celia had spotted the white fluffy by then, and she barked and pulled all the way back to the house.
It was hard not to feel like crap after that, because I knew it would be at least three days before I’d be able to take her out again, and I was flustered. That experience has definitely set us back; in our sessions since then, Celia seems to go over-threshold much easier than before. However, we’re still working. We’ll check back in with, hopefully, some progress in a little while. In the meantime, if you’ve got a reactive dog, feel free to leave a story in the comments; laughing makes it hurt less, I’m told.