Many of our clients use us because they have reactive (often mistakenly called “aggressive”) dogs and we LOOOOVE reactive dogs!! Why would we love a dog that acts like it wants to murder the thing it reacts to? Because we know those sweet babies are misunderstood and we know how to handle fears that present themselves as aggression.
What We Understand About Reactive Dogs:
Dogs react negatively to different things for different reasons, but mainly because they previously had a bad experience with whatever it is to which they are reacting. In an effort to keep this as short as possible, I will talk about dogs reacting to other dogs. Even though many dogs react to things such as children, skateboarders, motorcycles, horses, men, sunglasses, hats, any human besides it’s mom or dad, etc.
It’s Really About Fear: Every dog we have loved and cared for that has been dog reactive had, at some point, been attacked by another dog. We understand these dogs are truly afraid they are going to be attacked again and are putting up a big, bad front to try to convince the other dog that it will not hesitate to end its existence if he or she decides to come near said reactive dog. This might not actually be the case and the reactive dog might turn into a big wuss when push comes to shove, but the reactive dog is hoping the other dog won’t take that chance.
It’s Also About Trust, Or A Lack Of It: We also understand that your reactive-while-on-a-leash dog might be the sweetest thing and “get along with everybody” at the dog park. This is because your reactive dog knows he has no way of escape when he’s on a leash and has to rely on the human at the other end to get him out of any scary situation. If the dog doesn’t trust the human to get him out of a threatening situation, the dog will take it upon himself to go on the offensive and look as mean and dangerous as possible, since he does not have the option to get away from the scary dog. When the reactive dog is off-leash at the dog park, he can make his own decision as to whether or not he wants to deal with certain dogs. He gets to choose to run away from any dog he fears. The reactive dog is now in control, not the human at the other end of his leash.
PLEASE NOTE: Whether or not your “Leash Aggressive” dog is friendly at the dog park is NOT something you want to try find out in an uncontrolled environment AND without a positive trainer or someone trained in dog behavior.
Dogs Let Us Know When They Are Afraid And Hope We Pay Attention: We have learned to spot the signals that tell us your dog is uncomfortable with something. Dogs can give very subtle signals they are stressed, such as lip licking, yawning, or turning away from whatever bothers them. (Would you ever think these could be stress signals? I didn’t until I started studying dog behavior.) If the human doesn’t pick up on these signals, the dog will progress to slightly less subtle signals, such as a tucked tail, a shake-off, panting, or whale eyes (looking at something out of the corner of its eye as opposed to straight on.) If the dog has to progress past these warning signs, then we have definitely not done our job and have not gotten the dog out of a situation that is making it uncomfortable. The progression of stress signals continues on to things like the dog freezing and/or having a hard-closed mouth and then on to baring its teeth and/or growling. Once the dog is at this point, it has decided the human is a full-on idiot and it is going to have to defend itself, because the stupid human is obviously not going to handle the situation.
How We Walk Your Reactive Dog:
In our initial consultation, we ask what sets him or her off. This stays in your dog’s file, which goes with us every time we visit your dog. While we make it a practice to avoid other pets, humans, and children with ALL of our doggie clients, there are some dogs who react to things that are a little different, such as snow plows or sunglasses. When we know this, we can keep an eye out for these things and make sure we stay far away!!
How We Handle An Oncoming Thing: Once we notice the Thing, we immediately look for a path of escape or avoidance in order to keep the dog as far away from the Thing as possible. More often than not, the Thing is far enough away that we are able to keep your dog from getting anywhere close to reaching that “threshold” where he or she freaks out. Options might include crossing the street to avoid the Thing, if we’re in a neighborhood, or doing a quick “Let’s Go!” and turning and heading in the opposite direction. Parks usually offer many different paths, so we’ll take the direction of the path we anticipate the Thing to not take. Sometimes, our only option is to hike far away from the path until the Thing goes away.
How We Handle A Barky Thing In A Yard: We run! And then give your dog lots of treats! This lets your dog know that we understand its sense of urgency to get away from a scary situation. The more times we get your dog out of scary situations, the more your dog learns to trust us. If we know in advance there will be a barky thing in a yard, we will either avoid going past that yard or cross to the other side of the street and quickly run past.
How We Handle An Unknown Scary Thing: We pay attention to your dog’s body language and make sure to be aware when your dog alerts on something. When your dog stops and perks its ears up, we know there’s something around he or she thinks isn’t right. Although, it could just be a bunny, if we can’t see anything, we still say, “Let’s go!” and head in the opposite direction. Who knows, it might be a ghost and, in that case, I will have my own reactivity issues.
How We Encourage Being Less Reactive To The Thing: Anytime your dog sees the thing it’s afraid of, even from far away, we name the thing and say in a really sweet voice, “Is that a thing? Yeah, that’s a thing!” while giving your pup lots of treats...until the scary thing is no longer in sight. This helps your pup to begin to associate the scary thing with something good…especially if the treats are super yummy!!
If you would like to learn more about how you can help your reactive pup get over its fears, I would highly suggest reading Behavior Adjustment Training, by Grisha Stewart.