It was the fall of 2008. I was all settled in at my first post-college job, and I finally had the time needed to pursue dog sports. Excited, I signed up for an obedience class at a local training club. Maisy was just barely two years old, and while there had been warning signs that she wasn’t exactly normal, I didn’t know enough to recognize that. I’d heard of reactivity, but was thankful my dog wasn’t like that. So the first time she barked and lunged at another dog in class, my heart sank.
I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I knew so very little. I couldn’t read Maisy’s body language, I didn’t understand how stress impacted dogs, and I had absolutely no clue what I should do next. What I needed was someone to help me, but our instructor- as wonderful as she was- couldn’t. This is not unusual; there is a huge difference between training obedience skills and modifying undesirable behaviors, and most trainers are experienced in the former with little understanding of the latter.
I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve chronicled much of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this knowledge came a bit late, so today, I want to share what I wish I’d known back then. If you’ve just realized that you have a reactive dog and are wondering what you should do next, here are my suggestions.
Take a Break
One of the biggest mistakes people make with reactive dogs- myself included- is to keep putting their dog in situations they can’t handle. It’s easy to do this. At first, I simply didn’t understand what was triggering Maisy’s behavior. It’s hard to avoid things if you don’t know what those things are.
Later, I kept putting her in those situations in order to “socialize” her and “train through it.” This was a mistake. Every time I put Maisy into a situation she couldn’t handle, she learned that I couldn’t be depended on to keep her safe. Maisy is a resourceful little dog, so when it became clear I wasn’t doing anything about the situations that made her uncomfortable, she decided to. She barked and lunged. And every time she did, she got better at it. Reactivity became a habit, and anyone who’s tried to break their own bad habits knows how hard it is. This really slowed down our progress.
This is why my first (and possibly most important) suggestion is to simply take a break. Stop exposing your dog to things he can’t deal with. This might be training classes. It might be trials. It might even be going for walks. Don’t let your dog rehearse behavior you don’t like!
Consult an Expert (or Two)
Of course, it’s both impossible and undesirable to avoid the world forever. Most of us want to do things with our dogs and to take them places, so while taking a break is good in the short run, it’s usually not a long-term strategy.
While on your break, you should use the time to consult with an expert. If the behavior change is sudden, a vet check may be in order. Medical concerns can change the way a dog acts. Although Maisy’s issues aren’t solely the result of her health, they do get worse during allergy season or when her back hurts. Get your dog checked out.
Next, find a trainer. I’ve written before about why I think you need a trainer. Reactivity is a spectrum; there’s a huge range of behaviors your dog can display, and the reasons behind them can be just as varied. It is highly likely you will need some help parsing it all out. As I already noted, you don’t want just any trainer. While there are very talented folks teaching obedience, agility, etc., you need someone who’s had experience and success with behavior issues.
Read, Watch, Go
If you have a reactive dog, you need to learn and you need to learn fast. If you’ve hired a trainer, it is possible to skip this step… but I don’t recommend it. There are many ways to approach reactivity, and it’s helpful to understand multiple perspectives. Even if you have the best trainer out there, sometimes hearing things from a different point of view will help give you the clarity you need.
Start by learning about different training methods. I strongly favor positive, reward-based methods. It’s not that other methods don’t work- they can- but there is a higher risk of fallout. Check out this position statement by the AVSAB for more information.
Next, learn about dog body language and stress signals. It’s amazing how much we miss simply because we don’t know to look for it. There are tons of DVDs, books, and websites devoted to learning to understand what you’re dog is telling you.
Continue your education by learning about the different protocols designed for reactivity. From basic desensitization and counter-conditioning to more sophisticated programs like Control Unleashed and BAT, there are lots of ways to approach the problem. Find out more about them, and discuss them with your trainer. Find out what she prefers and why. Together, choose one that you both feel comfortable with and that seems like a good fit for your dog.
Finally, build up a support system. Blogs, email lists, and in-person friends are all places you can go to exchange ideas, commiserate about set-backs, and celebrate successes!
I know, I know. It’s really not that much fun, but records can be incredibly valuable. It wasn’t until I started logging incidents that I realized just how anxious my dog was. I was so accustomed to her behavior that I didn’t really recognize it as abnormal. Seeing it all in black and white helped me understand just how much help she needed.
This doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. Your records can be as simple as a brief note on a calendar or as complex as an Excel spreadsheet. The format is less important than simply doing it. They will help you identify triggers, notice subtle behavior patterns, and track your progress.
These are the things I wish I had known almost four years ago. I’ve learned much since then… most of it the hard way! Although there is no shortcut through reactivity, the sooner you enlist help, the quicker it will be.
For those of you who have been there, done that, what do you wish you’d known? For those of you who are new to this, what other questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you!