Click here for Part 1 of Chunk’s story. Now on to Part 2…
When you own a dog in the suburbs (as both Mr. S and I did growing up in NJ), the chore of walking the dog is a sporadic, when-you-have-the-time, optional event. The bathroom is a private fenced in yard, just on the other side of the back door – no human participation required. When you own a dog in the city, walking the dog is a necessity (unless you do that wee-wee pad thing, in which case, gross). The bathroom is every single tree and garbage bag, and the journey goes on and on until the highly anticipated #2 comes out. You find yourself trudging through rain, sleet, and snow saying, “YOU BETTER POOP ON THIS TREE BECAUSE I AM NOT CROSSING FIRST AVENUE.”
I tell you all this because had we adopted Chunk into a sprawling suburban home with a six-foot privacy fenced-in backyard, maybe his leash aggression wouldn’t have been that big of a deal and maybe we wouldn’t have sought out training to correct it. But since we adopted him into our NYC studio, he was on a leash at least two or three times a day, crossing paths with many other Upper East Side dogs on the narrow sidewalks, and having varying degrees of meltdowns along the way.
After witnessing Chunk’s freak out on the first morning we got him, Mr. S captained the majority of our family walks and I played wingman, constantly on the lookout for large dogs that might trigger an aggressive reaction. We never realized how many gigantic dogs lived within a two block radius of our apartment until we had to run interference on every single one of them. If Chunk caught sight of a large dog before we could redirect our path, he’d lunge and unleash a slew of barking profanities, leaving gaping onlookers in his wake (not to mention the dagger eyes we’d get from the other dog’s owner). Smaller dogs elicited a less severe stress reaction – sudden whimpering and jerky pulling. It wasn’t aggressive, but it certainly didn’t give the other owner the sense that Chunk was a friendly dog.
Of course there were times when Mr. S couldn’t walk Chunk and the task was left to me. When we first decided to adopt a dog, I imagined leisurely strolls with our new dog, me enjoying a cup of Pinkberry with the leash dangling loosely from the crook of my elbow, dog matching my pace step for step, looking up to me every once in a while in case I dropped a bit of frozen yogurt. YEAH RIGHT.
After at least a five minute pep talk to psyche myself up, I’d lace up my sneakers (walking Chunk required the proper footwear – I once walked him in my standard ballet flats and almost face planted on the corner of 2nd Avenue), fasten his Halti and wrap his leash no less than three times around my wrist. And I wouldn’t really call what we were doing “me walking the dog.” It was more like “Chunk pulling the girl” as I was usually flailing at the other end of his leash, at the mercy of Chunk’s every urge to sniff and pee. In contrast to how affectionate and snuggly he was indoors, it was as if I didn’t exist to Chunk when we were outside. I’d call his name, he would ignore. I’d tell him to stop, he would continue barreling down the sidewalk, as far in front of me as the length of the leash would allow. If we saw another dog during the walk, we’d both immediately tense, me bracing myself mentally and physically for an angry tantrum, Chunk barking and clawing his way to the offender. The stress traveled through the leash, each of us contributing to the other’s anxiety.
I’m sure it looked bad: little girl can’t control her big, scary, dangerous dog. I got my fair share of glares and shaking heads, and I even heard someone lament, “They let anyone own a pit bull these days.” Part of me wanted to tell him to f*ck off and another part of me wanted to run away in shame. I did the latter. Needless to say, our walks were anything but leisurely – they were stressful, quick, and monotonous (Chunk seemed less agitated on streets that we walked regularly vs. uncharted territory).
We turned to Kate, a trainer that had been working with Chunk while he was in foster care. Our adoption fee included three free sessions with Kate and we were comforted that she already had a working knowledge of Chunk’s issues. She further explained Chunk’s leash aggressive (aka leash reactive) behavior noting that it generally it doesn’t mean “I WILL MURDER YOU” but rather stems from a place of fear and frustration combined with the feeling of being restricted. Chunk sees a large dog, he becomes afraid and, due to the restraint of the leash, he feels like he has to make himself seem as scary as possible so that the offending dog does not come any closer – hence all the ferocious barking and lunging. It all made sense to Mr. S and me – Chunk couldn’t be more calm and relaxed indoors, but once he was outside on the leash, it was like he was a different dog. Based on his erratic and frantic behavior, it didn’t seem like Chunk was enjoying the walks any more than we were. While other dogs looked calm and carefree, he looked nervous and scared. Without knowing Chunk’s full history from puppyhood, we’ll never know the root cause of his leash aggression, but our research tells us that it can result from poor socialization or a traumatic event.
Would training help Chunk’s leash aggression? Kate’s answer was a tentative yes. First Chunk needed to master more basic commands, build a drive for an outdoor reward, and create positive associations with other dogs. These would be the building blocks to correct Chunk’s leash aggression but until those were mastered, she could show us how to better manage Chunk on our walks. Kate employed positive reinforcement training with the help of a clicker and treats. If Chunk performed the task, we clicked the clicker, and promptly followed up with a treat. Eventually, the clicker would be the reward and treats would be unnecessary. (Still makes no sense to me how a dog would be satisfied with just a clicking sound and no treats, but what do I know.)
On our first day of training, Kate came to our apartment and demonstrated the “look” command that she had previously taught Chunk. She made it seem so easy. “Chunk, look.” He turned his head to look at her, ::click::, treat. Mr. S and I were amazed. We moved outdoors to a quiet, relatively empty section of sidewalk, and again Kate commanded Chunk to look. Chunk was clearly much more distracted outdoors, his responsiveness to the clicker and treats not as immediate as when we were inside. Kate had to lure his head towards her by passing a treat in front of his nose. Reluctantly, he turned his head back to look at her. ::Click::, treat. The key to clicker training was in the timing – it had to be exact so that Chunk would link the positive clicking sound with the action he just completed.
When it was our turn to try, Kate handed the leash, clicker, and treats to me. Notice how that is three items, yet I only have two hands. I was having difficulty holding onto everything securely and my fumbling meant my clicker timing was off – too soon, too late, oops I dropped a few treats (which meant Chunk got rewarded for doing absolutely nothing).
Inevitably, a dog approached the area where we were training. “There’s a dog coming,” I said gravely. It had become my habit to announce any animal sightings because “if you see something, say something.” With small dogs it was more of a precaution, like, “This is a public service announcement, French bulldog at 2 o’clock. Have a nice day.” With large dogs, it was more like, “MAY DAY, MAY DAY, ALL HANDS ON DECK, RETREAT, RETREAT!!!”
Kate saw this as a training opportunity. Part of correcting Chunk’s leash aggression required creating positive associations with other dogs to ease his fear. That entailed rewarding Chunk with treats whenever he saw another dog, so long as he didn’t completely lose his shit. The approaching dog was a little one (thank goodness) and Chunk spotted it at the end of the block with no visible stress reaction, so I tried to give him a treat. Instead of taking it, he moved his head away so that my hand wouldn’t block his view of the little dog that was encroaching on his personal space. Now that I think back to it, the whole thing must have looked really hilarious: Chunk dodging his head and doing everything he could to to keep a clear line of sight on the little dog while I was trying to force feed him his reward (“Look Chunk, a treat, look, treat, yum, eat it, yummmmm, come on, eat it, EAT IT!”). When he could no longer take the anxiety, Chunk started to whine. Kate instructed me to stop trying to reward him because we shouldn’t reward unwanted behavior. Eventually, a large dog passed and Chunk, predictably, completely lost his shit. At that point Kate said it was probably time to end our session since at that mental state, Chunk wouldn’t absorb any of the lessons we were trying to impart.
Our homework included working on the “look” command outdoors with the clicker and filling Chunk’s memory bank with positive doggie interactions. Also, a key component to Chunk’s training was building a drive for something – something that Chunk wanted more than ripping a German shepherd’s head off. As it stood, nothing was more appealing than other dogs on the street, and we’d never be able to command Chunk’s attention if we didn’t have something he wanted more than all the other distractions. Kate suggested special treats – hot dogs, roast beef, or cheese – specifically to be used for outdoor training only. The goal was that we’d be able to divert Chunk’s attention to the roast beef and away from the dogs that triggered aggressive reactions. In the meantime, Kate advised us to avoid large dogs, cross the street or walk in between the cars if we saw one up ahead, and try late night walks instead of prime time walks (basically all things we were already doing).
We made some progress with “look.” Chunk would throw us a quick glance (knowing he would get a treat) before returning to his own personal agenda, but we never got his full undivided attention outdoors. We failed miserably at positive doggie interactions. Most of the time Chunk would react to dogs as far away as across the street or at the other end of the block, giving us no time to reward him before his crying and barking escalated. And building a drive? Yeah, no. Mr. S and I practically covered ourselves in hot dogs and roast beef every time we went for a walk, and we were still second string to any other dogs within earshot.
We worked with Kate for four months (far beyond the three free sessions) with very little progress. We did sessions at her downtown location where she had more training tools, but Chunk never showed enough aptitude for the basic lessons, and so we couldn’t progress to correcting the issues that were really impacting our day to day. It was frustrating for all parties involved and eventually Kate mentioned the option of medication. Apparently there is such a thing as doggie Xanax. No matter how desperate our situation, Mr. S and I were really apprehensive about meds – Chunk was already so mellow indoors (he hardly ever wanted to play inside) and we worried that medication would just turn him into a zombie. Instead, we attributed Chunk’s lack of progress to the irregular training (we met with Kate only twice a month) and our own shortcomings in properly training him during our walks. Kate’s studio was quite far from our apartment and so we decided to cut ties with her, seeking out a local option who would be able to incorporate training into regular daily walks.
But we ended up stalling on finding a new trainer for a few months. Partly because we couldn’t get any vetted recommendations for a trainer on the UES who had experience with leash reactive dogs, and partly because we got very good at managing Chunk’s outbursts during walks and had come to terms with the fact that Chunk was not a pack dog. As Chunk learned to trust us over the months, his aggressive behavior became less and less violent. Don’t get me wrong, there was still a lot of barking and lunging and scolding stares, and I was still ducking behind parked cars to avoid large dogs, but we had grown accustomed to our new normal. Plus, he was just so darn lovable indoors – it was easy to forget the “problems” we had outside.
Mr. S and I developed an afternoon walking schedule, alternating days between who had to return home during lunch time to relieve Chunk. After a few months, the schedule began to take its toll on us – there were days one of us couldn’t make it last minute because of work obligations, which put the onus on the other to rush home. Chunk and I were returning to our apartment after one of my afternoon shifts when we saw a large Rottweiler up ahead. I was all too familiar with this particular dog because he was Chunk’s mortal enemy, evoking the most immediate and vicious reaction from Chunk any time we spotted him. Following the logic of leash aggression, it made sense – the Rottweiler easily had 40 lbs on Chunk and towered over him. I knew that he lived in the building a few doors down from us and slowed my pace, hoping that the Rottweiler and his human would head home so that we didn’t have to cross paths. No such luck. Chunk spotted his arch nemesis from across the street and the half-crying/half-barking began. I led Chunk off the sidewalk and to the other side of the parked cars, blocking his view of the rottie and walking as quickly as possible to the safety of our apartment.
In NYC, strangers only talk to you for two reasons: (1) to ask you for money or (2) because they’re lost. So it caught me off guard when the human attached to public enemy #1 called out to me over the parked cars,”Hey! Hey, hi!” I reluctantly stopped, politeness getting the better of me, “Uh, hi…” Is this guy seriously trying to talk to me? Can’t he see I’m risking my life in the middle of the street just to avoid him and his dog?
Chunk’s crying and lunging started to intensify and I struggled to maintain the facade of a person in control of her dog. The rottie’s human saw right through me, “I’m a dog trainer. I can help you with him. This is Bear (pointing to the Rottweiler) and he used to be just like that. I’ve been training him for a year now.” I looked over skeptically at Bear – a humongous angel sitting calmly and patiently at his side, and doubtfully compared him to Chunk – wheezing, eyes wild, and the leash pulled so taut that the Halti was digging into his face.
His human continued (still calling out over the cars – there was no way I was getting any closer to them), “Yeah, I don’t usually approach people like this, but I’ve seen you around and I know I can help you guys out.” I cringed at the realization that of all the thousands of people traipsing around the UES, this person could recognize me as “that girl that clearly needs help with her dog” – so much help, in fact, that he could no longer remain a silent bystander.
Wanting the conversation to be over as quickly as possible, I yelled back to him, “Uh ok, do you have a card or something?” I stopped short of saying, “If you do, just throw it over here.”
“No I don’t have any cards on me, but just Google ‘City Dog Pack’, that’s me. The first consult is free.”
“Ok, thanks, bye,” and I hurried away with a two-handed grip on Chunk’s leash.
From a quick Google search of City Dog Pack, Mr. S and I were pretty impressed. Miguel, the owner and good Samaritan I spoke to that day, is an ex-Marine who had worked with military dogs while overseas. From what we could tell of his website he seemed to run a close-knit dog walking business in and around the UES, and his Instagram showcased quite the cast of characters that made up his clientele. We decided that we had nothing to lose by taking him up on the free consultation and if anything, perhaps we could have him walk Chunk in the afternoons so that we didn’t have to do the lunch time routine anymore.
Oof…I intended for this to be a two-part story, but seems like a Part 3 is in order. Up next, we find a training method that works for Chunk and Bear shows him how it’s done.