For our third Summer Ambassador highlight, I'm thrilled to feature Erika Fields and her pup Mack (@hounddog_mack on IG)! Erika and Mack live in Massachusetts and do lots of local hiking and adventuring. For our interview, we focused on how Erika managed Mack's recovery from two TPLO surgeries, Mack's reactivity journey, and how trick training has helped with both! As with all our ambassadors, I'm so inspired by Erika and Mack's relationship and by her ongoing commitment to Mack's well being.
Hi Erika! First off, can you tell us a bit about Mack - how and when he came into your life, what kind of dog he is, and a bit about his personality?
My husband and I adopted Mack when he was ~6 months old, back in August 2018, from a local rescue here in Massachusetts called Brown Dog Coalition. They are a family-founded, volunteer-run, foster-based rescue that commits to the easily overlooked dogs who deserve life-saving care and loving homes. They believe in the power of positive reinforcement and have all their adopters sign a contract that states they won't use any aversive training methods on any Brown Dog. I really liked their mission and this commitment to R+ so I spent a lot of time stalking their website to see when they were posting new dogs that were ready for adoption.
Admittedly, we didn't know much about what type of dog would be a good fit for our family and decided to submit an application to adopt Mack based on the photos we saw on Brown Dog's site (don't do this-do your research! Know what type of energy and personality will be a good fit first!) But we lucked out and we can't imagine life without him, even if we may have had visions of having a chill, doesn't-really-want-to-do-much type of dog. Mack is literally the opposite of this but that means we're always looking for our next adventure spot to explore with him! He's a total goofball and thinks at 60 lbs, he's the perfect lap dog size.
We actually just got his Embark DNA results back a few days ago and according to them his breeds are Mountain Cur, English and American Bulldog, and American Pit Bull Terrier.
Tell us about your journey understanding and working through Mack's reactivity.
When we first adopted Mack, whenever we saw another dog, person, bike, etc. on a walk, he'd drop to the ground and refuse to move. People would always comment to us "oh, he's so well trained, what a good dog!" We had no idea that he was doing this because he was so afraid of these things that he just froze up. We had no idea what "reactivity" meant for a long time!
We took him to training classes a couple of weeks after we adopted him. On the first day, the trainer was asking us questions about him and in this really negative tone goes "and he's NOT reactive, right?" She then went on to explain what dog reactivity was: lunging, barking, etc. and since Mack did none of those things, we assumed he wasn't reactive, even though we still had no idea why he was pancaking on the ground on nearly every walk.
Thankfully the dog Instagram world opened my eyes to the fact that dog reactivity is so much more than just the outward reactions we hear about the most. It's really about a dog's emotional state and for Mack, when he was on a leash he was downright scared of people, other dogs, bikes, etc. At one point, he was getting so anxious about going for a walk in our neighborhood, he would only be able to walk 1-2 houses down the street before he was turning back to go home. Nowadays Mack will easily walk 5+ miles a day so it's crazy to look back on those early months when going for a walk was such a scary thing to him.
How did Mack's knee injuries happen and what was the recovery like?
Mack's injuries are a bit of a mystery but based on what his vet could tell, Mack more than likely tore one knee months before we even noticed anything was going on. Due to trying to overcompensate for that first knee injury, he then tore the second one as well. All of this happened before he was 2 years old, but now that we know a bit more about his DNA, it's really no surprise that he ended up with these injuries since many of his breeds are predisposed to this injury.
By the time we figured out what was going on and got an initial surgery date, both knees were completely torn, and we ended up doing surgery in December 2019 on the second injured knee first since he was struggling to walk on that leg more. That said, a few days before his surgery we got a huge snowstorm and since his surgeon reminded us he couldn't hurt himself any more since both knees were gone, we let him zoom around the backyard and you would never know he was about to head into 14+ weeks of recovery. He was so good at hiding he was in pain and it makes me sad to know he was probably hurting for weeks or months before we noticed.
I have the type of personality where I dive head first into a new project when I'm stressed out so I may have gone a bit overboard with his recovery prep. I spent the weeks leading up to his surgery getting him comfortable hanging out in the space he would be in 24/7, making sure he was OK wearing the plastic cone, and that he was comfortable using a car ramp to get in and out of our SUVs since he wouldn't be allowed to jump up until 6 weeks post-surgery.
The first few days were HARD but then we got into a really good routine with lots of enrichment activities throughout the day, slowly working up to being able to walk a little further each week. It was winter here in MA so going to physical therapy and vet appointments became the highlight of our week. We got really lucky, had zero complications, and got released by his surgeon to resume regular activities a couple of weeks early in May 2020.
How did the TPLO recovery affect your training journey with Mack?
Since we were only able to walk one block at a time throughout his recovery, once we were released by his surgeon, I was more than ready to head back out into the world on long adventures and I wanted to make sure Mack was as comfortable/stress free as he could be. It may sound silly, but I am a little thankful that we were forced to reset our walks with his back-to-back TPLOs since it gave us the chance to realize that our walks weren't going as good as they could have been.
Since Mack was on nearly 6 months of exercise restrictions, I had a lot of time on my hands. I began to dive into his reactivity and decided to try to find a trainer we could work with to figure out what was going on. I was under the misconception that we had to work with a trainer in-person, as we needed someone to be out with us on walks and see him having these reactions in order for us to be able to start making some behavior modifications. I was 100% wrong--virtual training is just as good, or even better, than in-person!
As luck would have it, all of this was right at the start of COVID (March-April 2020) so in-person training wasn't even something we could do. I had been following Rachel Harris (@agoodfeeling_inco) on Instagram for probably over a year at this point and I saw that she was getting ready to start a second cohort of her Reactive Redefined program. I knew a few other people I had "met" on Instagram that were part of the first cohort and remembered watching them share their dog's successes and being so amazed at how much they were able to accomplish with virtual training. I literally sent her a DM on Instagram just about 2 hours before the program closed to new participants, asking her if Mack was "reactive enough" to benefit from the training program. Thankfully she replied right away, told me that any dog who's having any sort of emotional response out in the world can benefit from RR, and we spent the next 3 months learning all about Mack's triggers and how to make him feel more comfortable being in the same environment as them.
That was just over a year ago and we're still working on his reactivity every day but he's a whole different dog now. I'm so glad that we took the plunge and finally got the help we needed! I was also a guest on Rachel's podcast if anyone wants to check it out!
Awesome! Tell us more about how you got into trick training with Mack.
I love trick training with Mack! He brings so much energy and enthusiasm for learning new things, so when I was looking to add more low-impact enrichment activities he could do when he was confined during the recovery period, I stumbled upon trick training. Do More With Your Dog is a great organization that allows you to upload trick videos you take at home, so earning titles through them is very reactive-dog friendly! Mack earned his 4th title a few months ago and we're working on his 5th now. Here's a video I shared on Instagram of one of Macks' recent trick titles.
What has been so great about trick training is that we have been able to use some of his known tricks for his physical therapy ("around" to have him walk circles around cones, "back up" to strengthen his hind end awareness) as well as for his reactivity training ("touch" when he gets frozen and needs some encouragement to move forward, "up" when we need to move off the trail to get more space.) We also use his "wave" trick a lot when people ask to come pet him and I can tell he would prefer they keep their distance. People think it's really cute when he waves at them.
What are your favorite pieces of High Tail Hikes biothane gear and why?
I don't know why it took me so long to invest in biothane gear but it's all we use now! One of my favorite aspects of biothane is that it's waterproof and SO easy to clean! Mack has discovered a new love for swimming this summer after taking a few swim lessons as part of his TPLO physical therapy and will now fling himself into any body of water he comes across. It's so amazing how his leash and collar will be dry almost immediately once he's done playing in the water and there's finally no more stink! His non-biothane collars and leashes always smelled so bad whenever they got wet, no matter how I tried to clean them.
Plus, anyone who's ever been on a walk with Mack knows that he follows his nose, regardless of where it may lead him. Investing in a long line gives him so much more freedom to track different scents while still keeping him safe, since his recall will always be a work in progress. I've also noticed that when he's on his long line, he gets less stressed about his triggers--he must realize he has more room to "escape" so often, he'll just start sniffing something and move in the opposite direction. It's rare that we ever use a short leash now!
Thank you so much for talking with us Erika! Use code MACK10 to save 10% on your next High Tail Hikes order.