For the most part, Rugby has a very small, predictable and consistent world. When changes do occur, Rugby needs an incredibly long time to adjust. He simply can’t function or focus on me whatsoever. When he’s very stressed, he sometimes resorts to an aggressive response to cope with his anxiety and escape the situation.
As a result, outings with him are generally carefully planned out so that I can minimize the things that will be likely to trigger his stress and anxiety. For the most part, I’ve typically taken him to remote places, because he tends to be able to stay calm in those locations, and I try to keep him calm and relaxed when we have outings.
Since last fall, I’ve been able to do a little training in the front yard….which has been very exciting! I haven’t been able to do that with him for eight years! Ever since he was rolled in the dark by a dog four times his weight in our front yard, he’s never been a big fan of being in the front yard! Typically, I carry him from the house to the car, or he’s frantic on the leash, and barking like crazy at the “phantom dog” he’s just convinced will hurt him again.
But last fall, I started some work with him in the front yard, using the car as a blind, and minimizing anything that he would be able to see that would trigger him. He was very nervous at first, but he actually took Salmon bites as a training treat, which was a first for him outside, so I was a bit encouraged.
Little by little I’ve trained outside with him here and there, and he’s done just great! I’ve carefully chosen to train when folks are at work and things are very quiet. Our training sessions outside are few and far between. I keep sessions to ten minutes or less, and I use very high value treats. Because of that, Rugby has learned to relax a bit, and he’s been able to focus more on me than the things going on around him, and that’s been amazing!!
So today, I thought I’d test the waters and see how he did walking out to the mailbox with me. He’s never been too far from the front door, and I wasn’t sure if this was too much for him. He was relaxed the entire time, so I thought I’d let him go down the road to our neighbor’s house for a short walk.
Our house and our neighbor’s house is separated by a small draw in the woods, so there’s actually just a bit of distance between our two homes. Across the road is a wooded lot. As a result, it’s a great place to test Rugby out, because there’s not going to be much that he can see that will stress him.
He was a bit worried, and not at all excited to go on a walk, but he was certainly willing, and he seemed to be okay with things. I made several turns along the way, to help him tune into me, which he honestly didn’t really do. He followed my direction, walking nicely on a loose leash, but without giving me a glance. He was all about scoping out the scenery….just in case!! Things were quiet on our walk, and Rugby stayed focused on his surroundings.
In the middle of the road, I practiced a few sit/stays…and his recall a few times, which he did with ease. Even if he’s not looking at me, this dog is definitely listening to me, and he’s able to execute commands anyway, which is a bit amazing to me! Focus is something Rugby really does well….but often not on the things where I would love to see his attention go!! It’s something that is a constant subject for training with him. “Leave It” and “Watch Me” are well known commands at our house!
We made it about three times down and back, and then the wind caught some leaves in the vacant lot, and Rugby barked his typical over-excited bark that he does when he sees something out of the ordinary. Naturally, “Leave It” had zero effect, because once Rugby had barked, every dog in the neighborhood answered him! So of course, he had to continue to bark, in his excited state because he just knew those dogs were coming for him. *sigh*
What made it worse, was that our neighbor’s dog…a large Chocolate Lab/Pitbull mix….woke up from her comfy nap on their deck. She now came charging down the hill, barking sternly because “we” were out in “her” neighborhood! Keep in mind that Rugby barks at her daily in the back yard…they’re good fence barking buddies. Because of the lay of the land, our fences are very far apart, and the other dog had no ability to get anywhere near the road or Rugby.
But….the problem was that she was in a place where Rugby had never seen her before. And even though he knows her bark well…he could easily see her and smell her to identify her…unlike the other neighborhood dogs who were barking in their yards. But, he’d never seen her outside his fence, and from the front yard, and he was over the moon with barking excitement and worry. And she was just as upset…seeing Rugby and I in a new place as well!
This is where I hit road blocks in a big hurry. Even though Rugby knows this dog, by sight,sound, and smell, the fact that she wasn’t in her usual spot sent Rugby into a tailspin. And once all of the other dogs were barking too….he was bouncing up and down on his leash, barking and barking, on high alert and ramping up into a mess.
Fortunately, we were close to the house, and it was just a matter of bringing him down the driveway, behind the car, and helping him to focus on me once again. When he’s in his wigged out state, he’s not going to re-direct to me at all. He simply needs to get out of the situation that he’s in, and to a place of calm so that he can focus and settle down. He calmed down super quickly today, and I was so very proud of him!
Overall, I feel great about how things went today! I haven’t given Rugby a neighborhood walk in years! The fact that we were able to enjoy a ten minute walk in front of our house was amazing. Rugby ate treats and followed commands when he was able to stay calm. He was able to walk with me even in his excited state when I directed him back to the house. When I got him back into his blind, he was able to sit/stay and watch me.
That, my friends, feels like a victory! It may have been a very small victory,….but for Rugby….it’s HUGE!! This is why we never, ever give up!!