Monday, November 16, 2009

Winning Back the Neighborhood

As I hinted in my last training post, I am going to extend my discussion of our nightly walks into a full-length blog post.  Since tomorrow night is our last day at the agility field before indoor classes, I figured I'll have more than enough to blab about in the training update without this.

We've continued our routine of walking in the evening.  I'm still really not sure how to feel about it.  

(If you're new to the blog, Marge is fearful of walking on regular streets thanks to a slew of problems over the summer, so the main road near my house has been a compromise in the evening between the mega-scary side streets and the super-fun open field, which is "closed" after dusk.   There are less people out at night, and, I think from Marge's perspective, things tend to sneak up on her less on the main road the way they would on the side streets - people simply walking by as opposed to people quickly slamming shut their front door and getting in their car, for example.  We've been doing this for a couple of weeks now, attempting to blend areas where we need to pass a few people and distractions AND also relax among trees and telephone poles and other stinky items.

One side of the road has a sidewalk and contains houses, the other side is grassy and borders on the big field.  Our route has been to first walk on the sidewalk side, then, turn to the grassy side for the remainder of the walk.  Generally, few people are out at the time we walk; we typically encounter two or three silent, not-an-issue passers-by and that's it.  If they are out, they're almost always on the sidewalk side, which is why we get that side over with first.)

Marge did very well over the very windy days of last week.  She wasn't anxious at all when walking.  Because the wind was blowing stuff around, there were some things that caused her to spook, but she bounced back immediately.  She reminded me of a spooky, but fresh horse - jumping around, reacting to the stimuli in the environment without much thought, but still having a wild time.  

I, stupidly, did make the mistake of walking her past some really scary people who were clearing leaves out of their chainlink fence on one of those days - an absolutely awful decision on my part, because it really bothered her.  We did continue walking, though, and she seemed alright.  Otherwise, I can't think of anything else that stood out as particularly scary or bad.

Now that the wind's died down, the past couple of days have been interesting.  We did have a couple of warm days, so the walks were even more sluggish on top of whatever fear she felt.  

I can't remember much from Sunday night's walk except that it wasn't very good.  She walked, but she choose to walk right next to the curb seemingly with the goal of getting to the other side of the street (the grassy, no-traffic side, the way that we walk back home).  I don't know if this is fear of walking on the concrete side, a wish to get to the trees and such to smell on the grassy side, or an attempt to end the walk prematurely.  I don't remember any other specifics except that I came back saying to myself, "at least tomorrow's another day."

Well, tomorrow came, and I'm STILL not happy.  She was better on the concrete side tonight, though I didn't walk as far as I usually do, figuring that ending on a good note would be better than extending the walk and waiting for something scary to happen. Several people passed us, including a group of three very large men, and she really had no problem with that (clicks and treats were absolutely doled out).  We walked down on the grassy side way past our house and past the REALLY scary (and, if I may say so, scuzzy) delicatessen on the other side of the street.  But, then, there were just too many people -- one man walking his dogs, two women chatting loudly with their large dogs up ahead of us, nuisance teens talking loudly but unseen in the darkness.  Marge freaked pretty bad, and we had to turn around for home.

The heavy hitter of the night was the fact that I had forgotten to give her the L-Theanine prior to the walk because we walked earlier than usual.  I don't know whether that had any effect on things.  She received the dose as soon as we got back.  I headed out for another short walk after that, this time staying only to the grassy side.  She seemed better, though I was using high-value cheese.  She did offer a grumble through her nibbles on the cheese to the nasty Rottweiler who walked on the other side of the street, but that's nothing new, and we played a little tiny bit of Look-At-That, though I don't think it'll ever do any good since the Rottweiler snarks at anything that moves, which is probably what sets off Marge.

I'm so confused on what to do.  Do I stop the walks and simply walk her more during the day in places that she likes?  Or, do I keep up with the walks and just continue taking the good with the bad?  

Aside from tonight's walk, she hasn't shut down or gone into full flight mode, which is a good thing, a sure step above where she was over the summer.  And, other than that dampening episode with the many noisy distractions, the walk itself really wasn't that bad, probably thanks largely in part to the dipping temperatures.  She LOOKS comfortable from an outward view for most of the time - tail up, head down, moving at a trot, sniffing as she walks, hopping from tree to tree.  

My hope would be that continuing the routine, making it predictable, would boost her confidence so that she eventually knows exactly what to expect on the walks.  I'm obviously treating her during stressful situations, like when people pass (which has proven to be almost a zero issue unless noise is involved), or there are noises around.  Otherwise, I kind of just let her sniff and lead the way.  My fear would be having her become so anxious as to begin to have strong fear responses to only mildly uncomfortable things, or try to get home as soon as possible.

I'd choose one direction to go and just stick with it.  But, if I go one way, there are more people, cars, and noise in general.  If I go the other, there are less people and cars, but that darn store ruins everything.  There are always people in front of it, talking loudly and sometimes acting like morons.  Everything beyond that point is pretty quiet, but I just don't feel like it's worth it - walk past an immensely scary deli and wind up on a road of nothingness?  To me, it seems like not much would be accomplished in the way of getting Marge to feel better about distractions in the environment.  Or, skip the deli/avoid it unless no one's there, and walk the other way, where there is a constant low- buzz of motion, but usually nothing outrageous?

Right now, I've been doing both - start out with the busier part, treat her as needed, let her sniff as much as she wants, then turn around towards my house, pass my block/house, pass the store (on the opposite side of the street) as long as I don't see any potentially scary activity, and walk on the quieter part as a peaceful way to end things (the deli seems to be less of an issue on the way back, usually because I creep into the field for just a tiny stretch if I see that there are people there.  Confusing, I know, and I considered using my terrible MS Paint skills to make a map, but would probably reveal my location more than I'd like to.

Another interesting point is that Marge is exponentially better on ALL walks if she has not been exercised enough in the hours before and even moreso if it's cold out.  An experiment might be to skip our daytime walks on one day and see if that makes her less fearful on the nightly walk.  This, ultimately, has to occur any way on Wednesdays, being that I'm at school all day.  So, aside from a 10-minute walk in the morning, Marge does not walk until I get home.  We'll see what happens then, I guess.


NAK and The Residents of The Khottage Now With KhattleDog! November 16, 2009 at 11:37 PM  

We have nothing to ofFUR but want to khompliment woo again fur how hard woo work fur Marge!


Sara November 17, 2009 at 5:53 AM  

Oh Sam. I have so many of the same problems with Oreo. I do know his stress level increases when he is tired. Therefore, that may be why Marge is better when she hasn't had a walk yet. She may have more energy to cope with all the scary stuff around her.

Dexter November 17, 2009 at 6:34 AM  

Night walkies can be really scary even for a confident dog. There are nights when little Dexter just seems really spooky even though he is an excellent walker.

Heck, even I can get spooked when there is no moon and things are all rustling about. I would vote for leaving out night walks for now unless you need them for her to do her business. You are working so hard and making such great progress in all other areas.

I do walk Dex at night if he seems extra wound up, but otherwise we have lights in the back yard. I know that neither boy likes it when I walk out of the circle of light and come back in. Mango gets especially worried when he hears me out in the dark part of the yard and sometimes doesn't recognize me at first when I come back into the light. Everything changes at night.

Mango Momma

Frankie Furter and Ernie November 17, 2009 at 8:26 AM  

Hummm, it sounds like you have a good plan in the works there.
I know that Marge appreciates all your efforts.

KB November 17, 2009 at 9:21 AM  

I wish that I had more knowledge to share with you. The only thing that I have to point you toward is the Dog Geek's approach to training her puppy not to be afraid of other dogs. In one post, she carefully outlined exactly what she did when her puppy encountered a dog who scared the puppy. She didn't treat while her puppy was scared. Instead, she emphasized that she moved away from the scary dog until her puppy acted more normal. Then, from that distance, she clicked and treated etc. She didn't go closer unless her puppy could do it without acting scared. I believe her post was last summer.

The reason why I thought that this was interesting was that I tended to treat K when she was scared, hoping to overwhelm the scaredness with awesome treats. Instead, K started to assume that, if I gave her treats in an even vaguely scary situation, it meant that it was a truly scary situation. So, my treats ended up being a fear trigger for K.

All of this makes me wonder if you should get some distance from the scary stuff (e.g., the deli) until Marge acts more confident. *Then* start clicking and treating. Gradually, move closer to the scary thing, but it might take weeks to do that.

You might check out the Dog Geek's post about her exact technique for training her puppy and send her a comment asking for advice. She seems to have a lot of experience with fearful dogs.

All that being said, I'm sorry that your walks continue to be so tough. I can only imagine how frustrating that must be. However, I think that Marge is a lucky dog.

BTW, now I can see the photos from your beach walk. Beautiful!!!! Thanks for looking into it. But, I'm guessing that if no one else is having the same problems, it's a glitch on my end...

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart November 17, 2009 at 10:20 AM  

I'd rather not see Marge have to muscle through too much noise or scary things/people/dogs at close range ... even if that means having to cross the street again and again to avoid them.

And, KB is right. Distance is your friend. I do a combination of feeding in the scary moment AND moving away to get Lilly more distance. Our trainer always tells us to keep moving until the dog gets back under threshold.

I know that's easier said than done in a more urban environment.

My only other suggestion would be to put Marge in the car and drive her somewhere to walk, where she won't be as scared. I know it's a total hassle, but I had to do that for a while with Lilly after we had so many dangerous encounters with loose dogs in quick succession.

Sam November 17, 2009 at 3:35 PM  

I think the crossing the street back and forth may have worked well the other night in the face of multiple distractions. That was very much an oddity, though, to encounter so many people at that hour. I should have definitely crossed the street when the people were clearing the leaves from their fence.

Our walks in the field during the day usually go smashingly - the 20' leash helps things a lot, as does the fact that there is a LOT of space between potential distractions.

I wonder if I can start way back in the field, play some sort of fun game with her (I don't think Look At That works well in this scenario - sometimes it freaks her out more) and, as the days go by, slowly get closer to the side of the road near the deli. At about 20-30' or so in the field (a total of maybe 100' from the deli counting the sidewalk(s)/road) so it shouldn't be TOO hard. Having her comfortable with passing the deli would open up a pretty long strip for us to walk on at night.

As for the people walking by, they themselves really are a no-issue to Marge. We pass only a few a night, if any, and she has zero fear reaction towards them. Dogs are another story, and I already do avoid them as best I can (though usually we don't see many). I guess it's fair to say that it's more or less distant noises that are bothering her - ie., the kids who she heard talking, but couldn't see.

Surprisingly, she's actually BETTER at night than during the day, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that it's quieter out.

Prior to these last few nights (I'd say before the windy days), the walks were very pleasant, so I'm wondering what it is/was that's changed them. Guess I'll never know that for sure.

Perhaps the last few nights have been out of the ordinary with the amount of commotion out. Going to give it one more push at a later hour (8 as opposed to 6 PM) and see if this is just a hiccup or truly something that I need to take a step back on.

The Army of Four November 17, 2009 at 3:38 PM  

I wish we had some good suggestions for you. We love how hard you're trying with her.
Tail wags,

Gus, Louie and Callie November 17, 2009 at 4:42 PM  

Just keep on trying mom.. Things will get better if you get into a routine..

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus, Louie and Callie

BRUTUS November 17, 2009 at 7:26 PM  

Hey Sam-
I can't remember - do you know anything about Marge's background before you adopted her? Was she neglected or abused, or does no one know? Just wondering...

I think you have to take the good with the bad & keep your head up. Is there anyone else who would work with Marge? I'm sure she is very attached to you and it might be a real shock... Maybe your agility trainer? Would just be interested to see what happened if someone else tried to walk her.

You mentioned that Marge is your first dog. Wow - talk about jumping into the deep end! Kudos for all your efforts & sticking with her. In a similar thought to the paragraph above, have you considered "borrowing" a friend's dog to walk, maybe as a favor to them? Not with Marge... just walk her later. I think it might give you some confidence to work with a dog that is unreactive and confident, a "schoolmaster" if you will.

I used to teach horseback riding lessons, students of all ages, often on a string of school horses. It was so amazing how differently a the same horse would react from one rider to the next. It didn't even have to do with their experience level, moreso the rider's personality (especially fear). A fearful rider on a fearful horse was always the toughest situation to deal with.

See where I'm going with this? It might do you both good to have some outside experiences with other "team mates". It might scare both of you at first, but I think it might be a good stepping stone for you both. Not that you should give up on what you are doing now (again, you have my sincere admiration for all the love & patience you've shown Marge), but it's something that worked for my equestrian students. It was amazing how well they could work with a fearful horse once their own confidence was lifted by spending time on a schoolmaster or "bombproof" horse.

Hope that might help give you some new thoughts, Sam. Sometimes you just need some new things in the mix in order to move forward :)

All my best-

D.K. Wall November 17, 2009 at 7:37 PM  

You have received some great advice, so I will not repeat any of those things. And, I must admit, my dogs are walked in a VERY rural environment, so we do not have the distractions you have.

My closest situation is all of the fear that Kiska had when she came into our house. She never wanted to leave the safety and wanted nothing to do with people. SO, I started taking her downtown on Sunday mornings.

To be clear, downtown is 3 blocks long. And Sunday mornings, there may be 10 people in the entire down town. But it was a safe, controllable environment for her to learn that (1) I would always be there and (2) not all people should be feared.

I hardly call her cured. She still has a fear of people and prefers to move away. But, she will now sniff people and allow a few to pet her. Huge leaps forward.

So I would not stop walks, but try to find as much space as possible that is secure (in her mind). She has to keep facing the fear, though in a loving compassionate way (which is precisely what you are doing). Love the suggestions of only treating when calm.

All in all - your constant calm, firm, loving care is what will get her to the next level.

Kathy Mocharnuk November 17, 2009 at 9:59 PM  

I personally think you are on the right track by trying to keep track of the variables, is Marge tired, or fresh, is it dark or is it light, what is the distance from stressors, how many variables can she handle before it all just gets too much? I would just keep track and try to figure out what helps keep her in her comfort zone and for the most part try to take your walks when it seems to be the most relaxing, since the walks sound like they are more for her stress relief and exercise, if crap happens that is life and it sounds like you know how to handle those things, but I would try to keep the walks for relaxation and stress relief and then when you want to work on desensitizing try to set that up so it is in your control and you are ready for it.

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