Well, not so big to a "normal" dog, but pretty big for him. He got to meet his new friend, Reggie, another rescued Leonberger, at Riverside Park in Ann Arbor. It was snowing, and he looked so handsome with a light layer of snow dusting his face. While Reggie had herself a fine time running and sniffing and playing with abandon, Gulliver walked quietly, although he seemed fairly content. He even approached Al and Diana several times. Just a quick sniff of their hand, but it was him going to them, which was pretty big. We walked until he started to act overwhelmed, losing the little cool he has, tucking his tail. Then I loaded him up and took him home. I wanted him to have a happy memory so that he would look forward to another visit to the park with his friends.
He was pretty tired when we got home, and couldn't wait to get to his bed. It snowed pretty hard on and off throughout the day, and Gulliver doesn't like anything to change so it just wasn't his kind of weather. He has a hard time adjusting to things most dogs take for granted. Like a previously bare sidewalk which is now covered with snow.
On Sunday I started adding a couple of things to my approach-click-treat routine. I went to the dollar store and bought a variety of sunglasses in different shapes with varying lens color. I also bought a couple of hats. Now when we're working I sometimes approach him with no sunglasses or hat, sometimes with either a hat or sunglasses, and sometimes I wear both. It feels a little silly, but it's a good way to accustom him to such bizarre human concepts as sun protection with someone he already knows. It's something he's going to encounter in his every day life, and he needs to be desensitized to them.
Much of the work I'm now doing with Gully is, technically, a concept frequently abbreviated to d/cc - desensitize and counter-condition. It's a fancy term (dog trainers seem to love their fancy terms!) for a simple action, and can be used in many situations where your dog is fearful. All it means, essentially, is that you gradually accustom a dog to something which scares it and then work in a reward so that it begins to look forward to, or at least tolerate, interactions with the formerly scary thing. Since Gully is, essentially, afraid of everything, it's going to take a long time. We can't work on everything at once, so some things he's just going to have to suffer through for awhile. A simple example of d/cc would go something like this: You have a dog who, for some reason, is afraid of stop signs. Instead of forcing him to approach the sign, you would take him to a point where he notices it, but hasn't started to exhibit much fear. Over a course of days, you would approach the sign until you could walk right up to it without the dog showing fear. That's the desensitization part. If at the same time you conditioned your dog to a clicker, and every time you worked with him on approaching the sign you clicked him and treated him, eventually he would start to associate the sign with tasty treats, and look forward to seeing it, since it means something good is coming his way. That's the counter-conditioning part. It's elegant, easy, and fairly non-stressful for the dog when done correctly. It can be applied to many situations.
My dog Tug, who's been with me since he was three weeks old, is such an easy dog to desensitize to scary things. On one of our walks a while back, there was a large football helmet which had been a prop on a float, sitting near the sidewalk. Tug took one look at it and his eyes got big and he rocked back on his haunches in fear. Talking to him in a soothing voice, I walked up to it and put my hand on it. That was enough for him. He walked right up, gave it a good sniff, and that was that. Subsequent walks brought no reaction other than a desire to maybe lift his leg on it (luckily "Not There!" is a command he's well versed in). This is the combination (and culmination) of an outgoing dog who's been trained with love and care using positive methods. I would never ask him to approach something like that if I thought there was any way possible it could suddenly move or otherwise startle him. His trust in me is extraordinary and not to be taken lightly.
The really good news for me this weekend was that when I took Gulliver out for his mid-morning walk on Sunday, he walked right up to my truck. I like to think he was hoping we'd go back to the park and so, of course, soon, we shall. At this point, especially since he wants so little, whatever Gully wants, Gully gets.