Silas’s obedience instructor and I spent as much class time as we could trying to help him work through his issues with people. We modified all of the class’s usual “don’t jump on strangers” routine to “strangers are happy! They won’t bother you!” At the time I could tell that he was making a lot of progress. On the last day of class we worked with the one handler Silas hadn’t met before. She stood quietly, turned partially away, and by the end of the exercise Silas was asking her to pet him. A stranger! I assumed the progress was just in the classroom, though.
Lately we’ve seen a lot of people out on our walks. Everyone in town is getting out more as the weather gets better, including us. Silas’s fear of the big, open park has driven us to the local nature preserve. The trails there can be pretty tight, down to just three or four feet wide, and you can’t always see very far ahead. In our last two visits we’ve seen: a field trip of 15 junior high students, who walked past talking and laughing; two moms with big strollers; a few park workers with equipment; and half a dozen individuals or couples. Silas has had far from perfect manners in any of these cases–a firm hand in his harness was the only reason he was staying with me–but the manners have been imperfect in a really interesting way.
Silas has not barked at a single person. In fact, I’m not sure he’s barked at a person anywhere since we finished class. What he has been trying to do it his old trick: run up to people and jump on them.
I’m not saying he’s cured. These encounters have all had a lot of diffusing factors in common. We are outside. Some people have come up without huge notice, but very few people have been a real surprise. No one has reached for him, talked directly to him, or even looked too much at him. In the nature preserve (the only place we’ve been at really close range) Silas is as close to stress-free as he ever gets. While I absolutely believe this is a real improvement, all of the circumstance matter.
What I’m excited about is that every time all of these “best case scenarios” stack up in his favor, he is learning that people aren’t scary. It’s just a normal thing. People walk past. Nobody bothers him. And, honestly, if that’s as good as he gets, I’m happy with it. I don’t need him to be a social butterfly. I am not a social butterfly. I just want him to not be so scared, and especially not to voice that fear in such an intimidating-sounding way. Later on we can start working on him voluntarily staying with me on the edge of the trail, but for now I’m happy. Thrilled, even.