Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Roxie Goes to BAT

A friend of mine told me that once in a while, she pines for a dog. She misses having one, and she wants her young son to experience the same joys she did growing up with a canine buddy.

Then she thinks of my dog Roxie. And just like that, she said, she's cured.

Mitch and I joke that Roxie has been more work and worry than all our other dogs combined. It's one of those jokes that's not really funny, because it's true. I'll be honest: the first few weeks after we brought Roxie home, I didn't love her. Worse: I wasn't sure I even liked her. This dog, with all her unexpected issues, wasn't what I'd envisioned. She wasn't what I'd wanted. I was prepared for training; I wasn't prepared for an unpredictable, socially embarrassing, hugely stressful project. And I hadn't the slightest clue how to make things better.

Enter dog trainer and overwhelming force for good, Allison. When she told us Roxie has leash reactivity, we asked: Is there anything we can do for that? What we really meant was: Are we ever going to get our lives back? 

Allison is a pro with people as well as dogs. I'm sure she noted the glaze of desperation in our eyes, the edge of hysteria in our voices.

We can help her, she told us. And then she introduced us to BAT.

BAT--Behavior Adjustment Training--was developed by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, WA. The premise is pretty simple. A reactive dog like Roxie gets anxious approaching other dogs on leash.  Barking and lunging makes the other dog go away, which eases her fear.* What BAT does is teach the dog a different behavior to get the same result.

It didn't take Roxie long to learn that if she simply looked away from the other dog, we immediately retreated out of sight. Not only did she get the same reward--the source of her anxiety disappearing--but by staying calm, she also earned highly delectable treats.** Now, Roxie may have issues, but she ain't dumb. And she luuurves her treats. She improved so fast, we became BAT junkies. On our daily walks, instead of avoiding other dogs, I actually started seeking them out so that we could practice. The first time Roxie successfully passed another dog across the street without barking, I about busted with pride. The way I bragged about her later, you'd think my dog had single-handedly saved a small village from ravening werewolves.

Because by then--and we're talking only weeks, not months--Roxie had truly become my dog. BAT is a dance of trust between canine and human. In learning the steps to that dance, I stopped seeing Roxie as a bundle of problems and instead started appreciating how smart she is. How sweet, how much she wants to please. How fun she is to play with, and how finely attuned she is to my smallest move.

Even more importantly, I let go of the dog of my imagination. The dog we might have had instead, the easy dog with no issues. How unfair to living breathing Roxie, to compare her to that dog. So I opened the door and I let that imaginary perfect dog run away. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find him.

Of course it hasn't been all kibble and biscuits. Sometimes it seems for every step forward, we slide half a step back. We joke (another not-so-funny ha-ha) that someone gave Roxie a list of dog vices, and she's diligently working her way through every single one. Digging: check. Cat-harassing: check. Random senseless destruction: check. (Exhibit A, below). We still have frustrations and not-so-great days.

But on our 2-mile morning runs, her going ballistic is a thing of the past. Other dogs are met with an interested look, then she turns to me for praise and a treat. Her fearfulness and anxiety are hugely diminished. Instead, she meets the world head-on, ears up and eager. Watching her bloom into confidence has been worth every hour of BAT, every class, every training walk. In the past year, Roxie has discovered that she's braver than she knew. That there's nothing to be afraid of. And that a dog's life is actually pretty fun.

Especially when feather pillows are involved.

For more information on BAT and other positive, reward-based training methods, visit Grisha Stewart's website. Next up for Roxie, her hardest challenge yet: group walks with other leash-reactive dogs. It'll be an adventure!

*A leash-reactive dog looks like he'll rip other dogs to pieces if given the chance. But in most dogs, the behavior is caused by anxiety, not aggression. Like Roxie, many of these dogs are darlings off-leash.

**Key for Roxie was finding a treat she couldn't resist. For her, that's chicken. She only gets it when she responds calmly to other dogs on our walks; we never use it for anything else. That keeps it super-special. And surprisingly economical. Some processed treats at the pet stores are $7 to $15 for just half a pound...or less! In our area, chicken tenders run about $7.50 for 2-1/2 lbs. Microwave 3 frozen tenders for 5-6 minutes until fully cooked, then dice into pea-sized bits. Voila! A treat worth being brave for.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

National Train Your Dog Month, or: Baby, You're Just Getting Started

One year, one week, and three days ago (not that anyone's counting), we brought a new dog into our lives. Our lives have yet to go back to normal. In fact, normal is no longer on the menu. It's like saying, Just wait until this hurricane passes by, and then we'll get back to our tea and scones. Oh, wait... Crap, there went the house.

So when I heard that January is National Train Your Dog Month, I cracked up laughing. Train Your Dog Month? Around here, 2011 was Train Your Dog Year. And now that we're in 2012?

Welcome to Year Two.

I've been training my own dogs since I was 14. I once housetrained a Great Dane puppy during a Tennessee mountain winter, when all he wanted was run back inside and curl up next to his best friend the space heater. ("Why are we freezing out here?" he seemed to say, shivering, with plaintive puppy eyes. "You never use that corner of the bedroom anyway!")  I even taught a Siberian Husky to heel reliably off-leash. In case you didn't know, a husky off-leash is generally a husky headed lickety-split for the hills, all treats, commands, and prior training be damned. Bottom line: I'm no newbie. So when we fell in love with a completely untrained, fearful 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy, I actually had the nerve to think: How hard could it be?

What I didn't get: There is algebra. And then, there is quantum physics.

Meet quantum physics.

Our first clue that we were in over our heads came just a couple of hours after bringing Roxie home. We took her for a walk in her new neighborhood; it was a sunny day, birds were singing (OK, maybe not--it was December), but still, everything was going swimmingly. Then she caught sight of another dog a block and a half away. And she turned into this:

No, she didn't turn into a Border Collie (although that would've been a seriously cool trick.) But you get the general barking/snarling/lunging picture. When it was happening, somehow we never had the presence of mind to take the actual Roxie's photo for future blogging documentation. Instead, we were pulling on her leash shouting, "NO!" and "STOP THAT!" and (if other people were within earshot), "WHO IS THIS STRANGE DOG WHOSE LEASH IS INEXPLICABLY IN OUR HANDS?"

Worse, even after other dogs vanished from sight (people very sensibly getting the hell away from a 65-lb completely insane German Shepherd and her obviously incompetent owners), Roxie would still keep barking and lunging. For, like, minutes. Nothing we did could get her attention. She was quite simply bonkers.

At first, we consoled ourselves that it was just nerves. Roxie had spent the entire 10 months of her life at her breeder's, only to be whisked away by strangers to a completely new environment. We'd already discovered she was terrified of bare floors and stairs, two elements which make up approximately 90% of our house. We joked that she was like an orphan raised in a Catholic convent, and here we'd taken her outside the walls to meet Baptists and Lutherans for the very first time. There were bound to be rough spots.

But while her other issues got better, the leash reactivity (technical term for bonkers) never did. Weirdly enough, she did great at day care. The staff even told us she was one of the sweetest German Shepherds they'd ever had. But anytime we took her out on a leash, she exploded at the barest glimpse of another dog. All my dog experience, all the years I'd counseled my veterinary clients on puppy raising...nothing I knew made the slightest difference.

I was utterly gobsmacked. And upset. Our idea of a second dog had been some sweet darling to keep our older dog company, to adventure out with us to dog parks and on road trips to the mountains and the beach. Instead, here we were with a dog we couldn't even take for a walk around the block. What have we brought into our house? we wondered. And now what the hell do we do?

Taking her back to the breeder wasn't an option. If we--two veterinarians with decades of dog experience between us--couldn't work with her, then how could we expect anyone else to? Nope. Warts and all, for better or worse, she was ours.

Enter Allison, professional dog trainer and sanity saver. Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavioral issues dogs have, she reassured us. And yes, there's hope. If you're willing to do the work.

We had no idea what that work would entail. But we were about to find out.

Next: BAT. No, not the baseball kind. You'll see.