Step One: Call It What It Is

I want to start by saying thank you to everyone who read our last post “The Happy Heeler is Not Always Happy”. The outpouring of support we received was truly inspiring, and wildly unexpected. We are with you, and know that reactivity is not a life long issue if you do not want it to be. You and your dog are capable of creating an incredible future together.

I touched briefly on how I helped train Chief through a lot of his reactivity. We met up with other dog and handler teams facing similar issues, attended group classes, booked private lessons, and challenged ourselves to improve as often as possible. All of this is standard procedure, and of course helped immensely. One piece of the process I did not mention was acceptance. I wasted so much time not calling it what it was.

My rescue dog Vinny is on the extreme end of reactivity. He will never be trusted off leash, he is unpredictable, and his behavior stems from a long, abusive start to life prior to his rescue. Until I had Vinny, I never knew what a reactive dog was. I thought all dogs were happy go lucky, loved people or were just a little shy, and naturally gravitated towards a positive existence. With Vinny, my entire belief system about dogs collapsed. I had to recognize the fact that dogs can be difficult, reactive, and even at times dangerous.

When Chief started showing signs of reactivity, it did not even cross my mind that he was a reactive dog. Compared to Vinny, he was an angel. He barked and lunged at dogs but not to the extent Vinny does. I put so much blind faith in Chief as I truly did not believe what I was witnessing. One day, that was no longer an option for me. I wish I had realized it on my own, but it took me being called out by a respected professional to see things clearly. It was an embarrassing moment but here I go sharing it with you all anyways.

Last fall, I attended a training “field trip” at a sanctuary farm. The majority of attendees were experienced trainers and I was fortunate to have been invited to participate. The field trip focused on obedience, exposure, and situational awareness. There was a large group of dogs in attendance, most of which were brand new to us, as well as an assortment of animals that we were going to encounter as we toured the farm. We were briefed on the program, and set off as a group. Immediately, Chief began barking and displaying nervous body language. I made some jokes about it, took direction on how to handle him from the trainers, and carried on with the group. A lot of the paths were tight and forced us to be in close proximity with other dogs. Chief had a handful of outburst at other dogs throughout the clinic.

At the end, we were asked to share something we learned. I still don’t know why but I said “Well, my dog isn’t reactive but he can be”. I was IMMEDIATELY called out on this statement by a well respected trainer who told me point blank “Your dog is reactive, we all saw him react to multiple dogs today”. Just like that, my entire perception of my relationship with Chief changed. I later found out the trainer assumed I was also an experienced trainer and would likely have not called me out if he knew I was a pet dog handler. I was embarrassed in the moment, but now I see that exchange as the exact motivation we needed to make a major change.

Often people will misconstrue dog behavior as something it is not. There is so much anthropomorphic discussion about dogs and it truly makes me cringe. Here are some statements I have heard from dog owners and what the dog’s behavior probably means:

  • “Aww he’s sitting on my foot, he loves being near me!” He is likely uncomfortable and trying to protect you.
  • “He’s smiling!” Dogs showing teeth can be a sign of aggression, warning, or submission.
  • “He just wants to say hi.” Typically a dog lunging, barking, or pulling their handler towards other dogs has underlying socialization issues or lacks a respectful relationship with their handler.

These are simple examples of people not being able to call the behavior what it is. Humans are so quick to superimpose our behaviors onto dogs. Dogs are their own individual species with different social standards, emotions, and behaviors. By making excuses and not taking the responsibility of figuring out what our dogs’ behavior actually means, we are unable to progress with our training.

After I was called out on Chief’s reactivity, I took some time to come to terms with this reality. Ultimately, this comment was of monumental importance in our training journey and successes thus far. I hope anyone reading this takes some time to reflect on the reality of their dogs’ behavior, both good and bad. Celebrate the wins and positives, and work on improving the difficult behaviors every day. The greatest love we can show our dogs is a true understanding of their behavior and what they need from us to be successful.  

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