“Reactive Dogs”

Following on from a live video I made a few weeks ago, I decided to put my thoughts to paper about living life with a reactive dog and what you can do to make your lives more enjoyable.  I also think this as an opportunity to offer those people with non reactive dogs some insight and tips on what you can do to allow everyone to enjoy a public space.

I have a reactive dog myself, Bertie, and he (as I think with most dog professionals) is the reason I got into training and behaviour.  I have been to very dark places when I was first trying to understand and help my dog.  I have cried and screamed and gotten angry over the issues and wondered what the hell I had done to deserve this.  I saw trainers and that got us no where, so I decided to learn for myself what I could do.  Bertie is still reactive but he is becoming a more easier dog to deal with once I had established a training programme for him and set down this set of rules for us to abide by:

1. DON’T blame your dog – I fell into this mistake in my down moments with Bertie’s reactivity. He can’t help acting like a dog and making noise about something he isn’t happy/comfortable/fearful about. Try to empathise with how your dog is feeling, they don’t mean to react out of spite, they are genuinely upset out whatever has triggered them.  His killer urge I used to despair about until I accepted that he was a terrier and hundreds of years of selective breeding wasn’t about to give way to my excuses.

2. DON’T blame yourself! – Another vicious cycle I had a hard time escaping was perpetually blaming myself and wondering why I was being singled out by fate. Blaming yourself gets you no where but continuing to feel like the victim and festering a helpless attitude. I can guarantee your dog is having a much harder time of it than you are.  Fear aggression is a very common form of reactivity, your dog is lunging and barking at something likely because it is scared of it!   Blaming yourself for your dog’s problems accomplishes nothing.  Pulling your socks up and tackling the problem together will.

3. DON’T apologise!!! – People will judge you, that it a fact you will have to get over and focus more on your dog and ensuring their welfare. The looks, the pronounced movement of keeping away, the verbal abuse, the dreaded ‘he’s friendly!’; you will go through this at one point or another. People who have never had a reactive dog find it hard to understand, and that isn’t their fault.  Other people are just judgmental twats.  DON’T apologise.  It’s not yours or your dogs fault, you have a plan, focus on that and let the pressures others put on you slide off your back.  Sometimes dogs don’t recall even when their owners actively try to get them back, that’s not their fault either.  Dogs will be dogs.

4. DO be your dog’s advocate – Stand up for your dog and be proactive in making sure you are not put into a situation. Call ahead and ask politely if people could keep their dogs at a distance or on a lead, if you find yourself with a dog still approaching despite you politely asking otherwise, do all you can to ensure your dog feels safe.
DON’T PANIC (always carry your towel) you are better able to help your dog with a calm head.
shout that your dog is contagious, that usually sends them packing.
turn around and walk away, briskly and happily encouraging your dog to keep focused on you.
throw treats at the approaching dog to distract it long enough to back away.
keep control of your dogs head by feeding it continuously with treats as you retreat.
use your body to block your dogs access/view of what it is reacting to.  This could be simply using your body as a wall or even using your leg to push the encroaching dog away from you.

5. DO set yourselves up for success – don’t take your reactive dog out to a busy dog walking location and high distraction environment. There are plenty of places to walk your dog that won’t involve being bombarded by off lead dogs. Take the time to learn what triggers your dog and the distance that the trigger causes the reaction.  Once you know what the causes are you can better avoid or see ahead of time what you can do to navigate away from a situation.  Don’t push them beyond what they are capable of, don’t push yourself beyond what you are capable of either.

6.DO have a plan – either consult a trainer or behaviourist (see my next blog about choosing the right trainer for you) and come up with a game plan for working with your dog’s problems. Depending on what triggers your dog to react, there are a whole plethora of techniques that can be used to help. Understand that this is not something that can be accomplished on a timeline, your dog decides the pace of the behaviour modification program you’ve been set.  Accept that there will be ups and downs, steps forward and back; give yourself manageable goals to aim for.

7. ENJOY YOUR DOG – they aren’t with us for very long, enjoy the little things and take the time to spend some quality time together without the pressures of what triggers them.

So what if you have a dog who is happy to enjoy life and hasn’t a care in the world? What can you do if you see someone out with a dog on a lead or someone who is clearly working and training their dog?

  • Ask if your dogs are able to greet and don’t be offended if the answer is no.  Dog’s are on leads for a variety of reasons including: training, health concerns, safety, by law.
  • Keep an active eye on your dog and your surroundings while you walk, if you have enough time to react, you can prevent a situation from happening.
  • If someone clearly turns tail and heads away from you, don’t follow after them.  If they are going where you want to go then slow down a little.
  • Pop your own dog on a lead or keep them under close control while you pass a leaded dog.
  • ENJOY YOU DOG TOO!  Be an active part of your dog’s walk, not an afterthought.

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