If you've been following this blog and our Facebook page, you know Cinder's got some reactivity issues we're working to overcome and redirect. To that end, I've enlisted the assistance of a well qualified behavioral specialist and trainer, Marilyn, to guide us to a better place and help us achieve at least a few goals. Today, we met with Marilyn to re-evaluate Cinder's progress and add more tools to our toolbox for working her through things.
After our fiasco at the public dog park last week, I was glad to meet with Marilyn for more assistance with Cinder's reactivity issues. We worked together with Cinder today for about two solid hours (with a few breaks). The first question I asked was, "How can we work toward improvement around other dogs when there are no other dogs to work with her; and we can't go to the public dog park or PetSmart because it's too over stimulating?" Marilyn thought for a minute and the next minute, we were in our cars, headed to the local farm store where there was a moderate but steady number of people and a few dogs. A place where we were able to work in both the parking lot and inside the store.
Once at the farm store, we worked outside a few minutes. Initially, I think we were trying to establish Cinder's current "safe zone" for seeing people without reacting; and determining what other training we could incorporate aside from reactivity seeing people and dogs. After all, noisy carts and stacks of things moving on flat truck carts also provide training opportunities since they can be scary. We worked in the parking lot for about 15 minutes, getting her used to several carts and flat truck cart noises; and being near them. Initially, when the carts moved or made noises, they were scary but Cinder was quick to learn that with cheese and repetition of working with Marilyn pushing them beside and around her, they were really nothing to be scared of. She was willing to calmly walk beside a moving cart in 15 minutes.
Next, we entered the store. Once inside, fairly close to the main entrance but off-side, we stood with Cinder, strategically allowing her to see people entering and walking near her. MY task was to let her see them, but before she could do more than have a quick look, I had to get her focus on me and ask her to do something-or several things like some tricks. When she started to get more upset, my goal was to get her focus on me while simultaneously (walking backward or sideways) removing her far enough to see her calmer behaviors return. As each set of people came through, we performed our small repertoire of safe tricks and focus work. After about 15 minutes, Marilyn had me walk her about half-way through the store on a main aisle and keep talking to her to keep her happy and focused on me. Then we were did some more things remaining stationary while others came near; and we did our tricks and focus work. She was doing great. People were able to walk by, pushing carts and talking without her going off.
After about a half hour of varied tasks, we spotted the local Service Dog organization crew with their "trainee" puppies. I was apprehensive and Marilyn said, "Don't be-that's why I'm here and we're going to do some exercises to see what she does and how much effort it takes to either keep or regain her focus." She had us walk about an aisle away from them and let Cinder catch glimpses of them, but not long enough for her to react by keeping her focus on me. We did that and then the trainee pups stopped to be socialized with people petting them. Marilyn had me walk Cinder to within about 20 feet of them but without going by them or stopping; and circle an aisle pillar, and back to our original position. SUCCESS! She had me do it a few times - each successfully. Then she asked me to do it again and try to add a stop beside the pillar (more like a brief hesitation), long enough for Cinder to see the pups closer, but not long enough to react. That time, we actually had a bit of reactive behavior and I had to quickly try to get Cinder's focus again and move back to Marilyn. Marilyn said, "Well, it wasn't ideal but you got her attention and removed her without much problem and for now, that's very good."
We moved on to different points within the store and a few other exercises. It wasn't long before a family with kids came up and wanted to pet Cinder. She was happy, wagging her tail so Marilyn spoke up for me (probably knowing I was questioning the move) and said, they could. The three kids came over and Cinder was happy to have them all love her; and then Marilyn asked if they wanted to see a few of her tricks. We did a few of them and Cinder returned for their attention, but suddenly, Cinder decided something was amiss and began reacting so I had to make a quick retreat with her to a spot about 10 feet away, between aisles, and let her calm down. Luckily, Cinder calmed quickly. Marilyn asked if there was something that seemed to prompt Cinder to the sudden reactivity with the children. I said, "Nothing they weren't doing before we had her do her tricks." Marilyn expressed a little confusion about that but said, "Well, I'll have to replay that in my head and we'll talk about it again in a little while." We moved on toward leaving and of course, everything is a training opportunity so leaving also took a little more time than simply walking out the door.
As we were exiting, there was a picnic bench in the "foyer" area between the interior and exterior doors so Marilyn wanted to sit with Cinder there for a few minutes to do a little more work with people exiting close by; and to discuss our goals for the next few weeks of work. We revisited the incident with the kids that started out well, but went sour. Neither of us was sure what prompted it but as she asked me what I saw change about Cinder leading up to it, we narrowed it to the possibility of not liking eye contact with one or more of the children so close to her face. We aren't entirely sure that's the answer, but it seems at least partly likely. This confuses even Marilyn because of the inconsistency involved in first liking the kids and their petting; and suddenly not liking them. I've mentioned that there are times it seems Cinder's fine meeting most adults up close, but seeing them again isn't always the same. Apparently that is somewhat a deviation from normal patterns of reactive behavior. I am to continue documenting her behaviors and circumstances so we may be able to isolate it. Other than that incident, Cinder did pretty impressively-even to me!
Before we parted, I asked about whether Marilyn felt my goals of getting Cinder into a group training class were crazy and she said, "No! Not at all! I think she SHOULD do a small group class - it would do her a world of good." Discussion on that topic ensued. You can't imagine how good it makes me feel knowing that Cinder's progressing enough to really have hope of doing a group training class! I'm so proud of Cinder for coming along so well despite our issues and setbacks. We just have to keep our eyes on our training and keep forging ahead. I can't allow us to malinger. I still have to remember that her reactivity isn't always completely predictable and NOT to push her too far too fast.
That concludes this update on Cinder's reactivity and our related training. At least now, we've added more tools in our toolbox to forge ahead better. Just another day in the adventure of raising Cinder.