Everyone who makes the decision to bring a dog into their home usually has dreams of owning the perfect dog – one who snuggles while you watch TV, happily greets new people and dogs, fetches toys, and excels in obedience class. But no dog (or human) is perfect. We are all unique and have our own challenges, struggles, baggage, and needs.
We brought Ruby home a year ago, when she was 4 months old. She was an adorable, wiggly bundle of energy. Since she was the first dog that either of us had owned, we knew we were starting a big adventure. We had done plenty of research on training and dog behavior before bringing her home and thought we were well-prepared. We started taking her to a local dog-friendly park with walking trails every evening but noticed that she behaved oddly when she saw other dogs. Sometimes she would worry us with how frantic and scary her barks sounded. We did notice that she wasn’t as barky when off-leash so we started doing that more often on these trails (which is allowed). But she would often crouch low and come up to other dogs very quickly. Most dogs don’t appreciate this, so she’d be told to back off, which would startle her. And sometimes they’d get into a scuffle because of the misunderstanding/miscommunication. We decided the dog park wasn’t for her and began to look into this issue and ways to help her through it without putting her in these stressful situations.
We took her to a puppy obedience class, but it was tricky to keep her attention on us instead of the other pups, while also listening to the trainer’s instructions. We did learn some helpful theory but nothing specifically relating to her issues. Next I took to the internet to do more research. I found articles about “leash reactivity” and other types of “reactive” dogs, which come in all different forms. Some are reactive to cars, or small children, or men in hats, or long-haired dogs, etc. Ruby is great with people (very excitable, though) but not usually good with dogs. The moment she sees one on a walk she has her ears alert, her hackles raised, and she usually stops and stares. I used to try encouraging her to keep moving with a kind voice and indicating with her leash where we were walking. But if I moved her, she would explode. The noises that came out of our puppy were so foreign - she sounded like a fully grown dog with a very deep bark. I tried all sorts of different ways of encouraging her to move away from where she’d stopped, but no matter which direction, she would react if I tried to move her - barking and lunging towards the dog. This was embarrassing for us when walking her, and stressful for her as well.
Dealing with these situations every day and not being able to enjoy our walks made life stressful for all of us and frustrating because we didn’t have any answers. Nothing we tried seemed to work - she seemed determined to bark and lunge at every dog, even though we know that was not something she was intentionally trying to do.
Eventually I found a Facebook group called “Reactive Dogs”, where they discuss a specific method of slowly overcoming reactivity, which involves Counterconditioning and Positive Reinforcement. Without purchasing any additional equipment or gear, but just bringing extra treats on walks, Ruby has made amazing progress in the last several months. She still has a long way to go, but we now regularly make it through walks with no barking, no stress, and happy feelings for everyone. We still see plenty of dogs around the neighbourhood, but it’s a whole new world now.
I highly recommend joining that group, even if you just want to read the posts from others before posting your own. It’s an amazing resource and I absorbed everything I could and then implemented it with Ruby. A very basic explanation of this method is this:
- When Ruby sees a dog, I immediately begin to feed her treats. We both stay calm and stay far enough away from her “trigger” that she is under her threshold (once she reacts, that means she is over threshold).
- As long as she’s under threshold and the trigger is still in sight, the treats keep coming.
- I don’t ask her to sit. I don’t ask her to look at me instead of the dog. I simply give her treats for seeing the dog. Once the dog is out of sight, we continue on our way. I don’t move her along during the encounter unless she’s comfortable to keep walking.
We’ve done this so many times that it’s now a habit for both of us, and that’s how new behaviours are born. She now sees a dog, stands alertly, but then remembers that there are treats and turns happily to me to accept them! Keeping her under threshold is always the goal. We still have the occasional reaction if the dog is too close for her comfort (and her threshold distance is still about 7-8 car lengths most days) but that’s fine. Tomorrow is another day. End every walk on a good note and remember to be compassionate. If you have a particularly rough walk one day, maybe take a few days off from long walks, and focus on training in the house so your pup’s stress levels can come down.
If you have a reactive pup that you love with all your heart, just like we do, I just want you to know that you’re definitely not alone. You may feel like it while out on walks, getting stares from owners who just don’t understand… but you’re really not. Loving a reactive dog takes patience, understanding, and compassion. We have to do what’s best for our pups, even though our relationship with them is different from what we may have imagined in the beginning. But it’s SO worth it. The dog you get to see in your home is the dog you wish everyone outside could see: smart, loving, playful, cuddly, and sweet. But just like humans, some pups have fears and anxieties that they need help and patience to work through. Please don’t force your pup to get over something if they’re not ready. Take care of them and yourself, and you’ll have a happy, calm life together.
Here are some great resources to help you:
Do you have a reactive dog? Feel free to tell your story in the comments below, and be sure to share this with your friends.