When I first saw Lucie she was leaping up and down with all four feet off the ground barking at something invisible in the sky like some kind of automated, robot dog. She was totally oblivious of anything or anyone around her other than whatever phantom in the sky she was focused on.
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Lucie had recently been rescued and rehomed for what turned out to be the fourth time. Her new owner was despairing having previously had two sedate, gentle, well-mannered senior dogs. Now in her tiny inner city home and courtyard was this scrawny, unresponsive young dog that had become so distressed on the car ride to her new home, her new owner became almost as distressed trying not to crash her car as the dog threw herself at the windows and frothed at the mouth.
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She was referred to me for training after being declared unwalkable by her owner’s regular dog walker who had taken Lucie on one brief excursion and been shocked by the dog’s level of distress and chaotic, inexplicable behaviour. She was clearly terrified of travelling in a car and of any traffic she could see or hear. As she lives in an inner city suburb of Sydney the sight and sound of traffic is inevitable.
By the time I started training Lucie, her owner had already consulted two other trainers one who had advised tethering to calm her down and suggested walking her using a harness, both of which had had some marginal effect, and one who basically used strength to control her and made her walk along a busy road, using a technique known as flooding, which some trainers would regard as a valid technique, to address her fear but which would have caused the poor dog untold distress.
As I am a positive, rewards based trainer, my approach to working with Lucie was to use a process known as desensitisation and counter conditioning to get her to overcome her fear and reshape her attitude and response to the things that scared her. This technique involves carefully assessing the dog to determine its fear threshold and to always try and work below the threshold level in order to ‘reprogram’ the dog by ensuring it feels safe and unthreatened by whatever had previously scared it.
For Lucie, initially just being awake seemed to be her fear threshold. She seemed to see things that were invisible to me but to her, they were terrifying. They could have been shadows, or reflections or slight movements of clouds, she would just stare up at the sky, hyper vigilant and restless and anxious. I also suggested to her owner that she might require some medication because of the extreme level of fear. She was taken to the vet and put on Prozac which has undoubtedly been the right decision.
Although Lucie had many problems which have now been largely addressed, this blog will focus on getting her from being unwalkable to the point where she can be taken on a pleasurable, stress free walk.
I realized almost immediately that trying to take her outside of her back garden was senseless and spent all my initial sessions with her just trying to get her to focus on me and not on the phantoms. I rewarded her for any calm behaviour and any time she looked at me no matter how briefly. I continued like this for several weeks and also started using redirection techniques to stop any crazy jumping, barking and hyper vigilant behaviour. One clear factor working in my favour, was that being a Labrador she is obsessed with food, and treats can be used very successfully as a training tool. She gradually calmed down and stopped barking and lunging at phantoms in the sky. She started to relax and enjoy being patted and fussed over.
After a couple of weeks we progressed to the small lane behind the house. However, keeping her below the reactivity threshold was a constant challenge. Initially I made sure she couldn’t see any cars by making sure she was facing away from the end of the lane. But sometimes, before I had even had time to register the sound of a car in the vicinity, she reverted to an anxious, barking, totally unfocused mess.
Gradually she improved and we moved out of the lane and into a very quiet street where there were parked cars and an occasional moving vehicle about two blocks away. As her anxiety level receded I kept moving her to slightly more challenging situations, louder traffic noise, slow moving, infrequent vehicles until after a couple of months I was able to walk her calmly around the block and she could cope with the sight and sound of a vehicle.
Progress wasn’t always steady. For days she would be fine and then the terror and crazy behaviour would resurface briefly for no apparent reason, or because of an encounter with a bicycle, or a skateboard or a baby strolle or a bird or water flowing in a gutter or a blowing leaf. But as her trust in me grew she became easier and easier to settle. Over time our walks have become more challenging and more adventurous.
Now after almost a year she is so good at walking quietly on the lead along busy roads that a week ago I was asked if she was a guide dog in training. I couldn’t have been prouder. She has taught me so much. That positive, rewards based dog training really works, patience as the improvement was sometimes glacially slow, bravery as I have watched her overcome her fear and she has mostly taught me confidence in myself as a trainer. So many people thought she would never get to where she is today but she has proved them wrong. Yay Lucie!