A friend for Frieda
In my haste to publish a year-in-review post I forgot to add something that brought me a lot of joy. In fact, if I had to pick the thing that made me the happiest in 2022, this would be it. Our reactive dog made a dog friend.
Frieda, our sweet rescue Chihuahua mix, is the most loving dog I’ve ever known. She’s also leash reactive. Leash reactivity is what it sounds like, and no doubt you’ve seen a leash reactive dog lunging and barking at something or someone. Frieda’s trigger is other dogs.
Fortunately she’s not reactive to anything or anyone else. And she’s not aggressive. Before being rescued she was a street dog in Tijuana, Mexico. We have no idea what her life was like or if she ever belonged to someone. All we know is that she was found as a stray. At the time she was around four years old, plenty of time to be a free-roaming dog not on a leash.
She was fostered by a lovely family in the nearby New Jersey suburbs and lived with a pack of dogs. She blended right in to the pack and even had a cuddle buddy. They went for pack walks on the leash and she handled it fine.
We met her at an adoption event and she was running around off leash with a bunch of little dogs having a great time. She was a little barky, but not to the point where she seemed like the quintessential yappy little dog. And thankfully she’s not! Her adoption description included “barks a little at other dogs outside”, but her foster family didn’t experience the reactivity, presumably because she had the safety of the pack and typically they walked a big park that wasn’t busy.
Once we got her home she settled in easily and got along with the cats. But it didn’t take long for her reactivity to ramp up. Our neighborhood is pretty calm for New York City, it’s very residential but there’s a fair amount of traffic. At first the traffic was what seemed to scare her the most, and she would only go for decent walks with both of us.
We started working with a trainer about month after her arrival, and in that time we also lost a longtime cat resident and rescued another one. It was a busy time. Frieda took it all in stride, even when the senior ranking cat ensured the new cat’s introduction period would be lengthy and not smooth.
Fortunately Frieda is very (very!) treat motivated, which was helpful during training. After we finished our sessions Frieda had the basics down and we had at least a little bit of clue to how proceed. It was a lot of pack walking, a lot treating and a lot of redirecting with plenty of setbacks along the way.
Sometimes the milestones sneak up on you. The first big one I remember was the first time Frieda wanted to walk longer than our customary around the block walk when it was just the two of us. She didn’t have any trouble taking longer pack walks, but I had a hard time getting her around the block, let alone a longer walk. This was about three or four months after she joined us.
The next big milestone was the first time she didn’t lose her shit when a dog was in close proximity. This was about a year after she joined us. At this point she was used to focusing on us and getting a treat if there was a dog nearby, but we would still avoid having to walk by a dog because it triggered her.
Usually this was easy to do by ducking in a driveway or path to an apartment building. One day Frieda and I were on a commercial block with no area to get our her out of the way. I had her sit and focus on me, or rather the treat I was holding, and let the person walking the other dog know “she’s going to loose her shit, sorry!”. But she didn’t! She stayed calm and focused on me while the other dog was as close as a foot (30 cm) away. I was so surprised and happy I almost cried.
Baker is an affable doodle-type who lives on the floor below us. His mother adopted him in the late spring/early summer of last year. He’s a good boy.
By the time we first saw Baker Frieda was in a good place. She would still react, but it was usually more like alert barking. Sometimes she’d let out a few woofs and keep walking, but sometimes she would still lunge and get worked up. There were many variables, some predictable and some not.
One predictable dislike is puppy energy, and when Baker moved in he was puppy. At first she seemed kind of stunned to see a puppy coming out of her building. There are other dogs in the building too, but we rarely run into them. Every time she saw Baker she made sure everyone knew she was displeased. Barking, hopping, lunging, the works.
Fortunately Baker’s Mom understood and already knew about Frieda’s reactivity, so she didn’t mind me working with Frieda when Baker was out. I’d have Frieda focus on me and slowly to try to move her closer until it was clear she was at the threshold, or the point at which a reactive dog can handle a trigger.
This little ritual went on for almost a year, but we didn’t see Baker often enough to know if it was having any impact. I wasn’t thinking that we were working towards an introduction, I was thinking of it more as practice.
Sprinkles, the kooky Tuxedo cat we rescued a few weeks after Frieda joined us, and Frieda became cuddle buddies pretty quickly. This made me happy for Frieda because I new she had a dog cuddle buddy at her foster home, but I still always felt bad that she wasn’t able to make neighborhood dog friends. Our previous dog Rulo had several buddies in the neighborhood, all of whom were brutally rebuffed by Frieda.
In the spring of this year we were coming home from a walk and Baker was coming out of the building. Baker was no longer a puppy at this point and therefore more tolerable to Frieda. Baker, and every other dog we see regularly, seems to know that I carry a big treat bag. Frieda sat for her treat as Baker approached, and in a “what the hell” moment we decided to see what would happen.
As Baker approached Frieda barked in his face, which stunned him. But the lure of freeze dried chicken was strong and I was able to treat both of them as they stood near each other. Slowly they checked each other out with an occasional bark from Frieda, but it went really well. It was probably less than two minutes but it was a huge breakthrough, and I was so proud! And happy! And kind of shocked, to be honest.
Since then we’ve had a few more meet and greets. We met a big puppy that didn’t have puppy energy. He looked like a gangly Lab/Pit mix but his Dad said he was a Husky. It was his first time outside and his Dad seemed game to give him some experience. When he saw I was working with Frieda, having her focus on me, he asked if they could meet. I explained the situation but he was an experienced dog person and wanted to give it a try. The puppy had nice calm energy and didn’t mind that Frieda occasionally barked at him. We spent about 10 minutes chatting and letting them mingle, overall it was a good experience for all four us.
We’ve also mingled with Baker several times since our first encounter. One time we ran into him about a block away and walked home together. We let them off leash in the lobby of our building and they ran upstairs together. Every once and a while Baker will run up to our floor and bark, but I suspect that’s more about the chicken than Frieda.
The other day we ran into Baker when we returned from our walk. Frieda didn’t even react to him. He ran up to get a treat and Frieda gave him a little a play stance and gesture. Then they both just begged for treats and went their separate ways. All very normal, and heart warming.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but I recently started reading the reactive dog subreddit. It’s a lovely, supportive, informative and active community. Even though we’re through the worst of it there are still setbacks and frustrating days, and reading about other people’s experiences is still helpful.
In the grand scheme of things Frieda’s reactivity is mild and not dangerous. There are a lot of heartbreaking discussions in the subreddit. But there’s also a lot of sharing and celebrating of accomplishments and good days, no matter how small. If you have or know a reactive dog I’d recommend checking it out.
I doubt Frieda will ever be a casual meet and greet and kind of dog, but knowing there are circumstances where she can mix and mingle is something I didn’t think would be possible when joined our family three years ago. It’s a great feeling to know she can have additional social enrichment outside of the apartment, and I’m looking forward to seeing if she makes any new friends in 2023.