Chai’s world expands
I have had people say how much they related to Chai’s story in Dog In the Bubble, that means so much to me. The fact that other humans read it and it resonated for them. That, along with offering some hope and general guidance on moving through life with a dog that does not like humans or dogs. Whether we label the dog reactive (to humans or dogs) or maybe dangerous, fearful; what I mean is that when Chai sees another human (except the very few in his circle) he would, past tense, stare, lunge, bark, growl, decrease the distance, possible or probable muzzle punch with pants grab.
Now, is he cured, does he love people, do strangers approach, and put out their hand for him to sniff (a known human behavior that sets the stage for a bite)? No, he is still Chai with his big feelings and worries. He has not done any of the behaviors we would identify as “aggression” in a very long time. I can talk to another human out in the world, at a distance, while Chai is offering one of his alternative behaviors. The key here is the alternative behavior is reinforced and serves the same function as the “aggressive” behaviors: to keep all humans at a distance.
He is rolling through life so well, that someone recently said; “He is fine, just let him off leash and approach me.” This is where it can get complicated. People see a beautiful red border collie and, to them he is fine. Depends on the situation, I may just move away with Chai and engage fully with him, thus ignoring the other human. Or in the situation where someone requested to engage, I said, that he probably would be fine but I am opposed to risk when it comes to my dog, so I will ask him to engage with me instead.
There was also a time recently when someone walked toward us, and I could see that she was looking at Chai and wished to engage. I offered a quick wave, and we went running off in the opposite direction with our Let’s GO! cue. This way I didn’t feel rude but also didn’t feel the need to put Chai in a situation he cannot handle. There are ways to be his advocate and control the context without friction or offending another human.
There have been more times lately that it has all come together… and those times feel so amazing. I am bursting with pride and have a lightness in my walk after those moments.
Let’s take today: we were passing a park that has some nice open space, trails and is on the water.
It’s a Monday morning, so chances are there are few humans milling about. We discovered a narrow trail that mirrored the water and was elevated, the views were amazing on a sunny day in the upper 70’s. ah, summer in the PNW.
There is a trail we have never been on, so a new context for Chai. I am feeling confident all his skills with alternative behaviors are fluent and ready to generalize to the day and this trail. I did not have the ball on the rope with me, part of the reinforcement plan after another human has been passed. I have super high value treats, as always. I can use food as a reinforcer more and more now. If, you read the first blog, I increased the likelihood of Chai taking food with play, eat, play. We only passed a handful of people on the main trail. Chai stopped, and we moved to the side. Then Chai offered a down behavior, and I knelt next to him, very close. Proximity to me is comforting to Chai. While in his bubble I observed that he would get close to me, lean on me, and would relax. By relax I mean he would exhale, and his body would soften. I had the leash in my hand close to his harness but not so he could sense the tension. I offered treats every second or so, reinforcing anything I could call calm attentive behavior. He decided when to stand and then I followed and got back on our walk.
After leaving the trails, while heading to the car, there was a human with a Labrador heading our way and we veered off. I stopped behind some picnic tables and Chai went into peek position. He popped his head between my legs, proximity to me and a behavior that has a rich reinforcement history. I offer treats until he decided he was ready to move on.
Recently on one of our regular hiking trails, near our home we heard voices. I could not see the humans, but I could tell they were not moving. Chai stopped and so then I did also. He got behind me and sat down, yet another behavior with a history of reinforcement. This takes Chai out of the middle position, potentially between me and the other humans and puts me in the middle where I can let Chai know, “We’ve got this.” I used to tell him he was fine and would be ok, repeatedly. Then I considered the delivery and cadence of what I was communicating and his needs. Now, I say, with confidence “We have this” and “WE WILL BE FINE.” We moved ahead, my suggestion and he followed behind me on a 15-foot leash but close behind me. Then I saw, ahead on the trail, a small group of young men, taking a break from a run. I said “Hi, my dog is not friendly, and I am going to walk towards you then take the trail on the right”. They said “no problem, we were going to move” and ran off. Again, I clearly communicated that my dog was a possible threat, where I was going and what I need them to do and thanked them!
Chai didn’t change, I didn’t change Chai. We did change our behaviors. It wasn’t about what I wanted Chai to be, it is about what Chai needed and still needs from me. We’ve got this!
“It’s not about what I want, it’s about what Chai needs.”