To heck with heeling!
Sometimes a dog just needs to sniff around. Naomi shows us how to follow Ducky’s nose to control her fearful reactions.
I’m not trying to be funny, but we owe our dog an apology. All these years we’ve been walking her around the Falls, we’ve been pulling her past clues and information she desperately needed to make sense of her world. No wonder she was so reactive meeting people and other dogs. We’d be tetchy, too, if we were being led around blindfolded.
Humans are sight creatures and dogs live by smells – of course we knew that already. We’d taken a Nose Work class, after all, we felt we’d gone above and beyond indulging Ducky’s natural instincts. But our trainer Naomi Rotenberg (owner of Praiseworthy Pets) quickly diagnosed a crucial blind spot: on walks, Ducky was always following our lead, not enjoying her surroundings.
Sure, she could keep her head up with a nice loose leash. But ignoring all these wonderful, interesting smells was stressing her out, big-time. Our first step in managing Ducky’s reactivity, Naomi explained, would be giving our dog as much time as she needed to explore and understand her environment. We started with a long line in McMichael park.
You’d think a dog used to walking on a 4-foot lead would run wild when offered 15 feet of freedom, but nope. After a quick test to see how far the lead would go, Ducky kept a close heel with Naomi, who really had to encourage her to sniff around. “Go play!” she’d say and Ducky would stare up at her with nervous, expectant energy. “I’m trying to get her to lead the walk, but she doesn’t know what to do, “ Naomi observed.
Gradually, with more walking and gentle prompting, Ducky’s nose got going and her mood perked up immediately. She’d check back in with Naomi when she found a good scent, with a new little wiggle in her step we’d never seen before. She scratched at the base of a tree, and sniffed with ears back, eyes closed, and tail wagging. Ducky was in heaven!
We, however, were put on task at the other end of the line. Naomi needed to teach us to read Ducky’s body language for signals she can use to tell us when she’s OK with a particular stimulus, and when she’s not. Wait, what? She’s going to talk to us? “Sure,“ Naomi said, “She’s been talking to you all along – look.”
Sniffing, for instance. It’s not always a carefree activity. When faced with a stressful situation, a lot of dogs (Ducky included) will distract themselves by sniffing whatever’s at hand – like a person who whips out their phone to avoid talking to someone.
As we watched Ducky closer, we noticed other nervous tics, too: tensing, lip-licking, and “whale eye” (showing the whites of her eyes). Ducky also seems to flatten her left ear back at a weird angle, and perhaps her most obvious sign of all is literally moving her body away from the stressor. We see any of that, we give her all the space she needs.
Naomi also pointed out Ducky’s positive indicators, because sometimes our shy girl seeks to interact. These signs are pretty easy to read: tail wags, flat ears, happy eyes, pulling us towards something, of course. Or – more likely – someone. There are some people in East Falls that Ducky looooooooves. Which brings us to our third issue for Naomi: greeting behavior. Ducky’s idea of saying hello is to freak out and pee on herself (while she’s rolling on your shoes). Ugh.
So that’s our next hurdle. Meanwhile, our daily walks with Ducky still include some heeling but for the most part we’re following her nose, giving her plenty of time to sniff to her heart’s content. And when we see signs of anxiety, we protect her from it – we move her away. “All this practice is like money in the trust bank,” Naomi explained.
Ducky is learning that we’re listening, finally. We not going to let other dogs or humans all up in her grill, unless she ready for them. And as we work on our new skills, she’s getting more relaxed, more social, more like the goofy girl she is at home.
To get started on your own dog’s transformation, schedule a free phone/video consultation at PraiseworthyPets.com. Naomi offers day training, private coaching, pre-adoption support, and “family” training which focuses on kids’ interactions with pets. Mention Ducky, and she’ll knock $50 off your invoice!
Follow Praiseworthy Pets on YouTube for Naomi’s adorable “Dog Behavior Translated” videos. And learn more about her training from our coverage with Ducky on EastFallsLocal.com.
Naomi Rotenberg (MA, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA) comes to your home & works with your pet one-on-one over a series of weeks — then transfers her handling skills to you. Serves Main Line, Center City, and NW Philly neighborhoods (including East Falls, of course) firstname.lastname@example.org/215-346-6088