Rocky and Flossie were born on the streets in a small coastal town in Bulgaria around two years ago from mothers also born on the streets. For the past year or so they have lived in a house with a couple who have done remarkably well with them, transforming them from street dogs to settled house dogs.
The one respect in which they are, if anything, getting worse is when out on walks and particularly when encountering other dogs.
Outside the house – more their natural habitat one might think – they are finding things harder.
Initially there were no problems with other dogs. When picked up they had no scars or evidence of fighting and they had lived happily and free around the other street dogs. Now when they encounter a dog, Rocky in particular is scared and Flossie is getting worse. Rocky shrinks and lowers himself and as they get nearer he resorts to lunging and barking, not wanting the other dog to get any closer.
This is where humans need to start thinking ‘dog’. It really doesn’t matter whether a destination is reached, it’s about the journey. What does matter is that they mimic as closely as possible what a free dog would do to feel safe. If the dog wants to increase distance then that’s what must happen. It could mean turning around. For now it could mean avoiding narrow passages and taking different routes. It could in some cases mean starting walks with a car journey to somewhere appropriate and safe.
In his past life, unleashed, Rocky could have chosen to turn and go the other way. Both dogs would have had free choice as to whether to interact with other dogs or not. Now Flossie and Rocky are, necessarily, trapped on the end of leashes even when away from the roads. If let off lead, Rocky will take himself off for an hour or two and Flossie may well go home.
The lady in particular is finding walking the dogs increasingly nerve-wracking. She is afraid Rocky in particular might harm another dog.
There are three elements we discussed to help these two lovely dogs. The first is, when they are out, for them to feel as free and comfortable as possible. From having no restriction at all they are now on the end of retractable leads which, by the very way they work, always have tension. They thankfully wear harnesses but even these could be more comfortable.
The next thing is that the dogs need to be walked separately for a while because each needs full attention and their ways of reacting aren’t the same so they could well be firing one another up.
Thirdly, their reactivity needs to be worked on – carefully. Avoiding dogs altogether will get them nowhere, but even worse is to push them too close, beyond their comfort threshold so that they feel forced to defend themselves. The human at the end of the lead, watching their own dog carefully and increasing distance the instant there is any sign of discomfort or fear will, over time, build up trust. If Rocky knows he’s being ‘listened to’ then he should gradually dare go a bit closer.
Now desensitisation can begin. The appearance of another dog can start to be associated with good things like scattered food – but from a ‘safe’ distance.
When the dogs are in open places they are currently restricted on the end of just ten feet or so of retractable lead. They could be on 15 metre long, loose training lines, able to run, sniff and explore. If an off-lead dog does happen to run up, whilst escape strategies have been discussed, the dog should feel he has some choice. On the end of long lines their recall can really be worked on.
Both dogs are understandably nervous of new things, certain sudden sounds and people who look ‘different’. The best tool to change this is for every single time either Rocky or Flossie encounters something even slightly scary or anxious-making, something good should happen. This can be food or fun – the more rewarding to the dog the better.
Helping the dogs to feel safe is the priority. It’s the most important thing – more important to them than food even. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t be interested in food. Right from puppyhood these two would have been free to follow their instincts in order to keep themselves safe. In their new life, because trapped in effect, they need total trust in their humans to keep them safe instead.
So much of the stuff I normally advise is already in place for these dogs at home including a perfect diet and kind, positive training techniques from caring and knowledgeable people. It will be great when (and it will take as long as it take), the walks become relaxed and enjoyable too.