Then I started to move away from the fence. I called his name, and he ran over to me to get his bite of banana. As he was eating it, I released him and told him to go back over to the fence and dogs. He LOVED this game, and was brilliant about coming away from the fence to me for the first time ever. I was so overjoyed that he was actually recalling away from barking, bouncing dogs that I let it go on a little too long and he got too excited and couldn't come away anymore. Even so, it was a HUGE breakthrough for us.
Spurred by this miraculous discovery, I started brainstorming how I could manufacture situations like this in which to practice. Certainly I can keep practicing with the neighbor dogs, but how can I translate this game to when we're out and about in the world?
Today after work, the perfect opportunity arose. Albee and I were out behind my building when he suddenly went stiff and frozen. "Oh no," I thought, "He sees a dog!" But then my trainer brain kicked in, and I loosened the leash (the other dog was far away, so no chance Albee could get himself into trouble) and busted out the banana I'd been carrying in my back pocket for just such a situation. I walked up to Albee and fed him a chunk of banana. That snapped him right out of his dog-staring reverie, and he started throwing behaviors at me: sit, swivel into heel. I asked him to look at the dog, then called his name and rewarded him mightily for turning back to me. I gradually increased the distance he had to come to get to me (as much as I could on a 6' leash!). The dog and its owner then walked out of sight behind a building. Albee was being an angel and I had plenty of banana left, so he and I speed-walked the opposite way around the building and caught sight of them as they came around. We continued playing "stare at the dog, then recall back to me" as the dog meandered in and out of view. The one and only time Albee barked was when the dog and its handler both ran to chase a squirrel, and even then it was just one little half-hearted bark as he was turning back to me.
It probably sounds silly to any of you who haven't owned a reactive dog, but this was a huge, huge, huge breakthrough for us. Albee's learned to be SO good around almost every distraction - squirrels, little kids, squealing college students, even other dogs in class settings - but other dogs outdoors are his kryptonite. I've been really struggling to figure out how to help him translate his in-class skills to outdoors, but it's so hard to set up training situations without recruiting friends to walk their dogs around aimlessly while I work.
Lessons I've learned:
1. Albee does a lot better when he has work to do. Having a concrete rule structure and a task to focus on really helps him ignore distractions. Just doing loose-leash walking or voluntary attention wasn't cutting it; he needs more engaging activities, and he needs me to engage him 100% in the work.
2. I need to use the big guns. Albee's not very foodie; he'll now eat lesser treats outdoors (he wouldn't eat at all around any kind of distraction when he first came to us), even around distractions, but there's no way he's eating that crap when there's a dog in view. I need to bring a banana with me every time we go out, and I need to practice getting it out and into his face quickly.
3. Keep the damned leash loose. One of my goals for this summer is to read Click to Calm (which I bought a year ago but haven't had time to read yet) and work some of the exercises with Albee. I need strategies for how to bail out of situations that are too much for Albee without having to bodily drag him away, which triggers his frustrated barking and rearing.
I am walking on sunshine! It may still be a long way away, but I've now seen that there is, in fact, a light at the end of our tunnel.