By Daniel Antolec
As an accredited professional dog trainer and certified canine behavior consultant I have devoted myself to helping anxious and fearful dogs. My journey on that path began on August 28, 2012 when I first began working with Ranger, a two-year-old Australian shepherd who was evaluated by another trainer, and whose euthanasia had already been decided based upon his poor quality of life.
Ranger, like so many of my behavioral cases, had a multitude of fears. These included neophobia, separation anxiety and extreme leash reactivity. After three months of hard work Ranger had been transformed into a confident and joyful dog, who was adopted by a loving family. The emotional impact of that experience motivated me to start my own business with a mission to help as many other anxious and fearful dogs as I could.
Many of those dogs expressed their fear through distance-increasing agonistic behaviors such as barking, growling, and lunging at the people and things which frightened them. They sought to create distance and avoid conflict but were often labeled as “aggressive” dogs.
Labels can kill dogs, especially those who are called “pit bull.”
I met such a dog in 2019. His name was/is Pete, and he is a 9-year- old 90-pound pit bull-mix living in a village of some 10,000 people, many of whom have pet dogs. Such an environment made Pete’s journey through life frightening.
Pete struggled with fear of novel people, loud vehicles, unexpected sounds, and other dogs. His fear of dogs developed after he had been attacked by off-leash dogs while Pete’s guardian was walking through the neighborhood, with Pete on leash. Every one of Pete’s daily walks was a trek through the gauntlet of unexpected encounters with strangers, loud noises, and a variety of dogs. He learned that the world was unsafe and that threats appeared frequently and without warning.
The toll of living with daily anxiety inflicted Pete with a sensitive digestive system and recurring skin problems (see also Itchy Dog or Stressed Dog? on p.22). He required a special diet, probiotics, medication, and very often he went for days or weeks with soft stools or diarrhea. He was also intolerant of extreme heat, cold or wind.
During leash walks he often went over threshold upon seeing other dogs, barking, and lunging at them. To others in the neighborhood, his behavior may have supported the prejudice against bully dogs as being aggressive by nature, when in fact, Pete was worried about his own safety and just wanted to be left alone.
Managing the Environment
Pete’s family is devoted to his welfare and spares no expense on his care and comfort. In addition to his special diet, they prepared his environment to support him as best they could.
Pete was most comfortable while sleeping on the sofa in the living room, so the owners covered it with bedding for him to curl up and relax. They covered the large picture window to block visual stimulation and used a white noise machine to eliminate auditory stimuli.
When they take Pete outside for potty breaks and walks, they scan the area before bringing him out, and remain vigilant during their walk to avoid other dogs. But avoidance was not sufficient, and they struggled, not knowing what to do about his reactive behavior.
Pete regarded me with some suspicion when I first arrived at the home on a Monday afternoon in January 2019. The family had already assessed Pete’s basic needs and I suggested adding additional calming aids, such as ADAPTIL, to his environment and also discussed working with his veterinarian to explore the use of behavioral pharmacology. The family wrote a list of stress triggers and we discussed how to manage the environment to avoid triggers, and how to desensitize and countercondition Pete to those which we could not avoid (see also Reducing Fear – and the Importance of Choice on p.14).
Our operant training plan included teaching Look, Touch, Find It, Engage-Disengage and loose leash walking. I was then scheduled to provide a 30-minute walk-and-train session with Pete on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, while his guardians were away.
That presented an additional challenge as Pete was not accustomed to having a relative stranger enter his home in the absence of his family, who were his secure base. We began with a few joint training sessions so I could develop a trusting relationship with Pete and coach the guardians on training tools which they could use during their neighborhood walks. When we felt that Pete was comfortable with me, I began the first of my home visits, alone.
I remember the first time I let myself through the front door and Pete was not in sight. In addition to resting on the living room sofa, I was told that he often spent afternoons sleeping on the family bed upstairs. Startling Pete by my unexpected arrival was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to call out to him. I did so and remained at the bottom of the steps, uncertain of his response.
Pete must have hopped down from the bed, judging by the thump I heard on the floor and the sound of his slow footsteps suggested he was apprehensive about my presence. As I stood with numerous treats in hand, Pete appeared at the top of the stairs, peeking around the corner. He greeted me with a deep guttural growl, and I responded by tossing treats up to him with the slightest hand movement I could muster, calling his name gently.
He stopped growling and slowly descended the stairs, sniffing me for a long minute or more. Then I saw the twinkle return to his eyes and his muscle tension eased. I had passed muster and we were ready to take our first walk through the neighborhood.
For the next three sessions Pete growled at me when I first arrived, but from that point forward he trotted over to me with a wiggly butt, turned sideways and pressed his flank against me so I could deliver a shoulder massage and a butt rub. We were officially buddies!
Establishing a Routine
In the initial weeks I watched Pete and learned his habits. Each of our walks began with the same pattern. We stepped outside and Pete slowly walked down the steps to the sidewalk, cautiously scanning up and down the street until he felt comfortable. Then he eagerly approached every vertical surface for sniffing, and to mark it. Then we began walking.
I paid Pete for proximity and eye contact. If he walked along my side, I randomly gave him treats, and I always paid when he glanced up at me. Before long that became his default behavior and he spent less time looking for things in the environment to worry about. Now and then we stopped to play a game of find it and I tossed some treats onto the snow so he could sniff and discover them.
His family had given me good instructions as to where the neighborhood dogs lived along our route, and particularly those who spent their days at the window waiting for people and dogs to bark at. With that knowledge
I was able to navigate Pete through the gauntlet and avoid being ambushed by (other) reactive dogs. If at any time I heard a dog in the distance, I immediately paired that with the delivery of food to Pete’s mouth. My goal was to switch to classical conditioning mode every time a trigger appeared in the environment.
I kept Pete happily engaged with me and did the heavy lifting, maintaining vigilance so he did not have to. When I spotted a dog down the block, I stopped walking and began working with Pete, playing games of Look, Touch, and Find It. I wanted to keep the thinking part of Pete’s brain actively seeking and receiving rewards for his correct choices, promoting the release of dopamine in the bargain.
To alter the environment in our favor, I sprayed my clothing with ADAPTIL and carried an iCalmDog ® music player in my treat bag. His family had begun using ADAPTIL and calming music in the home, when Pete was relaxing on the sofa, so I took advantage of that.
Ultimately Pete would notice the other dog as it approached. I ensured that we were always on the other side of the street and classically conditioned Pete to the presence of the dog, using his favorite treats. Pete quickly learned to see the other dog and then look to me for a treat, which became his habit.
Instead of growing anxious, he anticipated something good would come his way whenever a dog approached. He was learning how to visually engage a trigger, and then disengage. Reactive dogs remain engaged as tension rises, and then go over threshold. Pete was learning with every walk how to remain calm.
Sometimes the energy level or sustained eye contact of the other dog was more challenging for Pete, so I used any nearby parked vehicle as a visual block and quickly engaged in a game of Find It. Pete was still aware of the passing dog, but the most he would do was glance up at it, and then return to his favorite game.
I noticed that on some days Pete was more lethargic or more tense than on other days, and I assumed he was more stressed by something which may have happened prior to our session. After the session I checked with his guardians and sure enough, there had been a fearful event of one kind or another, such as when workers had to enter the home for an emergency repair the day before our scheduled appointment. Cortisol can influence a dog for hours or days, depending on how frightening the experience was.
There were also times when the weather was especially cold, and he only walked a block or so before wanting to return to his warm, cozy sofa. He was basically a big, cuddly couch potato who loved when I rubbed his belly and his ears.
On very windy days he frequently stopped and peered into the distance, as if he were struggling to listen. I always honored Pete’s wishes and never pressured him to move along until he was ready.
When summer finally arrived, Pete demonstrated on the warmer days that he needed to frequently lie belly down on the sidewalk, in a shady spot, to cool off. We moved ahead only when he showed me his willingness to do so and returned home to the air conditioning if he preferred.
The walk was always for Pete’s benefit, not mine. My job was to help him develop confidence, learn to habituate to things in his environment, and continually try to overcome the negativity bias he already had.
Over several months I observed how much calmer and more resilient Pete was during our walk-and-train sessions and asked the family how things had been going for them. They reported that Pete was far more relaxed in general, and they no longer had to worry about explosive outbursts of barking and pulling on the leash when fear triggers occurred.
Another winter passed and by March 2020 I was eager to enjoy our walks and looked forward to warmer weather. Pete impressed me with his steady progress and validated our methods. We typically encountered an average of three dogs in the neighborhood per session, yet I never saw Pete go over his emotional threshold or become reactive.
Then one day we faced a special challenge. We had walked two blocks away from Pete’s home and I paused to look down the intersecting street to my left. I saw a young lady walking her golden retriever in our direction and we stopped so I could engage Pete and evaluate which direction the pair were going to go when they reached the intersection.
That was when I heard a voice shouting from two houses behind the lady and her retriever. “Jake, stop! Come here Jake, get back here!”
“Jake” suddenly appeared, bursting from the front door of a house. He was a medium-sized black dog with an excited face and high flagging tail. He rushed to the sidewalk, spotted the retriever and raced forward. Within seconds Jake was pouncing on the retriever and the lady was caught in the middle of the fray.
Meanwhile Jake’s guardian was still shouting in the background, like an angry disembodied voice. I imagined that was the sort of ambush Pete had suffered on the occasions which convinced him that walking in the neighborhood was not safe.
I looked down at Pete, who was also watching the spectacle. Then he looked up at me and words of praised rolled across my tongue. “Good boy Pete! What a good boy you are! Let’s go.” We calmly turned about and headed home, and I steadily handed treats to my buddy. Because we had worked as a team, we avoided being the target of Jake’s mad rush.
When I looked back at the lady, I saw that she and her retriever had extricated themselves, and Jake was trotting back to his house. It seems that he was an overzealous greeter and had no aggressive intentions, but had he done the same thing to Pete, I doubt that Pete would have appreciated it.
I returned Pete to the safety of his home, and the comfort of the sofa. He showed no signs of stress and I beamed with pride. He and I had traveled a long way during his journey with fear and I enjoyed reporting our success to his family, later that day.
March 16, 2020 was the last time I saw Pete. The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly interrupted our walk-and-train schedule, but I stay in touch with his family and am happy to know that he is still doing well. Pete has joined Ranger, and other dogs that I was privileged to help, in overcoming his fears and gaining confidence. Leash reactivity is a common problem, and one that we can resolve, force-free.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2021, pp.38-40. Read the full article Pit Bull Pete: One Dog’s Journey with Fear.
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About the Author
Daniel H. Antolec CPT-A CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training in Brooklyn, Wisconsin. He also chairs the Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Committee and is a member of PPG’s steering committee.