Yesterday I met up with a lovely friend of mine who has a reactive dog like me. The conversation we had, and the stories she shared, have stayed with me all the way to walking Peach this morning in Kitsilano; seeing other people working (or not working) with their dogs, friendly or otherwise.
There are so many different scenarios that can give a dog that certain fear and aggression that an owner can never perceive possible. A dog can be born with all sorts of character traits, but it’s only after growing in their litter and being introduced to human stressors that they develop these more unbalanced reactions to everyday life events.
If you are an owner of a reactive dog, this is actually the chance of a lifetime. A chance for you to grow insanely close to your dog and create a connection other owners dream of.
Peach’s story was and always will be baffling to me and my husband. Having her for year, she was one of the friendliest dogs I’d ever encountered. My Border Collies didn’t see a tonne of humans unless we were at a trail day, so there was always an element of shyness to their personality. Peach was nothing like this. She loved everyone, and always approached them steadily, but with an optimistic point of view haha. We moved from Australia to Vancouver and it was still the same. She was the pup you could tie outside the Starbucks, under the patio roof, and she’d sit there so happily, keeping an eye on you through the window and loving when someone would come to say hi (especially if they had a doggie with them).
It all changed over the Christmas holiday when Luke and I sent Peach to an offleash dog “hotel” or whathaveyou. She’d been there before, and being a happy dog with everyone, we felt it was appropriate to send her there whilst we went away over the holidays. Apparently, nothing happened… but the day we picked her up we knew something was wrong. Gone was our outgoing, happy pup, and in her place… a nervous wreck. A dog 3 blocks away would create a panic in Peach like I’d never seen; shaking, drooling, crying/barking… it was a horrible sight, and nothing could cure it.
My husband and I were just like everyone else in this situation. We weren’t ready for it, and it shocked us to the core, which meant we began reacting when we saw other dogs… making the situation even worse for Peach. At this point in my life I was a very anxious human being, so eventually I began not walking Peach and leaving it to Luke. I was so scared to have her lose it whilst we were out walking.
I’m going to pause here to mention: I know this wasn’t technically “our” fault (we weren’t at the place it happened)… but still to this day I believe Peach’s incident wouldn’t have happened had I not sent her to the doggie boarding place. If you think about it, the dog being in a totally new place with 100% different people and dog big and small that hold numerous personality traits we, the owners, don’t know about… it was a horrible thing just WAITING to happen. But I thought everything about Peach was infallible. We were good. She was good. And nothing would ever change. In the year following, Peach was attacked by a Great Dane in an offleash park, and that solidified her fears even further. The guilt was immense.
And… I’m not gonna lie. I was ashamed. When Peach would arc up at another dog and I couldn’t stop her, I’d wish the pavement would swallow me up right then and there. One particular time whilst living in Yaletown, a man walked by with his Golden Lab off it’s lead and didn’t bat an eyelid to me getting as far away from him and his dog as possible. He watched from a few yards away as Peach literally screamed because his dog just kept walking up to us (we were in someone’s garden at this point, and the dog was curious). He was amused by the fact that his wonderful dog was causing us pain. He then yelled at ME for not training my dog properly and that the only way to cure her was to pin her upside down on the pavement and abuse her until she stopped being so horrible. As I’m typing right now I wish I was the woman then that I am now, because I would have told him EXACTLY where he could shove that egotistical, a**hole point of view.
Cause this is the long and the short of it. And listen HARD here, people. You. Owners of dogs big and small who are afraid, stressed, in absolute terror when another dog walks by, resulting in aggression, barking, any outward advance to protect themselves… whether this behaviour is a result of something you did or didn’t do… this is your moment NOW. This is your time to step up to the plate. You’re the big mamma or big poppa in these situations and it’s your job to make it right for your dog. YOU are their protector. I know it’s embarrassing, horrible, frustrating, but the longer you pretend it’s not happening, the long it’s going to persist and the worse it’s going to get. Stand tall and start the work it takes to show your sweet pup that they’re safe in your capable hands.
It took me 2 years to realize that; that I’m not a horrible owner or a horrible person because my dog’s like this… that I do deserve to walk on the sidewalk or go to the park. If I wasn’t going to own up and start Peach on the road to recovery, then yes… then maybe I didn’t deserve to, but if I was the owner I knew I was, I needed to get my butt in gear and help my Westie.
That poor dog didn’t know what was coming haha. We were living in London, UK at the time, with mopeds, dogs, crows, lorries and EVERYTHING within arms reach. I read books, loaded my pockets with tiny training treats and got to work. First! Those little knots in Peach’s lead (there’s a separate blog post about them you can puruse!) helped me know where she was, and vice versa. Then, at home, I began training her to look up at my eyes when I said “look at me” (treat, treat, treat, treat)…. “look at me!” (treat, treat, treat, treat). After a day or two we were ready to hit the street.
Cue complete, blinding anxiety.
It f**king worked!!!!! See a moped coming along? “Look at me” (treat, treat, treat, keep her walking, treat) “Look at me” (treat, keep walking damnit, treat, is it gone yet?!) annnnd voila. No barking. She nearly bites my fingers off because she’s nervous from the noise of the moped, but no shaking, no pulling… just heeling next to me and getting the rewards of the century whilst hearing her arch nemesis pull up beside her. Same with walking by dogs (and those are some tiny-ass sidewalks in London). I’d make sure she was on the opposite side of me than the other dog approaching, and as soon as she’d see it coming, “Look at me” (treat, treat, keep walking past it, treat), “Look at me” (treat, treat) aaannnnd relax and keep walking. It’s been over a year since I started that positivity training and now Peach looks to me or Luke without being told. She doesn’t nervously bite the treats from me anymore unless we’re particularly close to the city bus and it blows its airbrakes. We even walk by things now without pausing for training.
I’m not going to lie to you, having a reactive dog is hard work at first, and for those of you who are off-leash fans, TOO BAD. Just don’t do it. I never imagined I’d be saying this, but I have such an amazing connection with Peach now that she’s always on a lead. We’re always having to be communicating. Connecting. I know what activities she loves (swimming) so I found a perfect spot where she can still be on a retractible lead and fetch her drift wood as many time as she wants. And if another offleash doggie comes along… well, i turn around and politely, but firmly, say “NO” and usually the owner gets the drift. A few haven’t, but I’ve politely, but very firmly, allowed them to know how I feel about that. Nothing’s easy with a reactive dog, but it’s all figureoutable (thanks, Marie Forleo).
Imagine if this was your child. As a mamma bear or poppa bear, you’d protect that child of yours; allowing and teaching them to enjoy the things they love in a safe environment. This is what you’re doing with your dog. I know that sometime’s it would just be SO AWESOME to see them running free, but the fact is that unless you find some park or field you know no one else will be in, don’t do it! Your dog doesn’t need a setback. And if your dog is really aggressive, another owner and their dog DO NOT need that setback. Think about other people as you wish others would think about you. I wish the owner of that Great Dane knew not to bring their dog into the minuscule offleash park when there were 20 eensie weensie dogs playing; nothing larger than Peach. I wish they’d known it wasn’t their day, or that they should try again some other time… because I do. I look at the situations around me and gauge it. Because that’s the responsible thing for the other people using those areas, and it’s what those of us in cities and densely populated areas need to do.
If you are an owner of a reactive dog, this is actually the chance of a lifetime. A chance for you to grow insanely close to your dog and create a connection other owners dream of. You get to be the protector. You’re the human. You’re the mother f**king badass with the amazing, heeling, listening companion by your side. It’s the sidekick you’ve always wanted. Batman and Robin. Boo yeah. And guess what… sometimes shit will happen. Accidents happen. But you’ll be able to smile and walk away from it because 95% of the time, you’re on it. Because you’re responsible and you love that little/big dog like you created it yourself.
Now, go read up on what reactivity training works best for you and your dog. I HUGELY recommend the “Look at me” trick, and I know a large amount of trainers around the world recommend it as well. If you have an easily pudgy pup, you can swap the treats for a clicker at some point, etc. Do what works for you, but most importantly… do something.
Lots and lots of love and unlimited support from Katherine and Peach-the-mighty. XX