Rain’s friends, family, classmates, and long-time readers of Rain in the Forecast probably know that Rain and I visit our neighborhood park every weekday morning and have been doing so for the last three years or more. This is the time when Rain gets some physical and mental activity before I leave for work for the day. We work on training exercises as we are able, and as the park is open to the public it has also provided the opportunity to safely work on her reactivity.
It was a bit surprising then, to say the least, to get what I could only describe as a verbal tirade from a stranger at the park one recent morning. A person with her own dog, no less!
Rain and I were just about to start a few exercises on the play structure. I saw a person approaching the general vicinity and Rain shifted her focus away from me. Sending her away from me during times like this is something I don’t generally do, so we morphed into a game called “Look At That.” The game was originally from Control Unleashed, a book specifically about working with reactive dogs in agility. The point of the game, albeit counter-intuitive, is to increase the dog’s focus on the handler when there’s some sort of trigger or distraction present. I figured this was the best way to keep working with Rain until the person and her dog passed the area.
Instead, the person started shouting and approached us, stopping about ten feet away on the bark dust next to the play structure. And kept shouting for approximately ten minutes. Her accusations included that I was teaching Rain to attack her, that I am very clearly unloved in life, and that “everyone” thinks I’m rude.
What does “being over threshold” mean in dog circles? At least in Reactive Rover, a dog over threshold is barking, lunging, or otherwise reacting to some stimulus. It later occurred to me that this woman seemed to be over threshold herself.
We have encountered this individual before on our park visits in recent weeks. My general observation is that she wants everyone she encounters to interact with her in some fashion. Rain and I are not there for social time, we’re there to do our own thing and to work. As quietly as possible.
While this woman made her accusations and shouted at us for ten minutes (not an exaggeration), I patiently stood and waited. Her intent seemed to be to draw me in to some sort of confrontation—I recognized that and did not respond. My intent was to remain completely silent but when she made reference to going home to report me to the police, I couldn’t help it—”Yes! Please do that! Let the police deal with me!” I was 100% willing and able to talk to the police about my work with Rain and provide three years(!) of documentation and offer up testimony from people we have worked with and around during that time.
But still she shouted, for several more minutes after threatening to report me to the police.
Ten minutes of shouting?!?! What did Rain do during all this? I wasn’t paying close attention for obvious reasons, but early on Rain did bark a bit. After a few minutes even she got bored of barking. At some point I sat down because I wasn’t sure how long the lady would be shouting—with my face down at Rain’s level, she started kissing my cheek for a little bit, before giving up and just observing the scene. My guess is that she was as confused as I was.
Eventually the woman wore herself out, got all the vitriol out of her system, and left. I was glad it hadn’t taken “all morning” like she had threatened at one point. My first thought was to look at my watch and see how far behind our park schedule we were. It was too late to do our playground exercises or walk “the loop” so we skipped ahead. I thought Rain had probably gotten some new mental stimulation out of the ten minutes so we’d be okay.
A pair of maintenance workers arrived as we were heading out of the park about 15 minutes later. Even though Rain tends to bark when we’re in close range of park maintenance staff, I headed over and decided to just feed her a steady stream of cookies to distract her—I wanted to tell a human what had happened, for whatever it would be worth. They listened and encouraged me to write up a report on ParkScan, an online reporting system that sends the reports to “the right people,” quoth one of them. He was wearing a beekeeper’s hat and veil. Rain wouldn’t have liked the hat, but she was focused on all the cookies I was feeding her, just to make sure she kept quiet when I needed her to.
I thanked them and we headed home. I didn’t want to be late for work so my ParkScan report had to wait until later. Standing at my desk and rehashing the event is when I was able to start really processing—and I have been processing ever since. My coworkers gave me their ears and their jokes for the rest of that day. I lost sleep over the next few nights. I’ve had to press through some uncomfortable park interactions in the past and keep going, but this one has probably been the toughest I remember. All I really want is to not interact with this person, and that is the very thing she seems to want everyone to do—by force if necessary.
After a couple nights of stewing over things, I also had a different epiphany: people may not understand what Rain and I are doing as we work. Steven pointed out later that weekend, “to most people, dog training is just ‘sit’ and ‘shake.'” Since I’m responsible and know the consequences I would never let Rain get in a situation where she’s engaging in bad behavior (remember when she lost her off-leash privileges one summer after she went looking for spilled food in the grass one too many times?).
This hasn’t been a problem in prior years because before this past December our park had one to zero regular visitors during our visiting time (it’s 30 degrees and pitch black in February! we’re crazy! why would anyone else be this crazy?) but this year there have been more people visiting on a regular basis. Suddenly we’re drawing more attention to ourselves even though we’re not doing anything different—we’ve been visiting at the same time every day for years now.
A final realization: perhaps Rain has come so far with her reactivity training that she may not look like a reactive dog to the average person anymore! At agility that afternoon Linda and Jackie were remarking how far Rain has come with her noise and bluster. Rain still has her moments (see: new dogs in agility class, sighting a SKWERL, chasing a raccoon under the deck) but she is now capable of keeping up the appearance of being more or less a normal Aussie. It has just taken THREE YEARS of daily, frustrating work to get there. The new park visitors showed up at pretty much the right time—she probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it as well if they had started showing up any sooner.
It’s been over a week and we haven’t seen the doberman lady at all since that day. My nervousness has been a little better each morning as it’s time to harness Rain up and go about our daily business. I have learned to push through my fear over the years, to do the hard work that’s necessary. Only time will tell how this all shakes out.