This is the story of Clara.
Date: September 9, 2020
When I met this sweet 5-year-old girl, she pulled heavily on her choke collar and would go bananas at the mere sight of any animal, especially other dogs. It was a chore for her momma to walk her, with little pleasure for her or Clara. This situation had been going on for over a year and a half, since she was rescued.
She would also bark loudly at anyone who passed by the house, particularly in the front yard. People, dogs, cats, squirrels – you name it.
After going over her entire history so I could get a clearer picture of Clara, we went on her first walk. I literally had to pick up this 70-pound dog about 5 minutes into it because I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown from the dogs barking in the neighborhood. As her heart pounded in my arms, I told her that we’d make it better for her.
Needless to say, we had some immediate changes to put into place, even before the training started out on actual walks.
First, we got rid of that choke collar. You see, dogs’ necks are just as fragile as ours, despite a lot of trainers saying to the contrary. But just as importantly, they create almost constant tension, especially when unaccustomed dogs naturally start pulling. Tension = stress—no bueno. We replaced it with a Freedom harness – a harness that has both a front and back clip (we typically would use just the front clip).
The second goal was to desensitize what it meant to go for a walk for Clara. When Clara saw see the leash, she would practically hyperventilate. Most would think that was excitement; I saw it as severe anticipatory anxiety of what was to come. Each walk, there would be multiple dogs barking from their windows or fences, certainly contributing to an already-stressful situation. When you have a reactive dog, the last thing you want to do is start the walk in an environment with a stress factor that is an 8 or 9 out of 10. Together, we started at around a 3 or 4, in the back yard. The simple exercise of putting the harness on and off in the back yard gave us enough to work with for the first two weeks.
The next improvement we found was to eliminate the mostly unlimited access Clara had in the front yard. When dogs bark at things that pass by, their humans may think of it as natural, and even desirable; the big problem is that it also practices that same muscle training & behavior you desperately want to stop in your pooch when walk time comes. It therefore made no sense to allow that behavior to continue at home for Clara. We didn’t let her perch by the window inside, and she didn’t have free access to the front yard. The takeaway: prevention and management are both prerequisites to successful behavior modification.
After two weeks, we started walking just in front of Clara’s house, working on loose-leash walking and working on counterconditioning any animals we saw from across the street.
Shortly after Clara passed that hurdle, walks were extended to down the street and soon, Clara was going on leisurely walks around the neighborhood without reacting to dogs that came into her field of vision across the street. Furthermore, Clara could be in her front yard – on leash – and watch people walk right by her fence without yelling “get off my lawn!”
As the weeks and months went by, we continued to get more success, shortening the distance between her and other dogs, without reactions. We did sessions at a local park, where we could practice in a different setting and I was insanely proud of Clara and her momma when I saw how far they both had come.
We then made the leap to some gradual interactions with small dogs where Clara sniffed calmly and came back to me for huge rewards. It was a complete transformation. To see Clara act so calmly and stress-free was beyond heartwarming.
Dogs like Clara and people like her momma are why this is the most rewarding job in the world!
I remember during the consultation, I told Clara’s momma, “You know, I can’t guarantee Clara will ever be able to walk on Ocean Ave in Santa Monica with all the dogs and stimuli that presents, so let’s start with her not going nuts across the street from a dog in your neighborhood.” 6 months later, we did a session on Ocean Ave and Clara killed it – walking with complete control by dogs of all sizes with zero reactions.
By no means is Clara “fixed” or “cured” – she still has her limitations. But overall, walks are far from a chore, and the enjoyment Clara and her momma now have is as joyous for me as it is them!