Practise a different way of reacting. (Practice makes better, if not perfect).
They have had two-year-old Springer Spaniel Ben for one week now. He is a beauty; polite and friendly.
I sensed that some of his quietness is due to being a bit careful and still finding his feet. Ben may well be a bit different when he has properly settled in.
He could become more confident which may well work in their favour where his explosion into barking and lunging when getting too close to another dog is concerned.
It’s important he doesn’t get further opportunities to practise this behaviour.
Because he had lived with another dog previously, they assumed Ben was ‘good with dogs’. Possibly he is, but only when he knows them. Very likely he needs to settle into his new life before taking on any more new challenges.
Although he looked very peaceful, lying down calmly beside me, he has more going on inside him. When I got up (maybe a bit quickly) he suddenly jumped up and barked at me.
Enjoying long daily walks
The couple have recently lost their previous Springer. They had enjoyed long daily walks with her off lead, not having to worry about encountering other dogs.
Walking with Ben is their main reason for adopting him.
There are a few things they can do at home which will help them with the ‘other dogs’ situation. They will work on trust, motivating him, getting his attention. They will practise loose lead walking.
Calm ‘sniff’ walks on a longish, loose lead will put him in the best frame of mind for being less reactive. ‘Heel’ is great near traffic, but to my mind unnecessary otherwise.
Ben’s walk is Ben’s walk.
Forgetting about walking to heel, I walked him beautifully around the garden on a loose lead. The man and the lady took over and did the same. We did it with encouragement, stopping when he wanted to sniff and working on our own body language. A dog is more likely to follow us or come with us when our entire body including head faces the way we want to go. It’s tempting to look behind us.
They will now practise everything in very easy stages.
They will start by walking Ben around the garden, just as we did yesterday, until he has settled down. Progress is impossible when the dog is too excited.
Then they will walk him in and out of the gate and back into the garden many times.
Next they will add walking around the front of the house and so on.
‘Proper’ walks for now will be by car to somewhere they don’t have to worry about dogs getting uncomfortably close.
Meanwhile, going by car, they know of a good place where they can ‘dog-watch’ from a distance. This is a gate on a popular dog walk.
Dog-watching at a big enough distance, they will work on changing how Ben feels about seeing a dog. If he feels differently, he will react differently.
How will they do this?
Firstly, it’s essential that they are sufficiently far away from this gate that Ben will eat. They will use special food that he adores and use for nothing else.
So that he feels free, he will be on a long line.
From the distance, as soon as he clocks a dog coming through the gate they will immediately either click or say ‘Yes’, and feed him. If he keeps looking at the dog, they will continue feeding him (no more talking).
It’s important they keep these sessions short while they practise the new behaviour. Each dog Ben sees will push him a bit nearer to reacting as pressure builds up inside him (see ‘trigger-stacking‘). Ideally they should call it a day while he’s still happy, perhaps after he’s seen just a couple of dogs initially.
Bit by bit they can increase this number. Bit by bit, they can get closer to the gate, always remaining within his comfort threshold.
Where’s my food?
After a while (and it could be a few weeks) they will try delaying their Yes or click and see what happens. Ben will probably look at them (“where’s my food?”).
Now they can click or Yes for looking away from a dog. They will practise and reinforce Ben looking up at them instead.
Ben loves his squeaky ball. I suggest they no longer play with it at home. Starve him of it. Then, if a dog appears from nowhere that they can’t avoid, they can throw him his ball. With luck it will do the trick.
It sounds like socialising with other dogs was lacking in the crucial early weeks of his life. Consequently, they must be prepared for this to take time and patience. Meanwhile they can relish all the other positives they have in lovely Ben!
They can never replace a beloved previous companion, but they will love Ben for being Ben.