It Was Coming Right At Me!

Silhouette act 2
Backlit silhouettes may look pretty strange to dogs. (Photo credits at the bottom of the page.)

I am so interested in how dogs perceive things, and how they notice differences that we don’t, or that we take for granted. Those differences can matter to them a great deal. An example of that was the focus of my recent post, “Intruder in the Yard!,” about Zani’s response to a landscape timber in my yard that had rolled out of place.

Clara, with her feral puppyhood, appears to discriminate between people to an extreme. She socializes with a few people besides me now, but each person has behaviors Clara is comfortable with, and everybody’s list is different. One person might scuff a foot while standing next to Clara, and Clara won’t even appear to notice. Another might do so and she will startle. And even though she can walk through crowds of people now, she’s most comfortable if they move along. Let someone slow down and focus on her…well, let’s say that that is not on her list for most strangers. Frankly, I don’t know how she keeps up with her rules. They are extremely detailed.

This week I learned a new “detail.” Though I expect for her it was a large and important difference.

Real-Life Training

Every week Clara and I take two lessons. (I am very lucky to have a great trainer and friend who has worked with Clara since she came to my life.) One of the lessons usually takes place on the road. I have posted about Clara’s many trips to a shopping mall, and how that was the place where she started to step out of her wariness with humans.

Recently we have been going to a park along a river. It has many walkways and pedestrian bridges. We go for long walks among joggers, bicyclists, walkers, other dogs on leash, and lots of kids, all of which Clara has handled with aplomb.

Last week, though, Clara’s paw pads got sore from an allergic reaction just a day before her lesson. We decided to take mats and watch people go by for an hour.

Our teacher brought her young border collie, who recently made Clara’s Dog Friends list. (The Dog Friends list has a speedier application process than the Human Friends list.) We found a shady spot to set up. The spot was on a sheltered sidewalk that was in a low-lying area. There were three different approaches, two of which were stairs coming down. The dogs settled on their mats.

Here They Come!

After we had been there for about 15 minutes, a man who had been exercising walked down the steps and straight toward us. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and headphones (which Clara is normally used to) and was walking slowly. “BOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. I leaped up and we moved a little, but she alarm-barked off and on until he went by. She was responsive to me and not out of her mind, but not happy with that man. We discussed the ways he might have differed from what she was used to and decided to stay where we were. It was a quiet weekday morning, and the odds were in our favor that that would not happen again.

Then along comes a woman in a jogging suit along the same path. She was equally alarming to Clara.  She came slowly down the stairs toward us, then stopped and started doing stretching exercises in our vicinity. “BOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. The woman was about 20 feet away from Clara, which is usually plenty for Clara’s comfort. She happily passes pedestrians at touching distance when we walk. But this woman had already startled her, so this was not OK.

The woman stayed, so we left. We moved to a different sidewalk where the approaches were rather curved and there were no steps coming right at us. And it’s a good thing we did, because immediately another man went to the area where we had been and started doing exercises that looked like fast motion Tai Chi. Luckily Clara couldn’t see him from her mat. We did OK for a while. I made sure she didn’t get up and be able to see the man, who was now doing a squat walk. Mercy! (Everybody who has a dog who is bothered by people doing odd things should do some prep work for that one!)

A woman came our way and visited with the young border collie while Clara watched happily and ate spray cheese. But then a woman headed in from the other direction using a cane. Clara has been around several kinds of mobility equipment, and quite frequently, but this didn’t seem like the day to ask her to do that. And the squat-walking man was turning the corner and I was worried he was coming our way. We called it a day.

What Were the Differences That Day?

There were quite a few, and I have an opinion about what added up to trigger Clara into alarm barking. Here are the differences I can identify.

  1. Clara had a tender foot.
  2. We were with a younger, smaller dog whom she didn’t know as well (Clara is usually more relaxed when a doggie friend comes along).
  3. We were in a low-lying area with people coming straight down at us. The angle was unfamiliar.
  4. The people approaching were in shadow, somewhat backlit.
  5. The people stopped or slowed when they got to the bottom of the steps rather than proceeding along.
  6. The “crossroads” area where we were didn’t have a clear path; it was a largish paved area where people might hang out rather than continue briskly through.
  7. There was no demarcation between where Clara was lying and the rest of the sidewalk. When she would lie on her mat at the shopping center we were usually on grass right next to a sidewalk, but this was different. There was no visible boundary between Clara and the people coming through.
Clara being a tourist on a happier day
Clara being a tourist on a happier day (if a bit hot)

I honestly doubt whether the tender foot contributed to her lower threshold for reactivity that day. And we’ll never know whether she would have been more comfortable with her usual dog buddy (a personable and confident rough collie). But I think all the other things I mentioned about the setup basically added up to “threatening,” especially numbers 3, 4, and 5. People coming straight down at her, in shadow, then slowing down or stopping.

Ever since she came into my life as a 10-week-old pup, Clara has been sensitive to being trapped. I think the layout contributed to that, and the angle of approach and backlighting sewed it up.

But these are just my best guesses. I may have missed something else entirely. Time will tell.

Was This a Catastrophe for her Training?

We won’t know whether Clara got more sensitized to people until the next time we go out. If this incident had happened earlier in Clara’s training before her many positive experiences, it could have caused quite a setback. But I doubt that will be the case. By now she has had hundreds of hours of graduated good experiences being out in the world with people of all types, doing all sorts of things. So in the face of all that excellent history, this was probably but a blip on the screen.

It was a good reminder to me that although my dog has come such a long way, I would do well not to take her usual relaxed and happy affect for granted. There are still things that might upset her more than I expect them to, and I can’t always predict them.

What’s the weirdest human activity your dog has gotten accustomed to? Squat walk is going to be our new challenge. I don’t know if we will ever work up to being at the bottom of a hill and have people come down at us, though!

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Photo Credit: The silhouette photo is copyright © Francesco Scaramella. Used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. I altered the photo by cropping out a second figure.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015                                                           

17 thoughts on “It Was Coming Right At Me!

  1. One of my dogs was a non-reactive, sweet, well-trained therapy dog with years of experience in all kinds of public situations. She had no fear of crowds, microphone feedback, squealing children, or even a remote-controlled ambulance named “Andy” that a local company brings to events to “talk” to the squealing children. One time, however, we were at a health fair and were approached by a local police officer. Sioux barked at him! She was no stranger to cops or firefighters, or people who wore lab coats or yoga pants – all familiar characters at such events. So, what was different that time? Height. The guy was 6’6″ tall!!! He must have looked like a monster to my little 37 pound girl. The good news is that, after a few strategic doses of freeze-dried liver, she no longer regarded him as threatening and went right back to her very professional self.

    1. That’s good to know that it can also happen to an extremely stable dog. I remind myself that sometimes the things Clara barks at are things that most dogs would bark at. That we will never get to 100%… Thanks for sharing about Sioux. Wish I could have known her.

  2. Hi Eileen, Love the post, and identify with so much of it – it’s amazing when you start to try and read the environment through a (reactive) dog’s eye how differently everything shows up – the special dog lens. Re. squat walking &c – we were out with our trainer and our last dog, Rosie, and had just been chatting about staying alert for people with unusual gaits or physical habits, when we turned the corner and a man walked past with a canoe balanced on his head! Fortunately, and inexplicably, Rosie was looking the other way the entire time, presumably wondering what we were finding so hilarious!
    Thanks for all your work.

    1. Oh wow, Caroline. We haven’t seen that one yet! That’s kind of how my teacher and I felt while we were watching the squat-walker. Laughing incredulously and hoping: just stay down, Clara, stay down…. Thanks for sharing about Rosie.

  3. Hi Eileen, I wonder if the fact that Clara was still had anything to do with it? Particularly as you say she was sensitive to being trapped. Could the prolongued stay in one place rather than walking be a trigger for anxiety and her response, if you are not usually stationary for a period of time when out?

    1. I bet that played into it. Even though we used to do a lot of mat work, that was in a different place, and we have never done it exclusively without walking around. Good thought, Kathie! Thanks!

  4. Great post Eileen. I also like to think of what a dog may be perceiving in any given situation. A stimuli that I may not even be aware of. For example, I am typically aware of wind direction and our proximity to others (downwind or upwind). Of course different smelling people and beings omit different chemicals and smells (especially exercising ones). Many times I chalk up a response to a dog’s obscenely sensitive nose. I know I am super sensitive/stimulated by smell and pheromones, so I can only imagine how sensitive a dogs nose may be whether we see the stimuli or not. Russ

    1. Yes, there are countless things we probably can’t even guess at! Thanks for the good points.

  5. Wonderful post. I have been doing a lot of analyzing myself since getting my reactive Malinois puppy. We have worked through so many of his fears, but sometimes circumstances are just perfect enough to create the reactions (and emotions) we have been trying so hard to remedy/change.

    Recently, we were at an IPO protection practice. The helper/decoy was basically new to the sport and approached in a VERY strange manner, low, sideways, shuffling, making weird noises with his mouth, and staring dead at Riko. Where Riko had done beautifully with the experienced and certified helper/decoy we had at an earlier practice, this new decoy caused a big alarm barking scene. Like Clara, Riko was also experiencing foot pain. He is also a known trigger-stacker. We had just walked through a corridor lined with (crated) barking dogs. It was a recipe for disaster.

    1. It sounds like you figured out some important things from that experience! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great article Eileen….sounds alot like our Bruno…now 21 mo old GSD..we also have had him since he was 10 wks and he too is very quirky as we say! Sounds, sites etc can set him off …and we have fun into the squat walker here in RI where we go routinely! Last week it was a mans voice! The other day we were hiking and Bruno loves to lay in streams …well this little boy was up above him on the part of the trail that went over the water and leaned down to him calling his name and trying to get closer and closer…I could tell by his body that he was getting nervous and I called him out of the stream (he was on leash) at the same time he barked at the boy..(usually LOVES all kids) while his brother Louie just looked at him like..what was that for? My husband and I also thought it was the angle and now that you say it ..the boy may have appeared as a silhouette too! We do homework w/them nightly and have seen great improvement but w/Bruno I am always on the lookout for unusual visuals (tonight it was a new sign that was placed on the blvd. that isnt usually there) thanks for a great read!!! 🙂 Beth

    1. Those are great examples. Man, our dogs really notice the most interesting things! Clara notices anything new as well. Thanks so much, Beth, for your kind words and for the comment.

  7. This definitely made me laugh. Who knew that you would be asking Clara to relax in the middle of the Ministry of Silly Walks?

    As for the weirdest human behavior Nala has grown accustomed to, I think it’s my crying out in shock or pain when I drop something, bump into something, or am otherwise startled. Poor sensitive Nala used to bolt to her crate whenever I’d get upset. Now, she runs in to check on me and lick my face. The other day, when I yelled because I pulled out the silverware drawer and found a tree roach (AUGH!), she ran in, wiggled at me reassuringly, then scanned the room, located the roach, and started hunting it. It’s really sweet, and gives me the warm fuzzies that she trusts me so much now.

    1. Indeed! I’m sure that’s what it was like for her!

      That’s so touching about Nala. And I know that feeling. Smiling…

  8. People really are weird. Once, while doing some CCing with my past dog (who was fiercely reactive), we were watching a guy do some slow stretches under a tree. At the end of his stretching, he bent over, put his hands on the grass, and did a perfect handstand. My poor dog!

    FWIW, being stationary is significantly harder for most dogs I know, especially in a new environment. I’ve been doing more mat work with my new dog than I did with my past dog, and it’s making me think long and hard about when to utilize a mat versus letting her spend a little time sniffing around (or sniffing first, then mat, which is my current strategy. Or mat with sniffing breaks. Oh, the amount of time we spend thinking about these things).

    1. I really hope we don’t have to watch a handstand anytime soon! Good point about staying stationary. We definitely haven’t done it that long before. Usually it is interspersed with activity. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I’ve worked with several varieties of scared dogs. My guy was fine after training, until a kid on a skateboard came near. But a few visits to a skateboard park resolved that. Every once in awhile, we find something else, but he’s generally a confident dog.

    At the other extreme, another dog spent her first 6 months in an outside fenced area in a pack. She was scared of everything else and feral with people, but learned to ride in the car only as it took her to the dog park. Once inside there, she was happy and relaxed. But it took months before she could be generally leash walked, and longer to go into stores. Unlike the first case, desensitization was of no practical use and she had to be taught coping mechanisms. She’s still looks scared going to stores, and people think she’s terrified, sometimes laying there in a huddle. But with a gentle prompt she pops up and walks around sniffing at stuff and exploring, until we stop moving & she shrinks down again after a moment. Or, if something especially scary happens, there’s a specific protocol we follow and focusing on that calms her down. Even working during our July 3rd walk where somebody started early with fireworks. She’s been to stores dozens of times and seems to enjoy them, wanting to go in and explore, but still often looks terrified at times.

    Unlike your Clara, she treats most people just the same. Except, anybody who has learned a common approach protocol for scared dogs can walk right up and pet her, be they men, women or kids. From anybody else, she will always run. That’s now two cases, so let’s try a third one…

    A client’s dog had trouble meeting some people when on a walk, and would become aggressive. Her people learned to loosen her leash (instead of restraining her) and the dog learned to walk behind them on her own when she’s scared. With that in place, the dog could handle her own desensitization, and still have a way out if it became too scary. Months later, she’s doing much better but is still easily scared. They stay out of crowds but it’s otherwise no longer an issue. A similar approach was used for people coming into their house. That dog is likely closer to your Clara, as she startles easily with anything unusual or unexpected.

    And yet another, where one GSD is generally fine, except he cannot go into a few stores because of what he smells there, and cannot seem to get used to it. Many dogs however will startle with anything that is visually unusual. My guy reacted to life-size Halloween figures, but had no issue having his picture taken with Santa.

    So it’s some varying combination of desensitization, learning the situation and how to deal with it (skills), and/or/maybe coping mechanisms (security protocols) that often work. And that mixture gives you seven different recipes.

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