In this house, we know reactive dogs. And I'll tell you, it wasn't by choice.
I'll spare you the sordid details, but the short version is we now have two female German Shepherds who are reactive. One is not confident and one is fearful. Bringing them into our home has been one of the hardest things we have committed to because the two girls don't always see eye to eye. Shocking, I know, but it has been a journey that has made me a better dog owner and handler. This post will focus on Nessie. (Gypsy is a whole different ballgame.)
Caveat. I am not a trainer. I am not a behaviorist. I am just a dog mom who has been on a journey helping her reactive dogs deal with life for the last 4 years. In my quest for information on reactive dogs, I have found a wonderful community of dog parents wanting to do better for their dogs. I hope if you're feeling lonely in loving your dog, this post helps you realize you are not alone and maybe helps you find some resources if you've been looking.
"Your Dog Is A Nightmare"
Has anyone ever told you that? Or have you thought it? Do you have to avoid populated areas when you walk or walk under cover of darkness? If so, you might have a reactive dog. I can't even begin to count the number of times I would tell Nessie to "get a grip" when we were out and about.
Reactive dogs are often labeled "bad dogs" by those who don't understand. Owners are judged for not having their dog under control. Yet I am finding that many reactive dogs come from homes where the owners did their best to socialize from puppyhood and the dog does well until a certain age then, boom, reactive. Sometimes it comes from a specific incident, such as another dog attacking them. Also, genetics may play a role. In my reactive dog groups, herding breeds are well represented. All in all, we love our dogs no matter what but sometimes it can be difficult because of our expectations of how things should be and sometimes because of others expectations of us.
Nessie was highly reactive to all things that moved fast. Adults jogging, specifically adults carrying anything in their hand while jogging. And imagine my embarrassment when she decided the baby stroller was bothering her. 😳 She would also react to other cars while on car rides. Rides were not fun for anyone. 😕
Change The Way They Feel
Like many, I opted to just not go out. I opted to not do anything with her because it was easiest. I felt judgmental eyes on me if I took her to the trail and she reacted. She was difficult to control and she often had a Martingale collar and a harness on to make sure I did not lose control. Outtings were mentally and physically exhausting for both of us so, we just didn't go. But what fun is that!? So...I started looking into what it meant to have a reactive dog and how I could work with her and this is what I have found works for us.
While I call it training, it's not like normal training. I'm not teaching cues or behaviors; I'm trying to change the way she feels about triggers. After researching, I am all in on positive reinforcement (R+) training and nowhere is it needed more than fear-based and reactive behaviors. We would love for our dog to just watch that car roll on by without causing a scene so we try and correct that behavior to get them to stop. We may find that they stop for a brief minute but the next car they are right back at it. Why is that? Because we haven't changed the way the dog feels about cars so we correct the behavior in the moment, but don't really address why our dog hates that car. Sound hokey? Maybe...but it works!
By using R+ training and classical conditioning, we can retrain our dog's brain. We ask NOTHING of the dog other than it see the trigger. We don't ask for eye contact. We don't ask for a sit. That's operant conditioning. All we work on is association of the trigger with wonderful things. You measure your progress in inches and not miles. Some days are just bad days for your pup and you accept that. There's trigger stacking and trigger thresholds to be aware of and sometimes you just need to take a few days off to let your dog's cortisol levels come down. It's not easy. It's not a quick fix. But darned if it hasn't worked for me and thousands of others.
When we brought Nessie home, seeing another dog from 100 yards would put her into a tailspin...
The other day, as we were leaving the vet's office, this duo was checking in. Nessie saw them when I cracked the door to the exam room but didn't seem concerned so we went out. She met the dog nicely (I asked first.) and then she told me, "OK, time to go, Mom." I was so proud of her!
CARE is the method we use and it can be found here. It can be very overwhelming when you're first starting out. You will stumble and sometimes fall, but you'll get there.
Another great source of help and support is the Facebook group Reactive Dogs. In this group you'll find members at all stages in their journey with their reactive dog and all can offer advice or lend a sympathetic ear. This group only discusses the CARE protocol noted above. This is because CARE is a humane protocol adopted by behaviorists and one that is backed by science.
Fearful Dogs is another great resource on Facebook. You do need to pay a small fee to be able to post and ask questions and must watch a short video. It was well worth it! Gypsy, our other female, is fear reactive and fear aggressive. I have learned alot about ways to work with her and ways I should not work with her. (ie Don't let the scary person handle the treats because it sets Gypsy up for failure and can make the situation worse.)
Another Facebook page I follow is the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at UC Davis. UC Davis sets the bar for veterinary behaviorists and is a well-respected resource for information. They post very informative articles on all things behavioral. They are not strictly about reactive dogs but always have great content for people interested in getting into their dog's heads.
If you're interested in learning about the veterinary behaviorists, often what we as reactive dog owners need, peruse the page of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Trainers are not behaviorists and behaviorists are not all veterinary behaviorists. They all perform their own functions and it's up to you to do research and see which is the best fit for your dog's needs! Sadly, Iowa is severely limited on veterinary behaviorists but, last I knew, there are some places out of state that will do remote consults. One of them being UC Davis.
We Are A Team
While life with a reactive dog can be stressful, Nessie and I are a team now. She's just perfect for me. (I hope she feels the same.) We have learned to navigate the scary things together and yes, sometimes that means we do an emergency U-turn and avoid. She loves car rides and for the most part, handles it like a "normal" dog with her nose in the wind, but some days she still struggles. I can tell when she is stressed because she asks for her treat every time she sees a car. She has learned that cars equal treats and asks for her positive reinforcement for seeing the trigger instead of barking and twirling so yes, I make it rain treats!
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. firstname.lastname@example.org or check out any of the resources listed above.
For those of you out there who are owners of reactive dogs, always remember, your dog isn't giving you a hard time, your dog is having a hard time.