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Dealing with Dog Reactivity

Original post: January 2018

For those of you who have met Denzel in recent years, you see a sweet and quirky little fruitcake. People are always amazed when I relate the terror he used to be when he was younger. At 6 months old, Denzel was attacked in a dog park and developed some pretty concerning dog reactivity problems. He is the result of bad breeding, poor upbringing in his early developmental windows as an "only pup", and negative experiences during his secondary fear period. It has taken time, patience, and hard work to get him to where he is now. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth every second. He is my demo dog, my “Walmart greeter” at events, and a regular in local schools and daycare groups giving presentations on the importance of safety around dogs. More importantly, he now has four legged friends – something I was positive 5 years ago would never happen.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t have reactive dogs. Myself and many others would be out of a job. Prevention is always the best policy.  By setting your dog up for success early in life with proper socialization and lots of effective conditioning towards people, dogs, cats, cars, fireworks, leaves blowing in the wind.. the likelihood of a dog developing reactivity problems decreases enormously. However, life is never that straight forward. We as owners can screw up even with the best intentions (like I did!), dogs are neglected and abused then adopted out with pre-existing reactivity problems.. There are a million and one reasons why a dog may develop reactivity issues. Life with a reactive dog isn’t easy.

This article is for those who are currently working through their own issues in the hope that I can provide some support and encouragement, and shed a little light on the human side of dealing with dog reactivity. Here are a few tips from someone who has been there, for dealing with life with an aggressive or reactive dog:

Seek professional help, now.

Over the years I have seen potentially great dogs turned away from other trainers because they are too aggressive, too reactive, a “ticking time bomb”, a “weapon”. It’s really sad to see, because not all trainers are equipped to deal with reactive dogs. Comfort and skill level varies greatly.  The owners that spring to mind sought help elsewhere, and with the right help saw their dogs go from strength to strength.

Always remember, a second opinion can’t hurt – in fact, it could save your dog’s life.

When talking to clients describing reactivity in their dogs, my first question is always, “What have you done so far to address the issue?”. Often the responses relate to correcting the dog, removing the dog from the situation, or completely avoiding a situation where there is potential for a reaction or conflict. While this may prevent or suppress a reaction, the side effects could actually be detrimental to the dog and do not deal with the root cause of the reactivity.

Let’s put it into human terms.

Say you’re afraid of spiders – I stick a spider in your lap, and every time you scream, I punch you in the face. Not fun, right? It also doesn’t deal with your original fear of spiders. Sure, you might stop screaming – but only out of fear of me bopping you on the nose. Even worse, it could escalate to the point of you either hitting me back (like a dog redirecting their aggression onto the owner), or you squatting the spider to get rid of it (like a dog going from growling/lunging straight to an attack).

The thing to remember about using corrections in a reactive dog, is you are punishing the dog for expressing fear. If you correct these warning signs, they can disappear and be replaced with a more severe, and potentially more dangerous reaction. Under no circumstances should you use aversive equipment (shock collars, prong collars or choke chains) in order to address reactivity issues - the risk of behavioral fallout from adding pain or discomfort to an already unpleasant situation is too great.

Back to our friendly spider – in the first instance I’ve thrown you in the deep end knowing you’ll react, and I’ve punished you until you stopped. If instead, I started with a smaller stimulus (ie. working you below your reactivity threshold) having the spider across the other side of the room well away from you, and gave you $5 every time you looked at the spider and didn’t freak out… Well now that teenie tiny spider isn’t so scary is it? In fact, your wallet is getting pretty full from doing this.. That feels good, right? Now spidey starts walking towards you, I start throwing $10 bills at you. Over time, you feel more comfortable and reach out to touch the spider, bam $50!!! All that money raining down on you, you’re going to start feeling pretty good about spiders.

The same goes for our dogs when effectively working through classical and counter-conditioning. By helping them develop positive associations with the stimulus they are reacting to, not only will their reactivity levels decrease but you see a change in their perception of the things they used to react to, whether it’s humans, dogs, kids, or cats. A professional trainer can give you the tools and exercises to properly and effectively work through your dog’s reactivity issues.

Find a support system.

Whether it's friends, family, or a complete stranger in a Facebook group, having someone to talk to is crucial. Whether you need to rant and cry through the lows, or have someone to join you in celebrating the highs - simply having someone on your team can make all the difference. I was very lucky in our darkest time to have been surrounded by like-minded dog owners who quickly became lifelong friends not just for me but for Denzel too.

I try my best now to give a little of that back to the students. I have had students cry on my shoulder after class because they feel like their dog did not do well.  I’ve had phone calls and Facebook messages from students whose dogs have regressed and they felt overwhelmed. But for every message saying "Guess what Butterscotch did today.." there are even more saying "You won't believe what my dog did today!" or my favorite recent update - photos of Roxy, the SPCA Great Dane playing with two new doggie friends!

Take a break.

The emotional impact of owning a reactive dog is something you really need to have experienced to understand. From the embarrassment of your dog reacting in public, to the rage when a stranger tells you your dog should not be in public (how else am I going to walk him, and also where did you get your degree in being a complete asshole?), I’ve even been told that my dog should be put to sleep because he will never have any quality of life – by someone running their dog off leash in Bowring Park.

Aside from dealing with the general public (so named, because they generally suck when it comes to dogs that don’t conform to the normal “good dog”), there’s an internal turmoil too. Am I doing the right things for my dog? Will he ever feel better? Will there ever be a time I come home from a walk and my hands aren’t raw and white from holding on to the leash for dear life? Will I ever be able to have friends over to the house? Will my dog ever have friends?

The answer is YES!  These things can come so long as you keep working towards them, but you need to take care of yourself too.

Take some time to stop and smell the roses. All the hard work can take its toll – burning yourself out with stress and worry isn’t going to help anyone. Try to remember that your dog is your companion, and you are doing all of this out of love for them. Take your dog to a low traffic area and let him have some fun. Build that bond of trust and love between you. Set aside time to do something you and your dog love. Curl up on the sofa together and just cuddle. Denzel has always loved to snuggle, so I would always make sure he got his time in. The smell of his head after a day out in the fresh air, and the feel of his velvety ears always soothed me and reminded me how much I adore this little fruitcake. Take a deep breath, and remember that you can do this.

Socialize your dog, safely.

Isolation is not a solution. There are options available to you to allow your dog around others in a controlled and safe environment. Before that though, my first and most important piece of advice is to stay away from the dog parks. Don’t just stay away, run away. It was the biggest mistake I made with Denzel, and one I’ve regretted for years. All it takes is one fight, one attack, one negative interaction. The biggest problem with dog parks is the unknown – there are no guarantees that the other owners are responsible and educated, that their dogs are vaccinated, that their dogs are dewormed and their poops picked up. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see dogs playing together off leash. It’s funny, goofy, and a great learning opportunity for your dog in boundaries and how to safely play – just do it at home. Invite your doggie friends over, and have a play date in the garden with dogs/owners that you know and trust.

Do some homework!

It’s really important to set your dog up for success. In order to do so, there are techniques and skills you can work on at home before moving out into higher distraction environments like trails, neighbourhood walks and high traffic areas like Bowring Park and Downtown. Improving focus/eye contact will help greatly when faced with an approaching dog or human – if your dog would rather look at you than the approaching danger you set yourself up to be able to deal with unexpected encounters on walks. The same applies to recall – leashes break, and accidents happen. You want to make sure in an emergency your dog has a decent recall to avoid a dangerous situation. Our online courses can help you get on the right track with your dog!

Last but not least, I want to thank those of you with reactive dogs who are seeking help and working through their issues. Behaviour related problems are the largest contributor to euthanasia in dogs in North America – I would love for that to change.

I have three words of advice for those who feel overwhelmed, stressed, dejected and down about their current situation – Don’t Give Up.

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