Jun went to class tonight for the first time in nearly a year. I wasn't sure what to expect, because she's been especially agitated at home lately. But she blew me away! Reactivity? What reactivity?!
She worked with three unfamiliar people and two unfamiliar dogs, movement, closer proximity than she is used to. All of her triggers. And the worst I got from her was a few tongue flicks. No hard stares. She relaxed enough to follow cues. Soft body language and facial expressions. She was even taking treats with a soft mouth the entire time! And I think she worked for about half of the hour, way more than I've ever asked her for! This is leaps and bounds ahead of where she was when we left off last year, and we've done about zero behavior modification work in the mean time.
So why did she do so well? Well, first of all, she is Jun, and thus unpredictable. I think she just as easily could have been a wreck. But I think we have been doing some valuable things that have been helping. First, we've been doing a lot of nothing, which has reduced her overall stress level and leaves her better able to handle the stressors I do expose her to. We leave the house maybe once a week, and usually that is to go to the park or "grandma's." She is exposed to unfamiliar situations less than once a month. Secondly, Jun is a dog who thrives on structure and predictability and even though she's had fewer experiences lately, 99% of them have conformed to the structure I've set up for her, which increases her trust that things will go according to plan.
Some of the rules she's learned that help at class are:
(1) The crate and mat are safe places for relaxing. As soon as we got to class she headed right for her crate where she instantly relaxed. We also did quite a bit of mat work and when she needed a break I was able to just bring her back to her mat even though it was not behind our barrier. She gravitated towards it and even though she was much more relaxed than typical throughout class, she was even more relaxed in her "safe zone."
(2) I'll warn you when there is something scary. When I cue her to look at a trigger, she is MUCH better able to handle it than when she is surprised by it. If we are playing in the yard and she catches a glimpse of a neighbor she will usually react....unless I tell her they are there first. If that happens, she can take a quick look and go right back to playing.
(3) Nobody will touch you. You don't have to interact with people. You can come to me when you're not sure. These kind of all go to together and aren't anything that I've actively taught her, but are just a product of the trust that we have built. She has met several new people lately and done REALLY well. Thankfully, my helpers have been very cooperative and followed all the rules. Whereas she used to react to a new person by startling, barking, muzzle punching, etc., now she will usually just kind of keep her distance for a bit. She initiates the look-at-that game and knows she can come to me for a treat and reassurance. Once she's decided the person might be safe she'll usually go up a few times for a sniff or two. I instruct people to completely ignore her, not touching or making eye contact. Usually at this point she decides they are awesome and jumps on them for petting or finds a toy for them to throw, and then she has made a new best friend. She really does like people. She just wants them to behave in predictable ways.
I don't work set-ups anymore, I'm not
following a plan, I'm not even worrying about her occasionally going over
threshold. All I've done for the past year is try to build stability and
trust. Make sure she knows that above all, I am here. The very first piece of advice I got from a veterinary behaviorist was that I needed to start ignoring her so she would learn to comfort herself. Funny that it's the exact opposite that has worked for her. Jun is not capable of comforting herself. She needs me to be her rock. She needs to be able to look to me for guidance, even if it's just to put a mat down for her and treat her for relaxing. She needs to be able to come to me and lean on me. She finds touch comforting. It may not be a proper behavior modification plan, but my dog is happier. She may not have learned not to fear her triggers, but at least she can count on me to help her cope. And maybe down the line that will be all she needs.