Life With a Sweet But Oh So Reactive Dog

Not Losing Your Marbles with a Reactive Dog

I grew up with cats, since dogs were forbidden by my parents.  Now don’t get me wrong, I like cats but I’ve always wanted a dog. When I decided to adopt my precious fur baby, I had grand dreams of taking long walks with friends & their dogs, visiting dog parks and watching her frolic with friends, off leash play dates, stopping and talking to other dog owners we met on walks, and attending dog events at local boutiques.  One boutique even has organized dog walks downtown in the summer and bark yappy hours. I couldn’t wait to attend them with my new bundle of joy!

I scoured and local rescue groups daily looking for the right dog for my dream.  Finally, I came across the sweetest looking black & white dog named Pinky (a name change was first up on my list).  Now as a disclaimer, I will say I do have a weakness for black & white dogs (tied to a beautiful collie I once saw).  I couldn’t wait to meet her!  She was living in a foster home with 2 other dogs and a cat for 2 weeks, so I assumed she was fine with dogs (naive new dog mommy).  The foster mom said she was very sweet and got along with the other animals fine.  The foster mom hadn’t walked her though..yes probably a red flag.  The sweet girl started bringing her ball to me to throw & was running around with such joy.  I came back for a 2nd visit, and she bounded over to me with her ball again.  It’s true what they say, the right dog will pick you!  I renamed her Suki, and headed home to start our dream life. She bonded quickly and was so cuddly and sweet.

I was so excited for our first walk.  She had her pretty pink collar blinged out with her pink crystal ID tag, and pink/black bones leash on and ready to go.  I laced up my shoes and headed out for our first of many wonderful outings.

My Dream

My Reality

Holy batman!  Suki barked at the wind, jumped when I stepped on a stick, and told off a few leaves blowing by.  Then came the dog!  Suki went nuts..barking, lunging, pulling my arm out, twisting herself around her leash, and trying to get out of her collar!  By the end of the encounter, we were both a quivering pile of nerves and I needed a stiff drink!  This became her standard reaction to any dog greeting while on a leash.

Yes, my life is a little more difficult with Suki and definitely now how I pictured it, but I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world!  I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to go to a fun dog event or play at a dog park, but she is the sweetest, most affectionate dog with people and kids.  I’ve even gotten to the point where I can watch my friend’s dogs at my house without her flipping out. The leash and other dogs are just her mortal enemies!

Here’s what I’ve learned to help keep my sanity:

1. Seek Professional Help! Please make sure to choose a positive based trainer.  The first trainer I tried threw a prong collar on Suki and jerked her when she barked.  This is completely unnecessary! I wanted to put the prong collar on him and “correct” his mistakes. Needless to say, I ended the training!  I then found an amazing class specifically for reactive dogs in my area called Rowdy Rover.  The class size is kept at a minimum, it exposes the dogs to each other in a safe environment (smell first), and teaches great coping & relaxation techniques.  I highly recommend finding such a class.

2. I Was Part of the Problem. Whenever I saw a dog in the distance, I’d shorten the leash, grab it tighter, and steel myself for battle.  Unfortunately, my tension was passing through the leash to Suki. By the time she saw the dog, she was already wound tighter than a two dollar watch!  I started wearing a hands free leash that goes around my waist, which really helped.  I use the Ruffwear Flat Out leash, but there are others on the market now.

3. No Flexi Leashes. These should be outlawed!  I’ve lost count of the number of times a clueless owner has let their dog on a flexi leash run up in Suki’s face and start a battle.  You have no control with these leashes.

4. Use Your Dog’s Motivation. Suki is true to her Beagle and Lab heritage, and therefore highly food motivated.  I walk with a treat pouch filled with low-fat treats.  When a dog is approaching, I can distract Suki with the “watch” command or “find it” game with treats.  If your dog is toy motivated, try bringing his/her favorite toy for a distraction.  Don’t forget to treat yourself too (I prefer a good martini or moscato when I return home!)

5. Cross the Street! It’s Not a Game of Chicken for Crying Out Loud!  I’m always amazed by dog owners who see one or both of our dogs reacting to each other…yet keep walking towards us in a direct approach & try to greet.  There’s no shame in turning around or crossing to the other side.

6. No Yelling or Hitting! First off, it’s never ok to hit your dog. EVER. Second, yelling just seems to wound them up even more! I think Suki believes I’m actually barking with her in support when I yell.  I’ve found talking in a quieter, calming voice tends to get her attention better. I’m not talking high-pitched crazy dog lady speak, just calm.

7. Use a Clicker.  In the beginning, it was impossible to reach Suki once she was in full on react mode.  A clicker worked wonders!  My words fell on deaf ears, but that clicking sound was something different.  Just that 1 or 2 seconds of stopping to check out the “click” was enough to turn her attention back to me.  Plus it meant a treat was coming!

8. Reward Good Behavior.  It’s easy to harp on bad behavior, but don’t forget to praise improvements too.  When Suki makes it past a dog without turning into Cujo, she gets a “good girl” and a treat even if it wasn’t perfect.

9. Collar vs Harness.  Suki is stubborn and will choke herself on a collar when worked up. She’s also a little Houdini and gets out of most collars and harnesses when she wants after a dog.  She actually backed out of one harness and ran around mocking me! I swore I could hear her saying “na na na na na”.  The Sporn No-Pull harness has been a godsend!  It tightens if she tries to escape, and it stops her from pulling/lunging.  I like that it has covered straps, so they don’t irritate her skin.

10. Enjoy Your Dog!  No Suki isn’t perfect, and my original dream of dog ownership has been shattered.  But she brings me happiness everyday! I’ve learned to be calmer, appreciate the little things, and stop to smell the roses.  I’m woken up everyday by a sweet wet nose nudging me…full of joy to start her day!




Posted on November 4, 2012, in Training & Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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