It's been a while since we've talked about the goings-on in Bella's life. But we are back and ready to talk about one of the most exciting and helpful activities we've undertaken in all our time with Bella.
October 12, 2011.
A day that changed Bella's life. The day we attended her first "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class at the "Dogs' Learning Center" located right here in our own hometown.
Having a forward-thinking, innovative training center not more than a few miles away from our house has been an incredible boon in our life with Bella.
Having access to a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and Faculty Instructor with years of experience in agility as well as reactive dogs has been an absolute god-send.
Having two left-feet has been... Well, okay, yeah, that, not so much.
A note that came from our soon-to-be trainer, Carolyn, about our first class should have sent red flags a-fluttering and Robot arms a-flailing ("Danger Will Robinson!"):
Class will be run as a reactive class. Bring a mat for relaxed downs. We will gate/sheet as needed, use distance, etc.
Dogs should be on a head collar or front clip harness and another piece of equipment such as a martingale collar. With 2 leads or a lead clipped to both.
Bring lots! of small treats, clickers, mats, water/bowl.
And we're going to take all of that and try to teach our reactive, scared-y dog to manage all the obstacles around an agility course while other reactive dogs try to behave themselves nearby?
In the year+ that we have been doing this, I am proud to say Bella has only sent me into face-plant territory once. We have, however, knocked over jump poles, gotten tangled in the weaves and tripped over each other with fair frequency.
And by "we", I mean me. The dog is fine, it's her owner who can't walk in a straight line.
(As for the other half of the human equation, let's just say that while Jan is considerably more coordinated than I, that's hardly setting a high bar.)
Reactive dog class basics.
Let's talk about some of the very most fundamental basics of reactive dog classes. I'm going to assume most of my readers have never attended a reactive dogs class or an agility class so please don't be offended if you already know all about this stuff.
A prerequisite for the "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class is that everyone must have attended a beginner class for reactive dog handling. We had and while we found out later that much of what we thought we learned in that beginner class was not quite right, it left us familiar at least with the terminology, the setting and how to enter and exit the building.
And the very first thing you learn in a beginner reactive dogs class is that reactive dogs class begins before you're even in the class. Because it's not like you can just go strolling into the building like you have a normal dog or something.
Negotiating the parking lot.
|Nervously watching another dog on the dog walk.|
But basically there is no point at which Bella is not in full-blown panic mode about other dogs while she is in the car so we try to get her out of it as soon as possible when we arrive. If she's out of the car, her reactivity is less and she has something else distracting to do (sniff, pee, sniff, pee, sniff, pee and sniff some more...)
But the deal is - from the moment we arrive in the parking lot until we're driving home after class, every time Bella sees a dog and doesn't react like a snarling lunatic, she gets a treat.
Getting in the building.
Yup, there's a process for that. We wait outside while the class before us ends and the owners get their reactive dogs back in their cars and then we are called in. One dog at a time.
Again, class is already in session even when you're just entering the building. See a dog? Click, treat. Walking nicely? Click, treat. Go ballistic? Divert and distract. (We'll explain that in subsequent posts.)
With reactive dogs, we use mats/towels to give the dog a place to associate as their home base, their "safe space". So while we're getting settled and stuff unpacked, Bella is asked to 'go to her mat' and is rewarded for sitting quietly. Lots of clicks and treats. If she can relax to the point of resting on one hip, she gets lots and lots of treats.
The atmosphere in the room is one of calm. Everyone speaks just loudly enough to be heard. And we all try very hard to get in and the dogs settled as quickly as possible without appearing rushed or getting the dogs too excited.
What's in it for me?
Not all dogs in a reactive dogs class have the same level of fear or a fear of the same things. Bella's pervasive fear of everything "unknown" meant we had to first get her to associate going to class as a good thing before we could ever address her fear of other dogs or the agility obstacles.
In the earliest days of class, we just stuffed Bella full of treats throughout the entire class. As long as she wasn't wigging out, she got treats. But to turn fear into enthusiasm, those had to be some mighty tasty treats.
In fact, the treats have to be something that the dog values more than she fears 'the big scary'.
We've tried everything from hot dogs to chicken to cheese and just about every training treat on the market. We've finally settled on Red Barn Naturals food roll that we chop into pea-sized pieces. They're soft and moist, which we find means they don't get stuck in Bella's throat quite as much as dry treats, and they're slightly less slimy than some of the other food logs we have tried.
(We do have another trick up our sleeve of an even more highly valued treat but we didn't need/learn about that until later in the course... Stick with me, we'll get there.)
With so much good food and all the attention she could ever desire, Bella was sold on class after the very first night. That she got to learn and jump was just a bonus. In fact, as time went on we had to work to calm her down, she was so excited to be going to class. Good grief. "If it's not one thing, it's another..."
So that's the (very) basics of the reactive dog part of our class. I'll talk more about the agility part of class next time.
I really struggled to write this post because I can come at the subject of this class from so many different angles - the reactive dog, the fearful dog, clicker training, agility training or even the role medication has played. If there's any aspect of it you'd like to hear more about, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments.
Understanding that I'm not a trainer and addressing fearful, reactive or aggressive dogs is way above my pay grade, I will share with you what we've learned and offer lots of Bella stories along the way. This class has probably been the most influential activity we have pursued for Bella's mental health and the rewards have been absolutely inspiring. I hope you'll find our journey interesting as well.