Leash walking: Lollie Wonderdog’s story

Yesterday we posted a lengthy account from our first foster’s forever-mama about Lily’s tough transition from our foster home to their forever-home. Our hope was that Jen’s very honest story would help others feel less alone — that transitions can be rocky and outcomes can still be good in the end. Some patience, love, and work with a dog who doesn’t understand what is expected can come a long way.

Below is the second half of Jen’s story, about teaching Lily how to relax around other dogs when out and about. Many dog people struggle with this issue — where their dog is too nervous or too excited to act cool when other dogs are around. Jen used a creative strategy to countercondition Lily to other dogs’ existence — she brilliantly took advantage of a dog park fence line to provide a steady supply of unfamiliar dogs at a controlled distance, so that she could work with Lily and not worry about the other animals at all. Read on for more:

To work on her excitement about dogs outside the house, I took her to the dog park. But no, not in the way that you’re thinking!

First we sat in the car a distance from the dog park. When we saw a dog — JACKPOT! Begin the string cheese stuffing in the slobbery dog’s mouth! We’d spend about 30 minutes each visit, eventually getting closer and closer to the actual park, WHILE SITTING IN THE CAR!! This was fantastic fun on beautiful spring days, jackpotting all the way.  Soon we were ready to get OUT of the car…. (I was no longer the weird girl stalking dogs at the park…) We would sit about 30 feet away from the fence and I would give her a bunch of treats for LOOKING at the dogs and not barking….after she calmed a bit we would practice some basic obedience commands that she could do easily.  Again, we would get closer and closer to the fence, jackpotting for looking at the dogs and remaining calm…after a few visits, we WALKED UP TO THE FENCE!!! I’m not going to lie, I was stressed, and of course a feisty little chihuaha came right up, barked at us and set us back a bit . . . but eventually Lily got to where she could sniff through the fence at the dogs IN the park.  I was kind of feeling like the local predator at the playground, lurking and peering in at the dog park dogs, since we never went into the dog park, but it was a great place to practice her tolerance around other dogs.

During this period, I would use the “turn around” technique while walking her. If we saw another dog, we’d just turn around to avoid any overexcitement. As we got closer to the fence at the dog park, we progressed on her walks. When other dogs came our way, I would have Lily sit and just feed her a constant stream of treats, while the dog went by. It forced her to focus on me, and she got something good for sitting and ignoring them.

Like many dogs, Lily didn’t great well nose-to-nose on leash, and I had no idea at the time how stressful this could be for dogs. I did a little research, and learned that some dogs just can’t sit while other dogs are going by, because sitting still is too stressful in social situations. Luckily Lily is food motivated enough that all her concentration was on the string cheese. It was at this point we suspected a bit of lactose intolerance on her part — No wonder Chick remembers her as “farty pants!”

When she seemed to be doing better we went on a parallel walk with our little friend Kipper. Kipper is a super feisty, high energy, Jack Russell/weiner dog mix. It went well! Lily no longer viewed Kipper as a snack. They began to play, and then slowly Lily started welcoming other dogs.

Back in December, we took Lily for her “Santa” picture, an annual fundraiser for the Montgomery County Humane Society. Lily slobbered like a maniac all over her old friend from the shelter, Santa Dave, and we were lucky enough to meet Juliana, foster mom to another MCHS dog, Baxter. We arranged a walking “date” to work on both dog’s issues and from there our dog hiking club, “Pittie Trails,” was born! 

photo courtesy Peace, Love, & Fostering

To help some of her still existent pulling-on-the-leash issues, we attended a drop in “leash manners” session recently. We spent some intensive time with a most wonderful trainer who gave some more great tips for walking — the ever frustrating but effective “stop and go no further when pulling,” and then the call her attention and go in a different direction when she is pulling. I learned to treat her for good walking and to reward her by letting her sniff things she wanted to “fire hydrants, random dog poo etc”….But best of all, Francine (of Francine’s Fun Walks,) emphasized that there are “training walks” and there are “exercise walks.” Essentially, it’s okay to put the gentle leader (the horrible looking head collar that she walks WONDERFULLY ON — thanks for the tip, Running with Squirrels) and take some time off of leash training and just walk! We’ve made a lot of progress by finally buckling down and doing the “no further progress” walks and I’m back to reeking of hot dogs, but we’re doing well!

I’m not by any means, saying any of this was easy.  Lily is a 60 pound hunk of muscular love. While we were working on the dog reactivity issues, we (sigh) haven’t worked on her people greeting manners.  She thinks that all people on the planet exist only to give her love and snuggles, and that every person wants her to jump up on them. I’m still a little embarrassed to have people come in the house still because she’s SO exuberant. I try to point out to people that isn’t it amazing that a dog that was tossed in a dumpster still LOVES people, but most people don’t see that, they simply see a spotted beast flying at them!

Through this work, I think we have curbed her desire to jump over our BRAND NEW 7 foot fence, which is a good thing, as I was going to have to bring some barbed wire home from work and coat the top of our fences . . . JUST KIDDING!!

Lily is a big huge, licking, stinking butt, monster commitment, but we adore her. And she has come a long way: Just last week she was attacked by a miniature schnauzer — yes, a 20 pound schnauzer attacked Lily on a run. The dog was off leash and came charging at us. I stopped running and panicked! Lily immediately sat down. The dog was baring her teeth, growling and then jumped on Lily. As this happened, I immediately saw headlines written all over this, if Lily reacted in any way to this off leash dog . . . The dog jumped all over Lily and she just sat there looking at me like an angel. After what seemed like forever, but was probably just a minute or two, the owner came flying out her door, yelling “OH MY GOSH! IS THAT A PIT BULL?!?!”  She came up to pull her schnauzer back, and as she did, the dog nipped her hand.  I suppressed a smile and said “yes, she is,” and led my well-behaved dog away.

43 responses

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! To Jen – for upholding your end of the bargain and not giving up on her, for teaching her and learning with her; for love being enough to want to overcome the struggle rather than retreat. To FosterCasa – well, for being the most amazing, wholehearted people who started it all. There is so much beauty in you all, makes me teary eyed day in and day out.

  2. Jen – this is such a great story, thank you for sharing it with everyone. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind that whenever you adopt a new pet, there is a period of transition for everyone involved, not just the animal. So often, dogs are returned to foster programs because their potential adopters aren’t able to see that they also play a crucial role in helping their new pet adjust to life in their home.

    I adopted an Australian Shepherd/English Setter mix about 6 years ago (lucky me, picking a herding dog mixed with a hunting dog… that’s led to some interesting times on its own!) and he also has nose-to-nose leash issues with other dogs. When we lived in North America, taking him to the dog park was absolutely out of the question. I would love to hear what commands and reassurances you gave to Lollie while sitting in the car/outside the park to help her learn the ropes 🙂

    Adopting a new pet sometimes isn’t easy – I know that you have had your challenges with Lollie, and I definitely am always training Happy out of some undesired behavior or other, but the reward in knowing how much our pets love us is thanks enough for me.

  3. Great blog, too many adopters think they can just slip the new addition into the family without putting in some work. But by putting in the time and energy early on they can have a great new family member who fits well into the family and community.
    Sounds like Jen is doing a great job and congrats to Lily for finding such a good fit, we hope to make it out to meet up with the pittie trails group on of these days

  4. Kudos to you, Jen, for taking the time and having the patience to work with Lily. She is absolutely beautiful and all of your hard work appears to be paying off. I especially enjoyed the last paragraph…..good job, Lily!!

  5. Aww Love it. Especially the ending where Lily just sat and the other dog was acting up. It happens to us all the time. My boy is about 80 lbs and the little dogs always attack him except he’s not as tolerant as Lilly he’ll attack back and he is lab/husky mix. I bet you were so proud of her. Sounds like you are doing wonders with her. So nice to hear. You should be very very proud of the work you are doing with her. She’s a definite sweetie.

  6. You should bask in the beauty of Lily’s interaction with the Schnauzer. A pop quiz and Lily passes with extra points! You were her teacher and she is your star pupil. And a huge thanks for committing to the time and energy it has taken to tame your big girl.

  7. What a great success story – It’s nice to hear that hard work and dedication pays off. I love that it ends on the high note of “yes, my amazingly well behaved and awesome dog is a pitbull, which you clearly think means ‘mean’, but your nasty aggressive dog is the one causing trouble.”

  8. Great post! we found a great agility/obedience trainer who loves our american bulldog/lab mix, the other lady we had been working with, not so much. After an intense bootcamp class last summer with our new trainer, with LOTS of focus work, impulse control, positive reinforcement and help of a gentle leader we’ve got a different dog 🙂 He’s got talent, speed and enthusiam for agility, if I can keep up. He’s even gotten to be so much better at sitting at the park and ignoring all the excitement, where before he would have turned himself inside out to greet folks and if another dog came out–we would have had to go home. I’m not going to lie, it’s been alot of work, but to have a good ambassador for a rescued dog makes it soo worth it.

  9. Love this, what a wonderful story. We struggled a lot when we first got our dog. He seemed to hit a wall at one point on the obedience training. But now we are so very glad to have him around.
    Also, I’m glad I’m not the only person who feels justified when a tiny dog tries to attack my 50 lbs beast and he barely reacts. We had a similar experience with a Pomeranian a while ago.

  10. What a great story. I wish all owners loved their pets as much as you do and were willing to go that extra mile instead of just giving up.

  11. Okay, can I start by saying I LOVE this!!! Second, I know all dogs are different, but Lily’s issues remind me SOOOOO much of the issues I (still) struggle with when it comes to my 60 pound hunk of over-excited, people exist to love on me, “why can’t I yank the leash out of your hand and go play with that dog down the street”, fur kid. Izzy is much like Lily in SO many many ways… I just got pregnant so I’m starting to realize I really need to dig in and resolve some of these issues before the baby comes. I’d love nothing more than to have both my dogs sweetly walking next to the stroller on a gorgeous fall day. So back to the basics it is!! Thanks for the awesome posts and keep them coming!! I’m going to use your training tips on my little disaster. 🙂

  12. The dog park fence thing is a great idea! I’m going to try that with Sadie, whose reactivity has increased lately and needs some extra attention. Thanks for the idea and thanks for sticking with it! Lily is an incredibly lucky dog to have found such an amazing forever family!!

  13. Dogs (well any pet) are a lot of work and a huge commitment, but worth every single minute. Thank you for not giving up on her! She’s awesome!

  14. Love the story ending! Billy has many faults but I have to say he’s always been incredibly forbearing when being attacked by the many off-leash chihuahuas that seem to pop up in our area.

  15. Amazing story!! Reading this I can feel the love you have for Miss Lily. She is truly blessed to have a family like yours and your family is just as blessed having a dog like Lily. If Miss Lily was like our girl she was probaly looking at you like Mom, do I really have to put up with this schnauzer?????

  16. Loving this story, and the ending is the best part!!! So glad this is working for you and Lily, I am taking tips from here to work with our new pup. Thanks so much for taking the time to write up your story, Jen!!

  17. Thanks for sharing your story, Jen! There is no doubt in my mind that Lily hit the jackpot with your family! I am sure Aleks was smiling from ear-to-ear when she read this update on Lily….this is what makes fostering worth it! 🙂

  18. I Love this story it gives me hope for my little spaz monster Kila, she also has to be center od attention at all times and is a bear on the leash and around other dogs, other than her sister Kula (who is pretty much a perfect angel), Kila is still young though so I know she will continue to improve, at least I hope she does =)

  19. Jen, you deserve a canine Nobel Prize! Your patience and commitment are absolutely awe inspiring. Especially since you have 1) kids, 2) a job and 3) Lily!

    And I can SO relate to the little dog story! Happens all the time with Petey and little dogs.

  20. More of these posts, please. I have learned so much in the last two days and even though I have a pretty easy dog, I can still use so many of these techniques.

    A sincere thank you to Jen, for being the kind of mom every dog should have, and for sharing her experience with us.

  21. I’m so proud of my little Lily! I know how hard it can be…my dog is far less manageable than Lily…I miss my baby but I still see her here everyday at work and at home I have more than one picture hung up of me and her! Hopefully I’ll see you again soon! Before Christmas hopefully!

    Santa Dave

  22. I just wanted to let you know, that you are doing a great job. I have an 10 year old Pit Bull. If more people trained their dogs/pits like this, then I would not have so much trouble finding a place to live or showing people that she is a great dog. Thank you!!!!

  23. This is exactly what I needed to read!!! My dog, Frankie, is very dog reactive, she believes all dog want to play with her. As soon as she sees another dog she freaks out. She gets so excited, she does this loud chattering sound and high pitched whine. When she realizes the leash and I are holding her back, she gets frustrated and takes it out on my other dog, Ollie, by jumping on him and growling.
    I love your story and your commitment to Lily and it is a great reminder that training a dog can be a long (& smelly) process. I really felt at a loss in dealing with Frankie’s craziness, but now feel excited to try your techniques.
    And thanks for the story about Lily and the schnauzer! It made me giggle out loud.

  24. Wonderful story! I need to use some of these measures with my own reactive pit.

    We did manage to overcome her jumpy people greetings by desensitizing her to arrivals. Mostly we had to advise everyone who came over to ignore her at first and talk only to us; so she would realize that arrivals were not “jackpots” for her to get attention. We were guiltiest of all – riling her up when we got home from work & getting her lathered up into a happy frenzy.

    I began walking straight to the kitchen counter when I arrived home with my back to her as I dropped off my keys & the mail & lunch cooler. When she settled next to me I would greet her calmly, at her level (careful not to get a black eye or bruised nose if she did jump at first!), then I’d let her out to do some business and we’d play in the yard. Now she approaches visitors for a sniff & some “love at the 2 foot level” or she heads to the back door to go outside & play.

    Now we need to work on her dog2dog manners. She has the same “issue” with dairy, so I need to go buy some hot dogs! Thank you for the inspiration & for not giving up on Lily!!

  25. YAY! Jen and Lily you are amazing and just exactly what this breed needs! Most people don’t realize that ALL dogs really need this amount of training and devotion.

  26. YOU – Jen – are a true testament to the all of us on what you can reap when you sew a seed into a loving pit bull. Thank you for devoting your time to this Lily and sharing your story that a pit bull that can be retrained even when the odds are stacked against her. You are a true gem.

  27. So awesome to read Lollie/Lily’s story of continuing adjustment. She is very fortunate to have someone like Jen who is so willing to work with her to overcome some obstacles.

    Often, with rescue dogs, I think we are so focused on the “happy ending” that we fail to realize that another chapter of the dog’s life is really just BEGINNING. And that no matter how awesome they are, they are still, essentially, a stranger in a strange land, and they need time, patience, and ongoing training to properly assimilate.

    Lily is a lucky girl! And Jen – YOU are AWESOME!

  28. I just love the story! My sister’s dog – now in doggie heaven – had behavior issues which were attributed by the animal psychiatrist to him feeling that he was human – solved by some intensive training on both the dog’s part and the family’s!

  29. GREAT POST!! I have so many of the same walking and dog reactivity issues that precious Lily has, so it was a real treat to get some guidance from someone with some real success! I’m more motivated to buckle down and get some training walks in, and I’m ready for the post-treat farts!!

  30. All I can say is, WOW! You have done a wonderful thing for Lily. I hope you have many happy years together.

  31. Wow, thank you for this! I’m going through the exact same thing with my dog and the dog trainer explained that we could use the dog park fence to help teach him to stay calm when other dogs are nearby. It’s so reassuring to hear the end result of that practice.

  32. Jen, thanks SO much for this post. I adopted my own 60 lb love bug in June. He was also abused but doesn’t seem to hold that against people since he’s sure that everyone would LOVE to meet him NOW. He has leash and other impulse issues and we are slowly working to get through things together. We have done some workshops and are making progress. Reading stories like this are so helpful! Aleks has been such a huge support and help for me also. Thanks for sharing your story.

  33. Thank you for sharing! But can you offer your advice? My dog gets very excited when she see’s other animals as well but doesn’t bark just pulls or does whatever to get to them. She scares people that don’t know her when she’s pulling towards their small dog. She is friendly even when approached by a barking chihuahua but she does react SOMETIMES. I’m not sure what because it is after the dog has approached and the sniffing has begun. Any advice on ignoring other dogs and cats and just moving forward?

    • Same thing- just work her on a loose leash at a distance she can handle, reward her for making good choices (ignoring, staying relaxed, looking at you), and gradually decrease distance as it becomes easier. It takes a of of patience. Best of luck!

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