So Sagan had a pretty crappy time at the race we went to tonight. What is normally an OK distance away from people and dogs wasn't. While I had run the course before and thought it would be pretty conducive to a good experience for him, I really didn't think about the bigger picture that this run was through a suburban area with onlookers at the edges of yards (people who like staring at the 2 or 3 runners with dogs).
I've thought a lot about the strategies I've tried (look at that, look at me, behavior adjustment training, counter conditioning, etc.). I also did a little bit of searching tonight, and I think I've arrived at a cohesive plan for where to go from here. To this point, I've tried to broaden the number of tools I've had to deal with his reactivity, but I'm now beginning to realize some of these things work better than others for him. I need to dump some of these things and redouble my efforts on others. As I'm reading online, it really does seem like I should be further than this right now. With almost a year and a half of very concerted, positive-style training and behavioral work, ....... we should really be at a more consistent place.
1) Continue control unleashed. This is one of the best opportunities for Sagan to practice self control in a VERY stimulating, but safe way. I need to do this until I have some pretty predictable self control on his part in a variety of situations.
2) Dump Look at That. He is "trained" perfectly to do this. I don't think, however, it lowers anxiety. The only benefit is the fact that he is conditioned to look at me after the click. The rationale for this is that the dog is anxious and needs to get information about his environment. I really don't think he needs information about other dogs so much as he is worried, and the conditioned "click look at me" response is the only part of that that serves to lower anxiety and break the stare. Border collies stare by nature. I don't need him doing this. I'll continue to do this in CU as it is asked of us, but that is all.
3) Begin training and rewarding an auto "look at me." Rationale: he needs to feel calm that I will handle it, so he needs to look for me for direction. Looking at me results in food and increased distance to the dog. I suppose this is really a modified, specific version of BAT. The only difference is that the "calming signal" I expect is for him to look at me.
4) Consider dropping rally obedience or agility. Rationale: I need to focus on his behavioral issues, and find sometimes that in class, I'm more concerned with getting him to perform the required task than working on an overall "zen" in him. Rally is a "calmer" class, and that is a plus. It is also something we're also doing with Doppler, which is awesome, too. However, since we've started removing the treat bag from me, I find his motivation is still low after a couple of months and it might be a good time to take a break and do some home work. Conversely, agility Sagan LOVES, and the other people in class manage their dogs so well, that I feel like it is a safe environment for him. He gets more exercise here too, and the brainwork associated with thinking and moving is great. However, leaving class is always stressful since there are often off leash dogs in the parking lot. So we always leave a little early to avoid that, but it is this constant game of Pacman to get to the car anyway.
a) I still want to be able to run with Sagan on my normal trails. I like running with him in races, and I need to think about the complete picture if a race is conducive to his current state or not. I've been doing this, but really only thinking about my knowledge of the course, and not thinking about all the variables.
b) I've mentioned before to not worry about competing in agility, but in the back of my mind, I'm still kinda working toward that. While I really want him to be excellent in agility, I am not sure what forcing him to go to stressful environments with lots of dogs and people (agility trials) is doing for him or for me. When I have to focus so much on his behavior, I will never be at ease in an agility trial environment. And ultimately, I don't care about titles and letters after his name. If I ever did do a trial, it would really be only to test our ability to focus in a new environment.
c) At some point do a rally trial. I think this is a calm/slow enough environment that I can do this and appeal to my competitive nature.
6) At age 2 years, re-evaluate his behavior and determine if I want his thyroid levels tested. I'm not particularly convinced this is his issue, but I am really puzzled why we aren't at a more consistent place at this point. I can rationalize (for now), that some of the strategies I've been using are not optimal for him, specifically, but once I've tried this new plan, I really should be seeing some consistency.
Ultimately, I think Sagan is dog reactive on leash, not out of a desire to get at the dog, nor a true FEAR of the dog, but a conflicted state....he wants to but is anxious about what could happen. I think this because he figures out most dogs off leash, but even then, the introduction usually involves hackles.
I'm still not sure about the people reactivity, and I'm in a place where I'd like to manage this as much as possible (read: "avoid people that set him off"). Though I understand getting him to a similar place of self-control with this is critically important, I feel I can control this situation a lot better, so want to focus on the dog thing for now.