My walk yesterday started off being rather difficult. You see, being a puppy, I find everything exciting and interesting. Especially other dogs. This in itself is not a problem as it's a good thing that I'm curious about the world. It's a problem because part of being certified as a therapy dog involves a test. Part of that test is being able to walk past a neutral dog without have a huge reaction.
The test isn't until June and Jason is already worried.
The walk started off well enough. It was cold but reasonably sunny. Jason brought along a new toy: a chuck it launcher. It's big fun for me. Jason can launch a tennis ball up into the air. The area that I frequently go walking in has wide open spaces. This makes it possible for me to really run!
I was running back and forth having a great time. We came around a corner to another big open field and I saw a dog off into the distance. Yeah! A playmate! I started a high pitched bark and whine: that's what I do when I want to play. The other dog apparently really reacts to other dogs because his owners were trying hard to get him back under control just like Jason was trying to do. He kept calming telling me to focus, sit, and even a couple of high fives. I'd amuse him by looking at him and hovering above the ground in a sort-of-sit. My heart wasn't in it because I so desperately wanted to go play. What fun!
Two other dogs came up and I gave up any pretense of listening to Jason. This looked like serious fun and I wanted to play. I greeted the two new dogs and their owners. I was barking as loud as I could trying to get the other dogs attention. The humans were giving the exasperated Jason some training tips. "Have you tried a can with pennies in it to get her to stop barking," one said. The other commented that "this is exactly what shock collars are for." Ouch! I'm glad I wasn't paying attention.
It took Jason awhile to finally get over feeling exasperated with me. I think he was actually frustrated with himself. The two other dogs weren't barking (they actually don't do a lot, I wouldn't either if I got shocked by my collar). Jason was probably wishing I'd hurry up and start behaving, or maybe he was worried when it comes time for my test I would fail.
Something finally clicked in his brain. He loosened up his super tight grip on my leash. I suspected he also loosened up his super tight grip on his own thoughts. He showed me the ball inside the chuck it launcher, threw it a short distance, and told me to go get it.
I stopped barking on the spot and ran. I was glad to bring it back to him since I knew he'd get all excited and throw it again. Without giving me time to think, he took the ball again as soon as I brought it back and launched it way off into the distance. I was off after it again running as fast as I could. I forgot all about the other dogs--even the puppy off into the distance who was still barking at me.
Jason needed to get a grip on himself and be mindful of his emotions and what was really happening in the moment. I think he realized that he was experiencing fear about things that haven't even happened yet (we will fail our tests, other dog owners are judging him, etc.). This is an example of the cognitive distortion of negative forecasting (anticipating things will turn out badly and assuming that the prediction is already an established fact).
Of course I'm going to bark at other dogs when they are close. This is what I do. I bark. I am dog. I am also highly motivated to please humans. Apparently some humans don't find it pleasing when I bark at other dogs inviting them to come play with me. Jason remembered that while I will probably bark when left to my own devices, I'm likely to be redirected if he gives me something else to focus on--especially if it is something that both of us find pleasing. In comes the ball and the magic happens.
This isn't a quick fix. I'm probably going to have to encounter other dogs another 30 or 40 times. I'm going to have to bark at them, I'm going to have to react strongly, and Jason is going to have to give me another job to do. I'll eventually get the hang of it: it's okay to say hello but endless barking isn't the way to make anyone happy.
My behavior isn't controlled by fear (can of pennies, shock collar). This would work, though it would only work if the fear is always present (constant use of the noxious sound of a can of pennies, constant use of a shock collar). Rather, my behavior is shaped by my deepening bond with my human companion and my desire to be engaged with him in mutually pleasing him. This method takes a little longer but ends in offering a more enduring pattern of behavior (I will not need to have a constant reward for my behavior--intermittent "good girls", ball tosses, or tasty bits of food suffice).
Try it at home with your dog. You'll like your results and you'll like how you feel.