Okay, kids: time for a deep dive into an actual, real-life reactivity success story.
In our last article, my wife Erin Buvala told her tale of adopting a severely reactive dog. Check it out: Leave the Light On: A Real-Life Reactive Dog Adoption Story.
Now, we’ll go into more practical detail on what the training process was like. This article is a candid discussion of what worked, what didn’t, and all the challenges faced along the way.
I usually edit out the swearing that goes into my first drafts. This time, I left most of it in. Because fuck it, reactive dog life is hard and “heck” just doesn’t quite reflect the experience.
How this article was written:
It happened as a series of discussions between Erin and me. First, we had a long “interview” over video chat. Everything you see written in quotes is from the transcript of that casual conversation. Later, Erin wrote a few more sections herself. Everything in third person was written by yours truly, Jake. (This explains all the switching between American and Australian grammar)
How to Navigate This Article
This article is huge. So we created a bookmark system so you can easily find the info you need. Clicking colored links will jump to a line with matching colored text, that provides more details on the topic. But! We recommend reading the whole thing all the way through once first, so everything makes sense in context.
- The process: The story of Bear’s reactivity diagnosis and training
- The analysis: What worked and why
- The challenges faced along the way
- The little things that make a big difference
- Q&A: What would you do differently if you were starting over?
- Q&A: What would you tell someone starting out with a dog like Bear?
Beginning: Diagnosis and early training efforts
Previously on 3 Lost Dogs: our intrepid hero, Erin, realized her new dog Bear was reactive when she took him for what was meant to be a nice, relaxing stroll along the river. He proceeded to explode at every dog he saw.
Erin took a couple days to freak out and do some research to figure out what the hell she was supposed to do about this.
For her first step, she worked with Bear outside a local dog park. Partly for training, and partly to get a better idea of what was going on. Was the river incident a one-time thing? Bear had been around other dogs before this happened, and he was fine.
It was all very confusing.
Outside the dog park, she did all the stuff you’re supposed to do: figure out where the dog’s threshold is, do basic commands, give them treats, play Look At That, etc.
None of it worked. Bear’s reactivity just got worse. “In hindsight,” says Erin, “I know what was going on. But it’s useless to talk about it in hindsight, because that makes it seem easy.”
And it was hard to figure out what kind of reactivity they were dealing with.
“His barking went from ‘how dare you come near me,’ to ‘hang on, I kinda want to play,’ to ’I really want to play, how dare you leave’ to then yelling at me because I was holding him back and he was getting mad.”
One day, the people inside the dog park began beckoning for the pair to come in. “Let him in and he’ll be fine!” they insisted.
So she did. And…
Bear was fine. He was happy, incredibly social with the other dogs, and he’d even come running back when Erin called him.
Is it all in my head?
“This experience convinced me that I was being paranoid and my paranoia was making Bear frustrated, and if I just blazed into situations with other dogs, he’d be okay. Which was obviously not correct. In hindsight, we know that 99% of his reactivity is frustration-based. So it must have been a huge relief to finally be released and burn off all that pent-up energy. And yeah, he came back to me, because I was literally the only familiar thing. It was easy for me to cut through the noise.”
Erin was still convinced Bear’s issues were something she was making up, or making worse. They went to the dog park a few more times. With each visit, Bear became more interested in his surroundings and less interested in listening to Erin.
And then the dog fight happened.
Nope, not in my head!
“A minor scuffle broke out between two other dogs. Bear ran into the middle of things and targeted the bigger dog, and turned it into a proper fight. And we all had to go over and separate him and this other dog. They both got kicked in various parts of their bodies. It was not particularly nice.”
But it was okay, said the dog park people. These things happen. Don’t worry about it! Come back tomorrow!
The next day, a big friendly mastiff showed up at the gate.
Bear went rigid, hackles raised. Erin put him on leash, and the second the mastiff came into the park, Bear lost his mind. “To this day, I’ve never seen him that intensely aggressive again.”
These two incidents served as a wake up call for Erin that this was, in fact, An Actual Problem.
The long painful middle
They stopped going to the dog park. Which was good, but it also made Bear’s behavior worse, because he no longer had an outlet for his frustration.
Life-stuff got in the way, too: Erin was working full time for an insane boss, and planning a cross-country move.
“This was the period where Bear was still trying to kill the cat. He was chewing up everything in sight. He was still peeing inside. Like, he was a MONSTER. And to add the thought that when I took him out of the house, he might cause harm to someone else’s dog… that was too much. So it got worse for a while. We went into a little shell.”
Erin used this time to do lots of research. When they got settled into their new home, she was ready to get back to training.
The first order of business was to tame Bear’s horrendous leash-pulling, and figure out how to exercise him properly.
How do you walk a reactive dog who’s strong enough to pull you off your feet?
By walking when no one else is around.
At 4:30 am.
“Which I’d like to point out I did in the middle of Melbourne winter. So if anyone ever doubts how much I love Bear, I’d like them to think about that statement. It was literally three degrees.”
Once the leash-pulling was under control, Erin went back to training outside dog parks. Trying to get Bear to follow commands under threshold, and working on LAT-style exercises, which, after much trial and error, eventually led to a bit of improvement.
The end: When things really started getting better
“The next stage was sort of a product of Melbournian life. We like cafes a lot.”
Erin and her housemates began bringing Bear with them to breakfast at cafes on the weekends.
It went about as well as you’d expect. “It was a cacophony of disasters.”
But they worked out a system that ended up helping with the reactivity. Here’s how it went:
“We go to a cafe. And there’s a dog sitting at a table nearby. We would walk toward our table and if Bear stayed calm, we would keep walking. The minute he whined, we turned around. We went behind the building, or a wall, or a car, anywhere that I could get a visual block between him and the dog. And I would do a lot of focus stuff with him: Spin, Lie Down, Hand Touch. And then lots of cuddles and calming interaction between the two of us.
The more positive interaction he had with me behind those visual blocks, the more positive emotion he felt toward me, and that started to overcome his frustration at seeing the other dog. That, coupled with the knowledge that if he reacted he was going to be removed from the thing that he wanted.”
Technically punishment, but not the bad kind:
“The focus of his punishment was always positive. Yes, he was removed from the dog. But he also got to play a fun game. He got taken away from a situation that – although his reactivity is frustration based – IS extremely stressful. So removing him from that stimulus probably frustrated him more in those two seconds, but it was also quite a bit relieving for him.”
And then he got to play fun games with his favorite person in the world, and then go back to his other human friends, Sam and Ellie.
That started the shift. Bear seemed to realize that other dogs were not the most important thing in the world.
Bear loved his people, and Erin found he was more motivated to get back to them than he was to bark at the dog. When he made the connection that barking at dogs meant being removed from Sam and Ellie, he stopped caring about the dogs as much.
“And before I knew it, we got to sit at our table with him happily lying down next to me and dogs a couple tables over, about two meters away. Which was unbelievable compared to a year before that, where the distance that he would be able to get was about half a football field.”
Erin put her training focus into two approaches: this “cafe training,” and refining and tweaking LAT into a method that made a real difference for Bear.
And then they found BAT, “and he improved out of sight, and here we are.”
Analysis: What worked and why
We turned three major corners in our training over the years, in amongst all the fumbling. These weren’t always “aha!” moments, or even things that happened on purpose, but they did act sort of like those speed lines you can hit in Mario Kart: nice little boosts that we needed at the time, both to our training and our confidence.
The first was the Look At That phase. And I say “phase” because we tried a variety of Frankenstein-esque versions of that game before we started to see any progress, and that progress was a complete accident.
(Click here to learn more about Look At That-style exercises)
At the early stage, we were having real trouble, mainly because I didn’t understand what I was doing or even what I was dealing with, in terms of Bear’s behaviour.
Our setup was that we would see a dog coming, and immediately dart into the nearby bushes, where I would get Bear as far away as possible and ask him to sit right next to me. As the dog was walking past, I would then ask Bear to do a variety of simple tasks in an effort to get his focus, whilst also shoving treats in his face and holding on for dear life. When the dog had walked away, and Bear turned around to complain, he got chicken.
All of this was wrong.
But it lead to an accidental success when, after many repetitions of this, Bear started to preempt that the dog would inevitably leave, and he turned around to complain a little earlier. At which point he got chicken.
This started a new cognitive ball rolling in Bear’s mind:
“So….it’s not that the dog leaves and then I get chicken. It’s that I look away and then I get chicken? Huh…interesting.”
Once Bear started to make that connection (despite my clumsy inability to provide him with an opportunity to learn that sooner), he started turning away earlier and earlier, and soon he started not even facing the dog and preferring to look at me the whole time, at which point we began to decrease our distance from the other dog and start the process all over again.
This was a very tedious game of two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards, but it forced me to realise something extremely important, that was a major factor in the success of this method and also of our future success:
I had no idea what I was doing.
This phase in our training was a sharp slap from reality about how little I knew about the fundamentals of positive reinforcement-based training, dog body language, learning theory, canine cognition, and about how complicated reactivity really is. It forced me to go back to the beginning, and spend time truly learning. This was the era of endless nights full of blog posts and obsessive Youtube-watching. And the more I learned, the more I could see the subtle indications that Bear was trying, which allowed me to break down my criteria a hell of a lot more.
Dog Trainer Dictionary: Criteria – whatever the animal has to do to earn a reward at any given stage of training.
This eventually lead to our second turning point: the cafe training.
This was also a bit of an accident, but it bore the marks of our previous trials and all that we’d learned.
The thing about having a reactive, high-energy dog with an anxious attachment style, and working full time, is that every spare minute you have feels like it must be dedicated to that dog. It completely broke my heart to walk out the door of a weekend morning to go out for breakfast with my housemates, and leave Bear at home, staring wistfully out the window as we all walked away without him. So, inevitably, he ended up coming along.
In a lot of ways, this was a terrible idea. Definitely not something I’d recommend for people dealing with a reactive dog. But, as so often happens, our mistakes actually ended up being opportunities for some of our greatest successes.
Having to factor Bear’s training into such a stereotypically mundane and human activity that comes with stringent social expectations helped me understand that Bear’s training is not separate from his life. Or my life. And this understanding led to us building a reliable reinforcement history.
Our earlier mistakes with the Look At That method, and my glaring need to take myself back to Dog 101 school, had taught me how to read Bear, and how he learned.
This allowed me to respond appropriately and quickly to the signals he was giving me: when Bear’s gaze darted around excitedly in the direction of other dogs at the cafe and his body was wiggly, I knew it was time to give him treats for looking at his trigger, and to get his focus on me by doing simple exercises that already had a long history of positive emotional association. And when that gaze became a little more fixed and his tail raised beyond half-mast, I knew it was time to turn around and duck behind our visual barrier.
This foundational knowledge also allowed me to combine multiple motivations, rewards, and – technically – punishments in order to give Bear the best chance at staying under threshold enough to learn. The world isn’t a static place, and social interactions are, like, the least static of things. So being static in our training didn’t make any sense.
Finally, we found BAT. And once again, this was basically by accident.
Learning more enabled me to understand where my previous attempts had gone wrong, and allowed me to tweak our original LAT method even further. What I didn’t realise until later was that I had begun to think in a BAT kind of way.
(Click here to learn more about BAT)
By this point, I’d learned enough about Bear’s body language that I was able to (mostly) avoid putting him in unfair situations.
And I was also able to split the fuck out of everything:
Dog Trainer Dictionary: Splitting – breaking a training goal into smaller bits and working on each bit one at a time.
I was no longer looking for a full head turn, or even for a flick of the eyes towards me. I was rewarding:
- Hackles going down
- Shifting his weight backwards
- Choosing to sit
- Tail lowering
- Ears softening
Not all situations were rewarded with food, and not all redirection exercises were calm and easy and about me. Bear’s choice to try to engage with ANYTHING that wasn’t his trigger, in even the smallest, almost imperceptible way, was rewarded with something that made contextual sense for Bear’s behaviour.
But that brings us to the one major BAT element that I was missing, and is something that I – after years of reactive dog ownership – really struggled with:
Giving Bear freedom to choose.
My approach before this had been all about control: controlling Bear, controlling his environment, controlling my emotions, controlling Bear’s access to good things, controlling his emotional response.
And control is a huge part of owning and training a reactive dog. But there was really no room for Bear in there. Between forcing him to sit on a short leash right by me, to constantly asking him to do tricks, to waving treats in front of his face, to dragging him behind parked cars, Bear really never had any choice in how he interacted with the world around him.
The consequences of losing control of a reactive dog being so unknown and so potentially dangerous, combined with the underlying narrative pervasive throughout much of the dog-owning world that emphasises your ability to “control your animal”, had worked together to turn me into a ball of anxiety with a god complex.
What BAT asks of you is to relinquish some of that control, and give your dog a chance to make rewarding and empowered choices.
This simple but incredibly challenging shift in our relationship was the single most powerful step in our training journey. Bear’s reactivity improved immensely.
CHALLENGES FACED ALONG THE WAY
Reactivity doesn’t actually fit into neat boxes
A lot of the advice Erin found said that figuring out the reason behind the reactivity was the most important thing to do. The problem was, Bear was both.
The signs of fear or frustration reactivity Bear would show depended entirely on the situation. And sometimes he’d show both within seconds of each other, seeming to become more fearful the more excited he got.
“I struggled with this for about two and a half of the three years we worked on this together.”
Frustration reactivity is like underage drinking
“I used to think of [frustration-based reactivity] as like underage drinking. When you’re sixteen and your older friends say ‘here, do you want a sip of this vodka cruiser?’ and you think “uh yeah, I obviously do, because I wanna be cool.” But you also can’t really deny that you’re a little bit afraid. It’s an excited afraid, but you’re a little bit afraid. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Maybe you’ll get in trouble. Maybe you’ll get drunk! Maybe you’ll throw up!”
Nothing about reactivity is neat. It certainly doesn’t look neat when a reaction occurs, and it almost never fits into neat boxes.
“The categories of Fear and Frustration are a good launching pad, but they’re in no way a restrictive list of the ways in which your dog’s reactivity could manifest, or the underlying motivations for that reactivity.”
Reactivity? Aggression? AHHHH!
When Bear first showed me that this whole reactivity thing was a Real Problem™, I obsessively Googled “is my dog aggressive?”
Because that seems to be THE question. Every article I read started with a variation on one basic statement:
The first thing you need to do is figure out if your dog is reactive or aggressive. If they are aggressive, we can’t help you, get a trainer. Figured that out? Great! Now, moving on: reactivity is either fear or frustration…
And, oh boy, did I have some questions and/or feelings.
[Jake: wow I feel personally attacked rn]
Firstly, no one really seems to want to talk about how you figure out whether you’re dealing with reactivity or “aggression”. And that seems to be because the definition of both is extremely subjective. There is no clear-cut difference between the two: they’re both just a collection of displayed behaviours.
Secondly: “get a trainer”?
I mean, that’s great advice for a lot of people. But many dog owners don’t have the resources available to hire a trainer, nor do they have the knowledge to pick a trainer appropriate for their dog’s behaviour issues. And even if they could create the resources to allow this to happen, what are they supposed to do in the meantime? Just sit around twiddling their thumbs, watching their now-imprisoned, potentially-aggressive dog destroy their house and slip slowly into insanity?
Simply sending people away with “we don’t deal with your kind here” doesn’t help anyone. It’s well-meaning advice from people who are trying to be responsible, but it also makes already-nervous dog owners feel downright terrified and helpless.
It also indirectly fuels this idea that “aggressive” dogs are somehow innately bad. The deranged serial killers of the dog world. A belief which isn’t just entirely false, but is also really discouraging to people who do own dogs who display aggressive behaviour, and pushes the topic of aggression in dog training further into the shadows. The perpetuation of the idea that dogs must be Unfailingly Loyal And Good or else they are BANISHED is just not something that any of us need.
And thirdly, there’s that need for us dog trainers to immediately sort things into neat little boxes again. Classic.
It can actually be real fuckin’ difficult to exercise a reactive dog as much as you’re “supposed to”
Do a bit of research into solving behavior problems, and you’ll find a lot of advice that says “exercise the crap out of them and you’ll solve half the problem!” (Ahem, guilty)
But when your dog is a gigantic, super energetic, reactive, leash-puller from hell and you live in the suburbs, that’s a lot easier said than done. And the guilt of being unable to exercise your dog enough can really weigh on you.
Jake: “The standard advice I give people is ‘drive out somewhere you can put your dog on a long-line and let them have a nice relaxing sniff!’ But was that ever feasible?”
Erin: “Um, it was attempted [laughs]. The usual place we went to was where you and I got married. There’s lots of hiking trails there. But in a place like Melbourne, those areas are popular with people who have dogs for the exact same reason. Everyone thinks the same thing: it’s the weekend, I’m going to go hiking with the dog.
So unless you work a job where you can go during the week, or if you’re brave enough to go at night, or early in the morning when it’s dark, or you can drive for two hours and go somewhere where people from Melbourne won’t also be going for their weekend hike, doesn’t really make much difference. And we’d encounter a lot of off-leash dogs on those adventures, too. There was nowhere I could take him where I could turn off my brain a little bit. I had to really psych myself up to do anything with him. Which meant that it was about two walks during the work week and then maybe an adventure one day of the weekend.”
Being too overwhelmed with dog things to do any dog things
In addition to his reactivity stuff, which is a complicated beast of an issue all by itself, as a newly adopted dog, Bear also needed things like basic obedience, house training, and don’t-eat-the-cat-or-the-furniture training. It’s a LOT.
“Many days, I didn’t do the training because I was so overwhelmed by all the things I needed to train him on, that I didn’t know where to start. It was like when your headphones get all tangled and you just can’t find any end. They’re all interwoven and there’s no way to separate one strand from the other.”
Our dogs aren’t always learning what we think they’re learning
Say you’re training your dog to lie down on a dog bed on cue. You think it’s going well, but then you move the bed and the dog goes to lie down where the bed USED to be. Turns out, you’ve taught your dog to lie in one specific spot on the floor, bed or no bed.
Things like this happen all the time when you live with dogs. “Quite often in training with Bear, what I found was that the connections I made in my brain were not the connections Bear was making in his brain. He’s learning something verrry different from what I ever intended to teach him.”
Erin realized this was happening with the LAT training. Instead of learning that when he looked away from a dog he would get chicken, he learned that when the dog left he would get chicken. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but “it resulted in me teaching both things badly. Not actually teaching him anything.”
What you should know: The little things that make a big difference
How to be “the most valuable thing in the world to your dog” in an actual healthy sustainable way
Sometimes, you’ll hear advice along the lines of “in order to keep your dog’s focus, you need to be the most interesting/important thing in the world.” An idea which isn’t necessarily wrong, but depending on how it’s put into practice, it can be damaging to your dog, your relationship with your dog, and your sanity.
Cutting your dog off from all other reinforcers, or making sure you’re always in total control of all possible reinforcers in every situation is unsustainable at best, and impossible and miserable at worst.
(I still have flashbacks to my well-meaning agility instructors constantly telling me, a quiet, socially anxious teenager, to be more exciting for my easily-distracted dog. Who, in hindsight, was only acting distracted because he was pretty anxious himself. See: Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of A Stressed-Out Dog?)
A better approach is to think long-term. Instead of worrying about being the most fascinating thing in any given moment, develop a long history of you being a reliable source of reinforcement.
Your frustration-reactive dog should learn that barking and fixating on other dogs does not actually work to get what they want. It won’t result in getting to meet that dog, or getting snacks, or anything else exciting happening.
But turning their attention to you, or doing what you say, or being near you, will ALWAYS result in a reward. A treat, or a game, or something else that the dog loves. Always always always. Their reinforcement history for Paying Attention to My Human will begin to stack up against their reinforcement history of Going Nuts At Other Dogs.
“[the cafe training] taught Bear that ‘no matter what else is happening, certain things will always give you a reward. If you look at me, you get a reward. If you pay attention to what I’m saying you get a reward. If you’re near your family, you get a reward. It’s not that watching other dogs stopped being reinforcing, it was just less able to compete. Because he was not getting any reward for watching dogs. Nothing would happen. The dogs would leave, and we would continue. Life would go on and he got nothing out of it.”
Have enough treats for the entire adventure, not just The Training Session
“In the early days when we would go out for a walk or adventure, I would be really proud that I had packed many little baggies of treats. I had like five different kinds of of treats: low value, high value, super high value, etc. But my mistake? In all that planning, what I didn’t do was make sure I had enough treats to last not just the walk there, but the walk back. Or the car ride home. All those moments you don’t really think about being part of your training exercise.
And those gaps in reinforcement took us back. For every step we made, we took two steps back because I wasn’t predictable enough. So that’s when I turned into the daggiest person in the whole fucking world that just smelled constantly like hot dogs. I always either had clothes with pockets or a treat pouch. That was my criteria for literally any activity in my life. If we were going to a party, I had clothes with pockets just in case there was a dog at the party.
So I was not a cool person. I’m really glad we didn’t meet during this time.”
Jake: “no, I would have fallen pretty hard.”
“Well, everyone else thought it was dumb. But it helped. Because dogs know when you’re going to train them. It’s all those little pre-training rituals you aren’t even aware of. They know when you’re just going for a walk, and when you’re going for a training walk.
So when we were Doing Training, he knew he was getting a treat. But when we were out in the world, I was the least predictable reinforcer ever. He had no idea when he was going to get a treat.
But the minute I started being prepared in every aspect of my life to shove a treat in his face, or to deal with his behavior problems, things started getting better.”
How improvement happens (messily, that’s how)
“With LAT-style exercises, I could see Bear’s improvement over a number of sessions. But his results in a single session were really unpredictable. Sometimes he would lose his mind, and sometimes he would be fine.”
Much as we would like it to, success in big projects like this does not proceed in tidy increments.
You’ll have training sessions that leave you feeling energized and optimistic and proud of your training abilities, and then you’ll have a session where things go horribly, and like you never made any progress at all.
So when you’re trying any given training method, evaluate your progress based on the results of multiple sessions, not individual sessions. If you think of each session as a point on a line graph, there will be peaks and valleys. As long as things are trending upward, you’re good.
What “tension travels down the leash” ACTUALLY means
Another standard bit of reactivity advice that can be maddeningly vague is to just, like, relax, maaan. Because if you’re stressed, the stress will travel down the leash. And, well:
“I had no idea what that fucking meant. Like a), how am I supposed to make myself not stressed? This is a stressful situation. And b), how are my emotions magically traveling down a piece of material and into my dog’s brain? That doesn’t make any sense. It can’t be my body language, because he’s not paying any attention to me. He can’t focus on anything else, so how is he focusing on my emotional state?”
Sooo yeah, to clarify, this has nothing to do with energy or mystical vibrations. Sparky is not picking up on your pounding heart rate through the leash. You don’t have to make yourself stop being anxious by sheer force of will.
- Sudden tightness on the leash can become a cue to your dog that a trigger is near.
- Leash tightness reminds the dog that he is restrained. Restraint can really piss dogs off and cause a reactive outburst.
- à la BAT philosophy: when the leash is slack, the dog forgets that she doesn’t have the ability to approach the trigger if she wants, which allows her to focus on calming herself down. When dogs make the choice to restrain themselves, it’s much more powerful than when you do it for them.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU WERE STARTING OVER?
The classic (and mostly true) answer is that the whole experience was valuable and if I could go back, I would do it all over again.
The real answer is that whilst the experience did teach me a lot, I’d change a bunch of things.
Firstly, I think I’d spend less time researching reactivity and aggression and whether or not I had a problem, and instead I’d spend that time learning the basics of training and behaviour, and deprogramming all the culturally-instilled beliefs about what owning a dog meant and how dogs worked (what even are dogs?).
If I’d done that, it wouldn’t have taken me almost three years to figure out that training for one thing is actually training for almost everything. It’s not productive to try and tease out one specific behavioural issue from all the rest, and from our relationship as a whole. And that relationship relied heavily on my skill as a trainer.
We learned all of this the hard way, and I wish Bear hadn’t had to suffer my steep learning curve.
Another thing I’d change is to steer clear of the well-meaning but counterproductive opinions of family, friends, and strangers.
The more humble pie I ate as I realised exactly how out of my depth I was, the more I sought out the guidance of people who, it turned out, didn’t know any more than I did, and in some cases, knew even less. More often than not, these opinions weren’t helpful at all; they were alarmist, and based pretty much on folklore.
It contributed to a permanent state of diagnosis: I was constantly trying to gauge whether this was a “problem”, and “can I fix him?”
It was time wasted. Time that would have been better spent hanging out with my best friend Bear.
I’d also change my reliance on tools. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time obsessing over having the right harnesses, treat pouches, and clickers.
That stuff is important. But it was the equivalent of me getting my learner’s license and fussing over exactly which steering wheel cover to put in my supercar.
I didn’t have the skills for those tools to work the way they were supposed to anyway, and they certainly weren’t going to compensate for my knowledge gap. It would have been better to spend that time and money on all the amazing books and online courses and conferences I now know exist.
The final thing I’d change is just to stop beating myself up so bad.
(I’m still working on this)
I spent so much time blaming myself for everything:
For getting Bear in the first place, for not knowing enough, for asking for help from other people, for not exercising Bear enough, for not having enough money, for working too much, for not being organised, for not having eight arms and eyes in the back of my head…
The list was endless and it wasn’t fair.
Adopting a dog is a huge undertaking and it definitely shouldn’t be done lightly, but the idea that everyone who does so must have the resources at their immediate disposal to deal with any and all problems both foreseen and unseen, or else they should give their dog up, is just unrealistic and counterproductive. It actively does damage: dogs that don’t need to be returned to the shelter are given back by brokenhearted people carrying an enormous amount of guilt on their shoulders, whilst those that choose to keep their dogs are often pushed into inhumane and unscientific methods of training in order to deal with the problem as fast as possible.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE STARTING OUT WITH A DOG LIKE BEAR?
Your dog is never going to be “cured”.
There was comfort in the idea that I could “fix” Bear, because that meant that it wasn’t really part of him; it wasn’t really who he was, it was just how he was acting. And there was also comfort in the idea that with enough effort, one day I could have the carefree, romantic version of owning a dog that I’d dreamed of: he’d follow me everywhere, we’d communicate silently, he’d be my greatest companion.
The reason there’s comfort in those things is that, deep down, as a society we see dogs as an extension of ourselves. They’re a status symbol, in a myriad of ways depending on what circles you’re floating in. Changing this idea is at the core of how to approach living with your reactive dog.
During my earliest research, I saw a lot of debate amongst dog trainers about whether reactivity could be cured, or whether it could only ever be managed. With all due respect, I really take issue with that as a question.
All behavioural issues – all behaviour – in dogs will need to be managed. Forever. Nothing about this experience is a set-it-and-forget-it thing.
When Jake told me he doesn’t like coriander/cilantro, I didn’t put tiny bits of it in his food until he built up a tolerance to it, and then start throwing giant chunks of it in his dinner because he’d now learned not to be reactive to coriander anymore. He will always dislike coriander. Maybe in certain dishes, when the moon is just right, he might not hate it. But it will always be something I know about him and factor into our life.
Think about how ridiculous it is for us to assume that teaching someone to change something that’s deeply entrenched in their personality – as a result of their life experiences – in one specific set of circumstances, means that they can now extrapolate that lesson to every circumstance in their life forever and always, and will never need to ask questions, or be retaught, or have their emotional responses to those circumstances monitored by those who care about them.
You could do everything right and do all the training in the world, and there can still be situations where your dog will react.
This is why switching my mindset to understand that Bear’s training and Bear’s life were the same thing occupying the same space, was integral to us moving forward.
I needed to accept that this is our life, every day, for the rest of Bear’s days. Bear will always be a reactive dog. I will always be peeking behind corners to check for oncoming dogs. And I will always be advocating for him, and explaining his behaviour and his limitations to other people.
Dogs are always learning. It’s our job to always be teaching.
And on that ominous note, the next thing I’d tell people is to try their best to keep their sense of humour, and their compassion.
This whole thing is going to be stressful. There are going to be nerve-wracking moments. There are going to be some things your dog does that make you question everything about yourself and your role in your dog’s life. This is normal and largely unavoidable. Try to take things in stride.
It’s easy when you’re managing and training a reactive dog to look down at the other end of your leash and see an amorphous blob of problems and techniques.
But try to see the dog in front of you.
They’re funny, and confused, and frustrated, and loving, and trying really hard. They’re a lot of the same things that you are.
People have a lot to say about making sure you don’t “screw up” your reactive dog and there’s a lot of pearl-clutching about making sure you don’t – shock horror – make them aggressive. That’s important, but it also REALLY freaks people out.
I spent most of my time with Bear feeling like I was on a knife’s edge. But the truth is that as long as you’re not using harsh correction-based methods, you’re unlikely to irreparably damage your dog. So, even if the whole training session is a disaster and you have one of those moments that makes you question everything, realise that there’s always tomorrow. And today, you have a dog who loves you, and wants to do well.
And the last thing I’d tell people is to take care of themselves. You know that whole “put on your own mask before helping others” thing (wow, #relevantcontent, pls wear masks)? Well, it’s really true here.
If you’re walking out the door for a reactivity training session and you’re already annoyed with your dog because you’re fumbling with door keys and your treats are falling out of your pouch and your dog is pulling and wrapping you up in the lead to get the treats you dropped and you’re running late and it’s raining and work was very long and you have a headache and now you’re tripping over the lead and they JUST WON’T LISTEN (can you tell this comes from experience?), then that training session is going to go poorly. For both of you.
Something I found really lacking in all my research about reactive dog training is a focus on the toll it can take on the owners, and how critical it is to take care of your own mental health. Living with a reactive dog is hard goddamn work. It can be very lonely.
Show yourself just as much care and compassion and patience as you’re showing to your dog.
You, too, will develop reactivity.
But you’re also going to learn a lot about yourself throughout this process. Maintain an open line of communication with yourself, and make it a real priority to address your stress and celebrate your wins.
Sometimes, this will mean doing things that have nothing to do with your dog.
Forget dogs exist for a minute. Remember that you are a person, not just a dog owner. I know it’s hard, but try existing in the world just for, like, half a day, without relating everything you see, feel and hear, back to dogs.
Don’t be afraid to lean on the human beings in your life who love you. Reach out to them for help with dog things, yes, but also for connection, and reflection, and humour, and perspective, and to remind you of all the other things that make you who you are.
Check out the rest of our series on reactivity/aggression/fear:
- Training a Behavior vs Changing an Emotion: What All Dog Owners Need to Know
- The Right Way to Use Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Help a Fearful or Aggressive Dog
- Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge on Leash? (Intro to Reactivity)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Helping Your Reactive Dog Get Better
- Leave The Light On: a Real-Life Reactive Dog Adoption Story