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Archive for September, 2013

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear takes a break out on a solo walk

Little Bear takes a break during our solo walk

If you have more than one dog, chances are you probably walk them together.  I actually still recall the “Walking two dogs is no more work than walking one” argument I used as part of my case for a double dog household.  Oh foolish fool, how wrong could I have been?!

The reality is, if you have reactive dogs like ours, combined walks can sometimes do more harm than good.

Tipping point

Just like us, all dogs have a tipping point. Now for your laid back, confident pooch the circumstances needed to reach that tipping point might never ever arise but for the nervous, under-confident dog the line between calm, rational thought and an emotional, amygdala driven outburst is always that much finer.

In the fourteen years we had our beloved Springer Spaniel, I only once saw him aggress and that was when a Rottweiler  jumped into our garden and cornered him in the yard. Even our sweet old gent found his tipping point that day and acted to defend himself much to our utter amazement.

For reactive dogs like Bear and Annie, their equivalent of a Rottweiler over the garden wall can be as seemingly benign as a dog on a lead 300 yards away. Through an unfortunate mix of temperament, experience (and lack of it), they see threats where there are none.  But when they bark and lunge, it’s out of the same fear my old Springer felt all those years ago, it’s just that their tipping points aren’t as obvious to us.

A life lived in fear

They say a life lived in fear is a life half lived and this can certainly be the reality for many dogs. On Little Bear’s scary list were: bikes, skateboards, other dogs,  horses, velcro (?!) and thunderstorms to name but a few.  A walk invariably encountered at least one of the things and so for a long time, practically every trip out of the door would mean he’d end up in a frenzy of fearful barking and lunging.

Positive reinforcement 

Over the years we’ve worked to raise his tipping point to a more comfortable level.  Armed with clicker and treats (and a swift and unapologetic about turn if we spot something that I know he won’t cope with) we’ve slowly built up his tolerance to the point that he can now see a dog across the street and remain calm enough to sit and get a treat for his non-reaction.

Bikes and skateboards no longer get a second look thanks to the same positive reinforcement and he can walk past a field of horses without batting an eyelash. That said, he has learned to flutter them a little in the hopes of a reward when he thinks he’s been especially good.

The key to the training has simply been to encourage him to feel differently about the things he was once afraid of.  Get rid of the fear and the over-reaction just isn’t necessary anymore.  Which brings me on to the need for solo walks.

Going solo

Part of the ethos of positive reinforcement is that dogs are alway set up to succeed. Considering his naturally anxious disposition, Little Bear has achieved a lot over the last few years which is why asking him to be cool, calm and collected while his best friend Annie is freaking out by his side is really a bridge too far.

So, as much as I love walking my dogs together, until he and Annie are at a similar level in terms of tipping points we’ll continue to walk them separately as often as we can. The good news is that judging by Annie’s progress, she’ll not be far behind him.

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