We’re finally seeing light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and most of us are itching to get out and socialize. Our dogs, maybe not so much. After a year of various levels of quarantine, the return to “normal” may bring out new reactions in your dog, especially if you brought your pet home during the pandemic and this schedule and environment is all he knows. We’ve already touched on separation anxiety and mask wearing, but that’s just the beginning.
Pyrs have a strong guardian nature and take their jobs seriously. If your dog is barking incessantly at the neighbor’s backyard party or softball game, try taking him on a long lead and walk the entire perimeter, positioning yourself in between him and the fence. Using your position and verbal reinforcement like “Okay, good job, I’ve got this,” keep him moving with praise and “let’s go,” and eventually take him inside if he can’t relax.
Some of the socializing exercises that we reviewed in the December, 2020 newsletter article about surviving puppies are helpful, especially if they’re still going through the normal “fear periods.” PRACTICE. Let your dog inspect your old bicycle while it’s standing still. When you’re on a walk and see someone on a bike, click and treat. Try on different hats, sunglasses, hooded sweatshirts, to see how your dog reacts and get him to see someone “safe” wearing these items. In anticipation of encountering more people on walks, take your dog out, have a friend or family member your dog knows be out of sight around the corner, then approach your dog with happy talk and treats. (Hint: have lots of high-value treats in your pocket or treat pouch.)
Visitors can be perceived as a threat. Identify the areas (crate, bedroom, gated kitchen) that are your dog’s “safe spaces” and the approximate physical distance from new people or strange dogs that forms his personal “comfort zone.” Have friends or neighbors practice coming to the door, and have your dog sit and wait. If your dog is especially reactive, try taking him outside on leash to meet the visitor on more “neutral” ground, chat for a few minutes until he relaxes, then have your visitor enter the house first, while you keep talking to the visitor (and dog) and enter last. Keep the dog on leash, or if necessary, put him in a secure, gated area or his crate, someplace the dog feels safe and comfortable.
Many Pyrs will feel the need to “defend” you when other large dogs or strangers approach you directly on walks, and we are hearing this is happening more now with dogs who have been more isolated during the pandemic. Remember, they are a guardian breed, just doing what they feel is “their job.” In addition to using a head collar (like the Gentle Leader) or no-pull harness (such as the Sporn training harness), unless you’re looking for a social interaction, try to avoid “head-on” encounters (considered rude as a social greeting between dogs) and do your best to change the physical dynamic by crossing the street or changing direction, keeping yourself between your dog and the strangers. Try to direct your dog’s attention to you with a command (even a “sit” when you’re at a safe distance) and a high-value treat. Having your clicker handy can help gain his attention.
You will quickly learn what your dog’s “comfort zone” is in terms of a “safe” distance from strangers by watching for changes in his facial expressions and stance. Sometimes standing between your dog and whatever he considers a threat can reinforce his confidence in you and de-escalate the situation. Training with counter-conditioning techniques, using friends, or even going to a large parking lot, parking far away from others and walking your dog so he can see other people going back and forth, gradually moving closer as he relaxes, can start the process. Giving your dog the option of an alternate response/action can be helpful in many instances, from barking at the window to strangers approaching. At home, try a favorite toy. Inevitably, if you go out in public, you may be caught in an uncomfortable situation at some point. On the street, try to maintain a happy voice and don’t give your dog the message that the people or dogs are a threat by tightening the leash and pulling him close, something you may do without thinking. Try to keep a loose leash, divert his attention to you and reinforce calm behavior by giving treats or petting, and keep him moving in the direction you want to go. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell addresses this in her training books and DVDs for working with reactive dogs. If necessary, practice the emergency “U-turn” that is described in her book “Feisty Fido”: basically, it involves practicing an emergency pivot on leash in a relaxed environment like your backyard. Part of the trick is having your dog walking next to you (rather than in front) and getting him used to a sudden turn using a casual voice command and the pressure of your leg and using a treat as a “lure” to move in another direction, away from the “threat.” If, however, social interaction is your goal, proceed with caution and be sure everyone is in control and on board. Sometimes just standing a safe distance apart and speaking with the other owner for a few minutes, not encouraging the dogs, can give them a sense of calm, and they will proceed to ignore each other when they realize neither is a threat. That is a good start.
One more very important thing to know: Don’t push your dog past his limits and overwhelm him. Pushing a dog over his threshold for new experiences can be similar to “trigger stacking,” and will only backfire. If your dog gets too excited or reactive to people coming close to you or into your home, refer to some of the training videos by Roman Gottfried and other training tips on our website and watch NGPR’s Saturday broadcasts on Facebook Live to ask Roman questions in real time.