Romeo and I attended our Rally drop-in class recently. (February 2012) The last time we were there, it was crowded which resulted in my post about looking out for your dog's safety. This time, there were only four of us along with the instructor and her assistant and their five dogs. It was much more relaxed than the previous session. I felt calmer, and I could clearly see Romeo was calmer as well.
Prior to this class, I kept Romeo working almost non-stop for the entire hour-and-a-half class. If allowed to focus for too long on another dog, he moves farther from “thinking mode” and more into high arousal/reaction mode. He can be a very intense little guy. Which is probably no surprise to those of you who know him!
This was the first class that Romeo was able to sit and watch a couple of the dogs run the course – and remain relaxed. It was nice to see him watch other dogs without getting too aroused. It's something he has a difficult time doing. It might seem like a simple feat, but I assure you that for Romeo it is not!
It made me realize just how much he NEEDED me to be working with him during those past sessions. He normally is pretty focused on working with me during these sessions. I don't believe it's because he is highly food-driven. He likes treats, but when it comes to other dogs, the treats have never been that motivating. It helps calm him to be able to focus on me and earning treats. I believe he chooses to work and stay focused on me to help himself control his anxiety in that environment. I'm not trying to say he consciously understands that focusing on me helps him remain calmer, but I do believe on some level he understands that he can shut out some of the anxiety he feels around other dogs by staying tuned in with me.
Part of teaching Romeo to stay focused on me through distractions such as other dogs is about him learning to make good choices and be a well-behaved dog. Part of staying focused on me is about helping him to feel safe and relaxed under greater and greater distractions. When he does feel overwhelmed, he has options. And the best options always involve turning to me for help.