Diaries of a Reactive Dog Owner – Lesson One
Everyone Is A Dog Trainer
I still vividly remember one of mine and Dougal’s very first walks together. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. Everything was a learning experience – what motivated him, what environment he liked, how he responded to, well, anything. So, I thought, “hey, let’s go somewhere with a variety of options – woods, fields, beach, river. Let’s see what makes him tick”. As it turned out, he was FULL of joie de vivre. He was just happy to be wherever, ears and tail flowing in the wind with that little puppy-style bounce to his step.
As we approached the river, you could see the anticipation growing in him. He was pulling on the lead, finding it harder to focus, tail up and ears forward. Seeing him splash into it without any hesitation was a sight to behold – this white fluffy majestic cloud suddenly became a streamlined seal pup, diving under the water, fishing for rocks and rolling around like he’d just found the biggest, stinkiest pile of fox poo. It was a moment of pure happiness.
But then, out of nowhere, a yap. A high-pitched, excitable woof from behind the trees. Dougal jumped straight to attention, launching himself to the end of the longline. Snarling, barking, hackles up as far as they could go. My little pup was having a meltdown, his own spin on the fight-or-flight response, an angry sort of panic attack. All of this before he’d even seen the offending dog, and it was still a good while off yet. Time to take up battle stations. I caught up with him, reeling in the longline to stop him running even closer to the calamitous situation, and started to experiment. Would food distract him? Squeaky toys? What about calming body rubs? Nope, nothing. So heightened was his fear, he was completely unresponsive. All we could do was exit the situation, as quickly and calmly as possible.
But life likes to be unpredictable. It likes to take us by surprise and see how we fare. So what else should appear from the trees in front of us but this strange dog and his owner, who we thought we were leaving behind us. The situation was well and truly out of control, and this was to be chalked up as a learning experience for me, rather than for the dangerous cloud at my feet.
They drew closer, and Dougal was losing his mind. But here it comes, my first lesson in owning a reactive dog.
Everyone is a dog trainer.
No matter their experience, no matter their qualifications, everyone and their mum will want an input into your training journey. But, and I can’t overstate this enough, you should not listen to them.
It may seem rude. It may feel wrong. But there is nothing better you can do for your dog in that moment. Nobody knows your dog like you do (even if, like me, you’ve only had said dog for under a week) and, short of holding a full behavioural consult and designing a tailored training plan, their input is likely unfounded and can even be dangerous.
Take, for example, what this woman said to me.
“Oh, my previous dog was just like that! Let him off the lead and he’ll be fine. He’s just frustrated he can’t play!”
Most of you can already imagine the horror that would ensue if I followed her advice. For those of you who may be struggling, let me paint you a picture of just what went through my mind at the prospect of it.
I bend down, unclipping his harness. No longer feeling restrained, Dougal lunges forward. He sees the object of his fear and believes it’s a case of “kill or be killed”. He charges, teeth first, straight for the jugular.
The force of his approach knocks the other dog to the floor, who’s now yelping and squealing, desperately trying to escape. There’s a furry pile up on the floor of pine needles, all claws and teeth, just like something out of a David Attenborough documentary. Dougal makes contact, bites down, and the other dog goes limp. The police are called. Dougal is declared as too dangerous, and is (gasp) ‘destroyed’.
No. There was no way I was going to let him off and let that play out in all of its gory glory.
Yes, there are cases of ‘leash reactivity’, where a dog can be wonderfully behaved off-lead, but on-lead becomes a lunging mess. In fact, this is relatively common. But this is still something that should be addressed by a professional – not a random woman distributing her advice in the woods.
So, what’s the takeaway from this? Stick to your guns. Have the self-confidence to believe that what you are doing is right and, when you need help, make sure you ask for it from reliable sources. If you need help in finding one of these, we’re only too happy to help.
Author: Alyssa Ralph, Your Dog’s Club Guru