Maisy is a normal dog these days, health concerns not withstanding, of course. I take her places that I would have never dreamed possible in the old days, and I do it without even thinking about it. I put her into chaotic situations- block parties, playing with children, outdoor festivals- without worrying. I used her as a decoy dog for a BAT session with a German Shepherd, completely forgetting that that breed was once one of her biggest triggers.
And guys? It's pretty awesome.
But it took a lot of work to get to this point; our (former! Sad face!) veterinary behaviorist told me that she's only seen this level of improvement a handful of times in the past ten years. Maisy's normalcy is not, well... normal. And yet, here we are.
This progress was not the result of any one thing. Medication was a huge factor, as was some environmental management/change. And of course, I did a ton of training. But when you're working with a reactive dog, this training is not limited to attending class and doing your homework. This training needs to be happening all day long.
Back when I was in the throes of reactivity with Maisy, her days consisted of either management or training. That's it. I was either doing something to prevent her from reacting, or I was actively working on her reactivity. This required me to change my lifestyle in order to accommodate her needs.
Every single walk we took required a clicker and cookies. We played Look at That. I closely monitored her body language and used the Whiplash Turn to interrupt her when she got close to going overthreshold. Sometimes, I would turn around if there was a dog or a kid or a bike up ahead that I knew she wouldn't be able to handle. I reinforced good choices liberally. I did a ton of classical conditioning: every barking dog resulted in cookies. Every screaming child resulted in cookies. Every bike that whizzed by resulted in cookies.
At home, Maisy went in a crate when guests or workmen were expected. She did not go to many dog-friendly gatherings because I knew I would be distracted and unable to give her the undivided attention she would need. That made me sad (I love having her around), but it was the best thing for her. If I knew that something was reliably difficult for her (garbage day or the neighbor's house being re-roofed or whatever), I would put her in a quiet room with a chewy and calming music playing loudly enough to drown out the sounds. (Later, after we'd started using medication, I would also give her a short-acting, as-needed anxiety drug.)
I paid attention to the things that set her off at home, like the sound of a car door slamming outside or the mailman coming or even the cats boisterously playing together. I always had treats in a pocket, and every one of these things was followed by a cookie so I could change her association with those triggers from bad to good.
We did go to classes, and we did do our homework. You really have to; if your dog only practices skills in stressful situations, those skills become predictors of bad or scary things, and can actually add to your dog's stress level.
In other words, I changed the way I lived my life so I could help Maisy. Sometimes I failed. I was tired or sick or had a bad day and just couldn't deal with her. That was okay. I managed what I could and just promised myself I'd try again the next day. There were times that I put her in situations that required a judgment call- and I made the wrong one. Those, too, were okay. I would take note of the problem and work on it later. But over time, my consistent and constant work paid off with a normal dog.
My lifestyle had to change drastically in order to reach this place, but it has been worth it. Having a normal dog is freaking awesome, and I am thrilled beyond belief that I can enjoy her company in so many more situations now.