The happy heeler is not always happy

Tomten Farm and Sanctuary for a dog training “field trip”

As much as I wish this post was about Vinny, it is actually about Chief. I don’t discuss it openly often but he has always been a reactive dog. Herding breeds have the tendency to be reactive. They like to control movement, they are protective of their space, and heelers specifically tend to choose one person as “their” person which can lead to resource guarding. Chief specifically struggles with proximity to other dogs. Through almost two years of training, we have learned to manage his behaviors so he can join us in almost everything we do. He has really strong periods of time, but also relapses and spirals out on occasion. Those days are so disheartening and if you have them with your dog, know I feel your struggle.

When Chief was a puppy, he would see other dogs, scream, and try to run towards them. I shook it off thinking he would grow out of it. For a while, he seemed to have done just that. Last July, we were attacked by a dog much larger than him while walking in our neighborhood. That is where everything went downhill. Chief had a hard time taking direction around other dogs, would get emotional when seeing them at a distance, and had major leash reactivity issues. At one point, I would avoid certain roads, or peek around corners and hide behind cars to avoid dogs. I realized how ridiculous this was and that it was just my way of avoiding what needed to be done- the only way to move past this issue was to move through it.

Chief and Cami, Photo by Alpha Dog Media Group

Through Instagram, I connected with a group of dog owners who were having similar issues with their dogs and wanted to work together. We would meet up in a neutral location, and work on our dogs staying neutral to each other. Chief did extremely well in these scenarios and his behavior improved so much. Throughout this time, we were charged, chased, and rushed by dogs on a handful of other occasions (including being full sprint chased down our own street by two LARGE dogs that ran out of their yard with us as their target). We learned to handle these situations quickly, with less drama, and in a way that proved to Chief that I could stand up for both of us and he could trust me to protect him.

Now, he will go long stretches with no issues. He has been great lately but unfortunately had an extremely tough day this past weekend. We went to our first big Dock Dogs dock diving event of the year. This organization is extremely friendly and welcoming, so a lot of people will show up to an event with their dog to try it out for the first time. Although they always say at handlers’ meetings to “keep dogs on a 4 foot leash at least 8 feet apart”, many people seemingly ignore this and attempt on leash greetings. Not only is this dangerous in general, but add in the fact that most dogs are in high drive at these events and you can see how bad situations can happen.

We were in line waiting for our first jump on Saturday, and a man with a rowdy black lab moved far too close to us with his dog bouncing and barking with no regard to its surroundings. The dog jumped right on Chief and I literally saw him SNAP. He exploded, jumped in the air, scratched me, could not calm down, and would not listen until I moved him away. Honestly, this was BAD. Usually his reactions are just barking and maybe leash pulling. The stress of a busy public environment and dozens of dogs being present plus as I added the drive for the sport already setting in was a disaster in the making. Chief jumped well on Saturday but I left the event truly thinking he did not enjoy competing anymore. He was on edge all day, and seemed to be looking for dogs to explode at. I was crushed, and honestly heartbroken knowing he couldn’t fully enjoy one of his favorite activities.

Chief and Mazer, his biological brother

Sunday brought day 2. I was determined to give Chief a better day. When we lined up for our first jump, I made sure I brought food in a training pack. We moved into a pocket of shade away from the line of dogs waiting to jump, I asked him for a down, I used my body to block him, and gave him treats for engagement while we waited. I am happy to report this method not only worked but he seemed to be enjoying it. It seems so simple but if you have ever been to these events you rarely see handlers using treats because their dog has so much drive and focus on the toy they will be jumping for. Chief usually does too (he goes bonkers for his NERF bumper) but just didn’t have it in him this weekend. What he will never lack is food drive, so I leaned into that. We went on to hit a personal best by almost TWO FEET. We had fun, played together, trusted each other, and had an all around memorable day.

Here are my take aways from this story…

  • Advocate for your dog- You have the power to say no. Never be afraid to tell someone not to pet your dog. Never be embarrassed to make space for your dog. Never be shy to ask someone to give your dog space. It gets easier every time you do it, and your relationship with your dog benefits so much from these small gestures. I cannot tell you how many times I had to physically step between Chief and another dog this weekend and ask them (semi-politely) to not allow their dog to greet him on leash. They might be angry with you in the moment (which is something I will never understand) but always put your relationship with your dog first. If you don’t advocate for your dog, they will advocate for themselves and that might look like Chief’s explosion at the other dog I detailed above.
  • There is ALWAYS another way– You know your dog better than anyone. If one way isn’t working, pivot and try another. I have tried ALL the things to help Chief cope with his emotions, and today food, praise, and obedience gave us our day back and allowed us to be successful.
  • Just because a dog doesn’t seem reactive doesn’t mean they aren’t- I think I speak for everyone with a reactive dog when I say please give dogs space. Stop normalizing on leash greetings without consent of the other handler. Do not act visibly upset if a person tells you “no” when you ask to greet their dog. Do not reach down and pet a dog without permission. This is not only for the dogs’ safety, but yours too. Chief is The Happy Heeler, meaning the majority of the time he has a HUGE smile on his face. Most people that approach us comment on the smile, and immediately reach for him. What they don’t know is he isn’t always comfortable being directly approached by strangers and his smaller size and “smile” aren’t a perfect reflection of his current attitude. He is happy, but like all of us he can’t possibly be happy all the time.

If this story about Chief reminds you of your dog, don’t be afraid to do the hard things. Train your dog, build your relationship, develop trust in each other, and know incredible things are ahead. Reactive dogs can do sports, or whatever your goals and dreams are, too.

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