Distraction is helpful if the dog is taken by surprise. Distraction however doesn’t help him to cope with the appearance of another dog.
Oaky is a sensitive little Border Terrier. He has lived with the lady for a couple of years and not too much is known about his past. A perfect dog in his loving home, the lady isn’t enjoying her walks with him due to his barking and pulling towards any other dog he sees.
Anxious and embarrassed
Oaky wears a half-check collar. The lady pulls him to the side and holds onto him tightly as the dog passes. She may say ‘Watch Me’ as a distraction. She admits to feeling both anxious and embarrassed; he will doubtless feel this down the lead to his sensitive neck.
I am certain that when he sees a dog that he doesn’t know, the sensitive little dog reacts and barks simply because he doesn’t feel safe.
Getting off to a calm start
Walks start off with Oaky’s excitable barking all the way down the garden path. By the time they reach the road the small dog is already in a highly aroused state.
Walks will now start off calmly – there are a couple of strategies we will try in order to achieve this.
Once out, the lady will now allow him to make more choices about where he walks, what he sniffs and how long for. A mooching dog is less likely to be reactive to things. So long as she’s out for her allotted time, she need not worry about getting from A to B. It’s about the journey not the destination. She will fill that journey with positives.
Feeling safe is higher up the ladder of importance to a dog than exercise. Safety could mean survival.
In order to feel safe, Oaky must trust the lady to make what he feels are safe decisions. He must be comfortable as well. If, when he pulls and barks at another dog he feels pain in his little neck from the half-check collar, this can only associate other dogs with bad stuff.
The opposite needs to happen. Counter-conditioning is all about building positive associations.
She will now get Oaky a harness. She will be encouraging and upbeat in manner when a dog appears – and make use of distance even if this means disrupting her plans for the walk.
Currently she quickly changes to a shorter lead as soon as she sees a dog. Quickly changing leashes each time she see a dog may well send negative and panicky signals to Oaky.
How useful is distraction?
At present, with Oaky held tight as the dog passes, she tries to use ‘Watch Me’ as a distraction.
Not looking at other dogs is much the same as avoiding them. Avoiding dogs altogether will get him nowhere. It will never change how he feels about them. It’s necessary for him to see the dog, at a distance he feels safe, and associate it with something he loves – in Oaky’s case, food.
Now when the lady spots a dog she will consciously relax her hands on the lead and turn her full attention to Oaky. As soon as his body language tenses up she will react immediately and positively.
She will increase distance and make good things happen with Oaky aware that it is the other dog that triggers the food. So that he is not taken by surprise, she can even point the dog out in a happy voice, “Look a DOG!”.
This isn’t about distraction like the dog doesn’t exist. It’s about helping him learn to cope.
The only thing that may get in the way of his progress is his daily walks with the dog walker which break up his day alone. They are very beneficial from the point of view of his mixing with dogs that he knows. However, maybe the lack of consistency could undo some of the lady’s hard work. We will see.