|These are not actually my dog-walking shoes...|
Today I want to talk about the cautious and sometimes nimble way that walks with Ruby need to be navigated - what I like to call "Defensive Dog Walking." As Ruby is not my first reactive dog, and we have now been together for six months, I don't spend a lot of time any more feeling sorry for myself or dwelling on the past. The most important thing for me is to keep Ruby safe and comfortable, and I've adapted our lifestyle as much as possible to make that happen. People with relaxed, well-socialized, confident dogs (like the ones that sometimes run toward us off-leash with the shouted assurance that "it's okay, he's friendly!") may not understand the adjustments we have to make on a day-to-day basis, but I can guarantee that everyone with a reactive dog can. For us, this is the new normal.
My walks with Ruby recently have been fairly uneventful, since the majority of them are in the dark, cold winter evenings when we don't encounter many others. Some of these walks consist of tromping through the snow together in my snow boots, letting her follow the rabbit trails that criss-cross the lawns. As the warmth and light return, we will have to step up our game, lace up the running shoes, and tackle the triggers with lots of treats and counter-conditioning.
Despite often being overwhelmed and overstimulated by the outside world, Ruby is always excited to go for a walk. She bites the toes of my shoes and pulls the laces out of my hands. She knows to wait behind me as we exit my patio gate - I do a quick scan of the parking lot to make sure it's all clear. Lately we've been staying primarily within my town-home complex, which allows us to wander through the buildings without the traffic of major streets. There are several playgrounds where we sometimes stop to practice "over," "under" or "paws up" on the slides and jungle gyms. We have a nice neighborhood for walking to the west, but it requires a busy street crossing where there is invariably a noisy bus or motorcycle passing by or a jogger in the crosswalk. There is also a beautiful open space park to the south, but it adjoins a bike path and a mountain bike course. Bikes are one of Ruby's worse triggers, along with skateboards. At least with skateboards we can hear the wheels clattering from a quarter-mile away and make an escape. With the wheeled nemeses and with dogs, we are still at the stage where avoidance is the best policy. We practice emergency U-turns and creative re-routing. If we find ourselves in close quarters in a pinch, I've discovered that picking her up can help diffuse the situation, and I'm lucky she's small enough that I have this option.
As for people, we have started to make some great progress as long as they are moving at a normal walking pace (joggers are another story - Ruby is very sensitive to motion), using the trusty Treat Toob filled with peanut butter and a version of the Look At That game (I say "Who's That?"). I can usually gauge whether Ruby will be okay with someone approaching or whether we need to increase distance. People wearing hats, bulky clothing or carrying something are usually cause for elevated concern. There is also trigger stacking to consider. If Ruby has seen a dog at a distance, and maybe passed two pedestrians without issue, that third pedestrian may be pushing things. There is no such thing as a leisurely walk - I must be scanning the horizon, thinking ahead, watching Ruby's body language and planning for management or escape. They aren't always easy shoes to walk in, but the learning process keeps me on my toes, and most importantly, walking alongside my favorite red-and-white companion.