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Mackin the Bubba: Socialization for Reactivity

21

February 22, 2015 by Julia

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a two-day Advanced Socialization seminar with Chad Mackin of Pack to Basics. The idea behind his approach is that we can harness a dog’s social (pack) drive to help them work through their behavior issues. The seminar was geared towards professionals but a handful of us were pet owners who wanted help with our dogs.

The BMOD program we’ve been attending at Finish Forward Dogs incorporates some of Chad’s methods in addition to Kayce Cover’s conditioned relaxation. My goal for the seminar was to get Chad’s perspective and build on Dash’s progress. My hope was that we would take a significant step forward in both my understanding and his behavior. I believe we achieved both my goals and hopes.

Dash the Boxer listens to hallway traffic in a hotel room.

Appropriately alert.

Our first challenge came before the seminar began. This trip down to Kingston was our very first “solo” trip together. I call Dash a sexist because typically when Aaron is away from the house, Dash is on alert. He seems to think he has to step up guard duty when it’s just him and the “girls.” So I was ready for a rough time spending two nights in a hotel that we’d share with most of the other seminar participants and their dogs. But, as he likes to do, he proved that he was capable of more than I expected. Not that it should be a surprise – we’ve put in the foundation work. He settled without much fuss, could be called off the door when there were barks and bumps in the hall, and he was very responsive to reminders to get “easy.”

After a half-day of presenting, the balance of the seminar’s time was broken up into socialization sessions and rest/debrief periods. During a session, the humans and dogs walk a large circle around the room and adjustments are made to help the dogs and group at large attain a calm, steady state. If a dog was having trouble, Chad would move the dog to the center of the circle to help them acclimate and settle.

The dogs in the seminar were split into three groups – they weren’t named but I’ll call them stable, iffy, and ut oh. Dash was a group 3 dog, but not like the others. He doesn’t have a bite history and hasn’t shown intent to harm. In fact, he’s been described as having a solid temperament. However he becomes hyper-adrenalized very easily and has a low frustration tolerance, which has the potential to be dangerous.

To say I was nervous was an understatement. I wanted so badly for this seminar to make a difference for Dash and I wanted Chad to understand him. Despite trying to restrain myself, I suspect I was “that” person. The one who bends the presenter’s ear during breaks and tells everyone about their very special dog.

When it was finally Dash’s turn, I took some deep breaths and tried to handle him calmly. We made it from the crowded crate room into the main room without incident. After a couple of moments in the presence of 30+ news humans and a handful of new dogs, he blew up. It is hard to describe what Dash looks like when this happens, and while it would be helpful, I’ve never gotten video. I’m sure to an outsider he doesn’t look like a dog with a good temperament as he roars in frustration and lunges at dogs and humans alike.

Dash participating in a social at the Chad Mackin seminar.

Watching everyone go ’round 
(photo credit: Krista Milito)

Chad stepped up, took the leash, and walked to the center of the room while Dash jumped and mouthed at him. What happened next is hard to describe because so very little actually happened on the surface. Chad handled the leash, talked quietly, and Dash just… leveled out. No jumping, no lunging, no vocalizing.

After some time acclimating, he was able to join the circle and even had brief, appropriate interactions with some of the stable dogs who were off-leash. A short while later, Chad handed the leash back to me. Dash and I began making our way around the circle together. Dash looked up at me every few steps and I could swear his facial expression matched how I felt. A bit of disbelief mixed with pride. “I’m doing it, do you see me doing it? Am I doing OK?” I quietly assured him that he was doing great. We navigated the rest of the round without issue.

Talking to Chad during the break (see, I couldn’t help myself) he agreed that he’d seen what I was talking about – but he also saw how much Dash was feeding off me and how well Dash responded to calm, consistent handling. Despite my best efforts, I was obviously wound tight and Dash was almost using that as his cue to act out. In short, Dash could do the work but we needed practice so that I could “calm the hell down.”

Dash sitting against my feet during socialization

I am home base.

The following round, Chad decided that Dash and I start out together in the center of the circle. After seeing that he could do it, I was able to bring Dash into the room and work on keeping him calm for the few moments before everyone started to move. He glanced at several dogs but didn’t “lock and load” and I praised him for looking away. We took our place in the middle of the circle and I did my best to stay calm. People passing would give me little reminders – relax your hand, take a deep breath – and I’d smile and do my best. To his credit, Dash remembered his earlier lesson from Chad because I really only had to “be there” for him. He watched and checked in with me and watched some more. At one point he turned and sat on my feet, keeping me close while watching everything around him. He was nervous and it was obviously hard, but he was doing it.

It didn’t take long before we got the all-clear to join the circle. Dash continued to do a good job. During both the second session and the last session, he “asked” for time outs from the group. Asking to pause at a water bowl or take for a quick pee break in the fenced area adjacent to the room. Earlier in the day, one of the dogs that was off-leash had repeatedly hopped on a raised bed in the corner, settled herself, then rejoined the group. Towards the end of Dash’s second session, he began to look meaningfully at the bed. I decided to bring him around the circle one more time and let him choose our direction at that corner. He got on to the bed and faced the room, looking tired but interested. I stood beside him and watched quietly. He began looking at me, then at the chair next to the bed, then back at me. As soon as I sat, he moved into a down and settled with a small grunt. He repeated this at the end of his third (and final) session, settling and watching the group. He didn’t want to leave the room, but he needed space.

Dash walking in social.

Get along, little doggy.

The remarkable thing about this seminar and our experience is how much work the dogs did and how little the humans did.  We acted as guides rather than directors. The dogs’ own social inclinations drew them to participate with even loose dogs choosing to circle and keep pace with the group. Dash’s issue, simplified, is that he is a “frustrated greeter” – he is very social, but lacks skill in managing his excitement. Even at the start when he stood in the middle with Chad, he showed that he wanted to move with the group and follow the pattern. He just needed guidance to contain himself so he could do it.

 

We're odd, Chad's awesome.

We’re odd, Chad’s awesome.

At the end of seminar, Chad broke owners he typically sees into two groups – those who think their dog is great but has issues, or those who think their dog is a terror. And there is a tendency for people to have it backwards.

I would put myself in a third group – I think Dash is great… and an asshole. We aren’t a pair that tends to fit the mold and that is something I’m learning to appreciate about us.

We may be odd, but don’t count us out.


21 comments »

  1. Jana Rade says:

    Cookie has a bit of reactivity issue too. Mostly because she really wants to interact with everybody and every dog and doesn’t always get to do that. And she flips. We took a great class too.

  2. Carleen says:

    One of my dogs is moderately reactive. I have thought about doing a workshop such as this with him.

    • Julia says:

      I’d recommend it. Dogs who came to learn (not including the stable base group) ranged from those who just get a little too excited to dogs with bite histories.

  3. Cathy Armato says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences at this wonderful seminar with us, what a great opportunity! It’s so true that our dogs pick up on our energy and react accordingly. Ramaining calm and positive is so important, it’s always on my mind when I take my Therapy Dog on visits.

  4. Dogvills says:

    This looks like a seminar my dogs could use

  5. Robin says:

    That looks like a really cool seminar. Dash is a very handsome pup even if he is a bit unruly at time. 🙂

  6. Ruth Cox says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your time with Dash and Chad’s seminar. I would love to do something like this. I know from my own experience with dogs that mine will feed off of my mood so that result did not surprise me. It’s just difficult at times to keep ourselves in check so the dogs will stay in check.

  7. Abby Chesnut says:

    I would love to take a seminar like this! My girls do not do too well around other dogs. They do better when they are separated so I think they feed off each other and just go crazy when they see another dog.

  8. Great article, and kudos to you for taking the time and energy to help your dog be the best he can be.

    –Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

  9. Jana says:

    totally! mine is an asshole as well, I use percentages as he improves, he’s down to 65% asshole but a great working dog.

  10. gopats says:

    Julia, I am so sorry you have not gotten the help you and your team need. I suspect that where you are training will continue not to be able to give you the info you need. It is also difficult to restructure the environment you were in for continued trsining. You should really look for better trainers, who can help you work up to real life situations that you are able to duplicate.

    • Julia says:

      Surely you are being sarcastic? I’ve had Dash for 8 years and the last 8 months with these wonderful people have gotten us further than anything else.

  11. go_pats says:

    No, I wasn’t. I would have thought you would have received that common sense information about your emotions affecting your dog well before this.

    • Julia says:

      I knew that long before I met any of the folks I’m working with now. I knew it before I even owned Dash. But knowing something and understanding exactly how and how much your emotions are affecting your dog in the moment is something different. An outside perspective can be very valuable for that.

      • gopats_500 says:

        Good. I hope they gave you a well detailed training plan for forward movement at the seminar, and at your training facility. I just feel bad for drop in people, who do not find the help they need to make this a process that moves along at an efficient rate. Especially after eight years of not finding the answer… Although I guess the process of just getting out more will enrich this dog’s life in of itself. Just seems better could be done.

        • Julia says:

          Part of why we’ve gotten so much further is the fact that there *is* a support system in place. The seminar gave us a boost in confidence & excellent information, but we’ll be continuing our work at Finish Forward.

  12. This sounds like a fabulous program that Kronos and I should consider going through-thank you for sharing your experience.

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