Hello! Yes, it really has been over two years since I posted a blog post on Diego's dog reactivity. I didn't realise it had been that long until I started writing this post to see where I last got up to and realised that my last update was very outdated. If you want to read that, you can do so here. You can also read all of my posts around Diego's training here. I think the reason I didn't realise it had been so long is that I have been doing random updates every now and again on my Instagram and Facebook. Before I begin talking further about our journey with dog reactivity, I want to have a bit of a disclaimer. This is what has worked for Diego and I, and has been tailored to Diego's form of reactivity. This very well may not work for all dogs, and I would never suggest a blanket approach for all dogs. If you are facing any reactivity within your dog, talking to a professional should always be your first step. Hearing others opinions on other training styles can help, but always try to keep an open mind. If you do not agree with someone about how they train their own dog, move along and do something else for your own dog.
In the last update I mentioned that I sought the advice of Wellington based dog trainer Lewis Nicholls. I believe he is now based in Auckland, but does keep up a good social media presence on his Facebook page. After viewing Diego, Lewis noticed in Diego that he has a fixation trait, and the inability to easily relax. Diego spent the whole session fixating on where the toys were, and was unable to just quietly lay down as we spoke. He thought that Diego was getting hyped up about seeing dogs, and fixating on them that meant when they did finally approach he was past the point of calm. This was then being released in a reaction towards dogs. The more he done this towards other dogs, the more I kept him away and the more he fixated when he did see them. Queue the endless circle of festering excitement that is Diego. Two tasks of homework were given by Lewis for Diego and I. Firstly, teach Diego to play fetch calmly, and once the game is over teach him to be able to relax even if the toy is still out. The second piece of homework was to teach Diego that when he sees a dog he looks at me for a reward - either toy or treat. This will mean that as dogs get closer or are around, instead of fixating on them, he will look at me and hopefully break the excitement circle.
I went away with this homework and I don't know when, but at some point I completely forgot that the first piece of homework was there. I have not been teaching Diego to be calm while playing fetch. I have not been able to put down a toy/ball around the house and not have him get way too excited. Instead, I have pretty much stopped him having access to toys in the house unless specifically given them by me. They are hidden in the depths of my wardrobe, and unless I am ready to deal with him with a toy, I do not bring them out. So maybe, over two years on since I got this advice, maybe I should now actually work on this one.
The one good thing about my new approach of hiding toys is that when they do come out, they mean so much more to Diego than before. Previously, he had balls upon balls, upon toys and Kongs just laying all over the house for access whenever he wanted them. It meant they lost their high reward nature, and therefore when outside of our home environment he would sometimes not care that I had the toy if he was super wound up. Nowadays, the toy is the highest reward and he does practically anything to get given a ball when out on adventures.
We then spent many months using Lewis' diversion technique with Diego. When we saw another dog, if he looked at me after viewing the dog, he would get his ball. It started with us being across the street, or park from the dog and slowly we got closer and closer to dogs with no reaction. Diego grasped the concept of look at dog > look at Morgan > get ball. It became a known tactic as long as the dog was a certain distance away he wouldn't get wound up or bark at the dog, instead he would look at me for the ball. I felt more comfortable being able to walk Diego in public, and I didn't get anxious about leaving the house anymore. I felt like this worked quickly with Diego for a few reasons. One, he is a very intelligent dog and seems to understand training concepts rather quickly. He understands cause and affect when it comes to his actions. Two, he is VERY toy and ball motivated. He does love food, and will work for food, but a toy or ball will always trump food. If your dog is neither of these things I believe it would take a lot longer to build on this stage.
After many months of this, I was ready to progress however with this training technique I felt like there was no way to further progress. He was happy to walk at a distance, while on lead, past a dog with no reaction. If you put the dog closer, or he was not on leash, this method did not work. I could not walk Diego on skinnier paths, I couldn't walk him where there potentially were off-leash dogs, and I couldn't go for walks with my friends who owned dogs. I was very lost on my next step. The advice given was to just avoid these things. If Diego doesn't like interacting, then don't force him to. I understand this mindset, but also it is very limiting and meant I was started to retreat into being an anxious walker again. We could only do street walks where I knew there was the option to cross roads if we were approached by dogs, and that the chances of running into an off-leash dog were very slim. He would still reactive if any dog came even remotely near him, and it was at the point where he could have got injured by other dogs very easily.
This was all at the start of 2019, and I was a bit lost on our next step. Did I put up with having a reactive dog and just do bland walks with him? Did I muzzle him whenever out of the house? Did I even attempt adventures? I honestly was not sure what to do, however on a whim and impulse I booked tickets for my life-altering April trip to the South Island. This was when I travelled the South Island for the very first time with Diego. We slept in my car at freedom camping spots, we went on all new adventures that we had never been to before, and we spent time with Lu and Tim at their home. This next section of our reactivity journey is a whole story of its own, so I will leave the blog post here. I will make sure to update again in the next few weeks about what we learnt on that trip, and how I have been training Diego for the last year after it.