I can’t believe it’s been 4 years since my first post on here! I started this blog as a way to deal with stress when I finally found out the name for what was happening with Oreo- reactivity. We’ve been through many tough times and have come a long way. Now I mainly post on here for updates and to share hope for others with reactive dogs. I still train Oreo, but do much managing and take many previous skills she learned and apply them every day. Four years ago, I would’ve never imagined I would be cleaning Oreos teeth, ears, feet and even grooming her myself! I also never thought we could go on long walks without her freezing, shaking in fear, or losing her cool. We’ve come a long way since she was attacked and the future can only get better!
Let’s be HONEST here, it’s NOT easy living with a reactive dog, especially when you are first starting out. Now that Oreo and I have been on this journey around 4 years recognizing her reactivity, training, and managing it, we find peace more often than years ago. Although this picture might not look PEACEFUL, it in fact is one of sheer joy for Oreo. Today it snowed more than 10 inches on top of 15 already, creating a winter wonderful for furry fidos. While some dogs don’t like the snow, Oreo LOVES it! What makes this time even better is she & I have no worries-NO DOGS OUT, STRANGERS, SQUIRRELS, OR ANYTHING FOR HER TO REACT TO!
Finding peace can be difficult if you are just starting out or in the midst of training. Peace won’t come to you, YOU HAVE TO FIND IT. Sometimes, you even need to CREATE IT.
Here are some ways that I found peace in the past or present with a reactive dog, I hope these may help you:
Walking-if you love it, find somewhere your dog will not come in contact with many triggers. I’m not saying avoid triggers forever because as you know in training your dog may need to see a trigger (example : another dog) from a distance and accept treats. However, your dog also needs peace and definitely needs days to calm down after a stressful event.
Where can I go walking, I live in a busy neighborhood/apartment/condo/city?
- Find an empty parking lot. I’ve walked Oreo around school yards on off seasons, company parking lots, and even parking lots of grocery stores that are out of business.
- Find a large, open space park. Some of my favorite parks were located near my condo where we used to live. After Oreo got attacked I couldn’t/wouldn’t walk her through our neighborhood. She froze up out of fear and quite frankly so did I walking around our neighborhood unaware when the next loose dog would attack. We found 2 favorite parks. Both parks weren’t super busy, and if one was busy, we went to the other. Both had lots of open fields, sports fields, and many exits. They both had various walking paths but also grassy areas we could cut through to avoid dogs or other triggers.
- Tennis courts. I’m not saying go into a tennis court that has a sign NO DOGS, but I am saying if you are lucky enough to have a neighborhood tennis court like we did, they are a great place to have your dog off leash if no one is around. Oreo loved her time running free, chasing tennis balls. We also practiced recall, my husband and I on separate sides of the court, calling her and rewarding her.
Inside Your House-Depending on your dog’s reactivity, you may be able to find peace in the home.
- Close the shades, put up window film, whatever works. If your dog is reactive when looking outside, don’t let them. If you aren’t working on training-don’t let your pup learn to bark at triggers (they will think they made the mailman/squirrel/dog go away).
- Turn on the tv, radio, a white noise machine or fan. We always leave a fan running at night because our neighbor’s dog that barks. If the fan is off, Oreo will bark. If the fan is on, we sleep through the night.
- Make a safe place for your dog, especially if you have kids. It could be a crate, a dog bed, or a gated area or room where your dog can go to feel safe and relax. This is also a good place for you to find peace if someone arrives or you feel your dog can’t handle a stressful situation, have them go to the peaceful place.
My personal favorite time to find peace with my pup is walking in the neighborhood while snow is falling with no one is around. This is a time Oreo and I can do something we loved without fear of dog attacks, while everyone else is bundled up inside we are being adventurous in the snow 🙂
No matter how much stress you or your pup is in, it’s always important to cool down and FIND PEACE or MAKE IT. Reactive dog parents go through a lot of stress, take some time for you and your pup to relax!
Remember when you were a kid, got in trouble and your parents told you to “GO TO YOUR BED (or room)!” Well, instead of a negative thing, sending your dog to their bed is a very positive trick, giving your dog confidence, routine, and a calm corner to relax.
I am revisiting an old trick I haven’t practiced in a while-sending my dog to her “bed”. This can be very important for all dogs, especially fearful dogs. There are many dogs who need a “cool down” or “calm” area, away from kids, stress and distractions. There are many dogs that can be possessive of space-they don’t like when you are too close walking by or need a space where no one can bother them when they are tired. Perhaps they need a space to go when the door bell is suddenly rang by someone delivering a package. Dog beds can be used as a safe space, a place to rest, to eat bones, and to practice routine.
Oreo, my reactive dog does not enjoy guests unless they are close family she is very familiar with such as my parents or sister. If someone like a delivery man approaches the door the usual reaction is barking and pacing. My goal is to give her something to do-SOMETHING ELSE besides reacting in an undesirable way. This can be very helpful if you have the bed behind a dog gate, once your dog goes in there to their bed, you simply treat, close the gate and answer the door.
Does your dog jump up, beg, or stare you down while you are eating? Mine doesn’t always, but after some trips to her grandparents house where they fed her some food from the table, she developed some habits which are fine, but can be solved with a dog bed. Instead of staring at us, she will learn to go lay down on her bed and relax, that will keep her calm and she will be rewarded with a treat there, but not from the table.
Do you have kids or even a spouse or friend who makes you nervous around your dog? Well, if you are nervous that your dog will react the wrong way-think of how your dog feels! A simple way to solve this problem is to teach anyone who comes into your house that the dog bed area is off limits-a dog gate would even be better so they CAN’T get to them. If you are nervous or you see your fearful dog is nervous-send them to their bed. They will feel more confident for completing the trick.
Okay, enough with the many reasons, let’s learn how to send them to their bed. There are two different ways.
1. Decide on what you would like to call your trick-“Go to bed,” “Go to mat,” “Go to cushion” and so on. We always taught her bed is when she travels into our room at night, and my husband’s name is Matt-so that won’t work. We picked “Go to cushion.” Go near the dog bed and say “Go to bed,” and place a treat there or lure your pup with a treat. Use a clicker or a word maker like “Yes!” when your pup is on the bed (release the treat if you are holding it for your pup to eat).
2. Encourage your dog to lay on the bed by saying “down” or whatever word you use for that trick. When they lay down click or say yes and treat. It’s best to teach them to lay on the bed, this way they can relax and you may want to continue to teach them more to the trick-like staying on the bed for periods of time.
3. Continue practicing having your pup on the bed by saying, “Go to bed” before they actually are on the bed. Use a treat to lure them and they will associate the bed with the signal “Go to bed.”
4. When they seem to get this, start asking them to “Go to bed” without the lure sometimes. Eventually, with practice you can fade the use of luring, and treat after they do the trick. They will no longer need to even know you have a treat. You can practice this from short distances and work your way up to more challenging tasks like having your dog “Go to bed” when you are in any area of your house. Eventually you can have them “Go to bed” with many different distractions happening at once.
1. If you like shaping or “catching your dog in the act,” this is the way for you. When you see your dog do anything near the dog bed (look at it, step on it, sit on it, stand on it, get near it) you click and treat.
2. You continue this “game” until your dog starts to realize good things are happening near the dog bed. Eventually your pup will realize being on the bed is when brings treats. You can continue shaping to add a sit or lay down.
Whatever way you chose, the trick not only helps your dog stay calm, but can help keep your dog safe. I will continue working with my pup on this and let you know how it goes! If you have taught your dog this trick, how did it work out?
The ASPCA defines counter conditioning as “re-teaching the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked.” Counter conditioning is VERY valuable in training, especially with fearful dogs. Here’s how it works:
1. Identify what your dog is fearful of (men in hats, skateboards, large brown dogs, and so on)
2. Get yummy treats (cheese, chicken, steak, something special).
3. Expose your dog to their fear in a controlled environment (ask a friend to help or do training at class). If not, then go somewhere your dog can see/experience the fearful event at a very safe and far distance.
4. Make sure you expose them at a far distance. If you were fearful of snakes would you want a snake thrown on you? NO! You would start seeing it at a distance first. You need to figure out what your dog’s threshold is. Do they get scared of a dog 50 feet away? 20 feet? 10 feet? When does your dog go from being confident to being worried to completely losing it (barking, snarling, hiding)? You want to find the point when your dog is a little worried, but not losing it.
5. When you have your distance, give your pup those yummy treats when she/he sees that scary thing. Don’t give it to them when the scary thing is gone, only when it’s there. You want your pup to associate the GOOD TREAT with something scary-this way your dog will come to have a neutral or positive reaction towards it. Example: You work on looking at dogs at a distance. Your dog gets nervous 30 feet away. You bring your dog to a park and see a dog 30 feet away. Your dog looks at the dog, you click (use a clicker or a word to signal food), then deliver the treat. You work on this for days, weeks, or even months depending on how well your dog does. Eventually your dog sees a dog and looks up at you-YAY! Your dog EXPECTS GOOD THINGS when they see other dogs!
6. Once your dog is okay at a certain distance, get closer. So now we move to 25ft away instead of 30. We work on this the same way with treats until the dog expects treats at this level and doesn’t show signs of being overly nervous.
7. Continue until you get closer. Not all dogs are meant to get super close to other dogs or what they fear. Don’t push the dog TOO MUCH. Take baby steps & think of what your dog needs. Does your dog NEED to be close to other dogs all the time? Does your dog need to greet dogs? I know my dog was attacked by another dog and isn’t comfortable playing or greeting other dogs. Has she greeted them since the attack and through training? Yes she has, however, I don’t feel the need to push her anymore-She’s okay with them being 10ft + away, and that works for both of us.
Counter conditioning allows your dog to associate something scary with something good. This turns something horrifying into something yummy and fun. When Oreo finds something scary she knows where to look-at me for yummy treats and we keep moving on our walks.
I wouldn’t say Oreo is “rehabilitated” or “normal” in any way. I’d definitely say her stress levels are way down & our family has it’s own happy “normal.” Oreo now has the tools and knowledge to deal with stressful situations and I know not to put her in them (or how to do a U-turn and escape them)!
It can be VERY stressful (especially in the beginning) with a reactive or scared dog. Not only stressful for you, but your dog is suffering. After reading some posts on forums, blogs and conversations with new or ongoing reactive dog families, I find it’s important to keep things in perspective. Reactive owners are many things…
- RESOURCEFUL!! Find a positive trainer to help you. Trust me, if you find a great one they make all the difference. They are not only a teacher for your dog, but for you.
- SPECIAL!! Reactive dogs take SPECIAL owners. DEDICATED owners. Owners who have strength, patience, and are willing to LEARN.
- TRUSTING!! If you aren’t sure if your dog is reactive, do some research. Reactive owners need to TRUST THEIR GUT. Sometimes families and friends might think you are crazy. They think you are obsessing over your dog. They might say something like, “Your dog will be fine, bring them to the party.” Well, YOU KNOW WHAT’S BEST. When reactive dog owners DOUBT something, THEY STAY ON THE SAFE SIDE.
- SMART!! If your trainer is booked for a while, or you’re saving up to bring your dog to lessons, READ SOME BOOKS. I recommend this. I trained my dog by reading many books, then brought her to a wonderful reactive trainer who wrote some of the books. This enabled me to have some understanding and be ahead of the game. BOOKS DO NOT REPLACE A TRAINER. The advice/training saved my dog’s life. Even the vet said that Oreo would be dead if she weren’t with me. I don’t think of it as just me…
- ORGANIZED!! IT TAKES A CITY, not just you to help your dog. Get in touch with a trainer, work with your vet. Sometimes medications can help to improve training, especially if you are training with a professional and your dog hits a road block. Get your FAMILY ON BOARD. Everyone has to learn and train with your pup.
- FUN!! HAVE FUN. Sometimes with reactive dogs we forget to have fun-especially when we are in the training mode. Your dog can get better, but it is hard work. Once you start training your pup the fun can begin. There are plenty of games, tricks, and fun things you can do with your reactive dog. Reactive owners like to have fun, don’t lose that joy in the stress.
If you’re just starting out it can seem like your are climbing Mount Everest, but with dedication and time you will be building an unbreakable bond with your pup and they will teach you more than you ever dreamed.
Books I suggest reading:
- Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown
- Focus Not Fear-Training Insights From A Reactive Dog Class by Ali Brown
- The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell
- Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas
- Bringing Light to Shadow by Pam Dennison
- Help For Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde
Most of us love the holidays, and we love our hounds. However, some people are VERY busy during the holidays depending on the size of their family. It’s a wonderful time to spend with family & friends reminiscing about the year and holidays past. We also don’t want to forget our pups…we want happy hounds.
- If you have a nervous Nelly pup it is important to try to keep up with a somewhat normal schedule. Try to talk them at normal time (if possible).
- If they are nervous around lots of people/excitement or anything, don’t forget to manage their behavior/fears or use it as a training time. If it is very busy & hectic make sure they have a safe place, whether it’s a crate, a bed in the corner, or in another room.
- Don’t forget foods that are poisonous to them. If you have that uncle or dad who can’t resist feeding them, remind them these foods are not good for eating:
- grapes, raisins, currants (in fruitcake)
- too much fatty scraps
- any medications relatives may leave out in bags on the floor or somewhere your dog can reach.
Another thing we need to keep an eye out for are decorations that may be dangerous:
- hot potpourri (don’t let them lick/get close)
- watch they don’t get too close to the fire!
- snow globes (if they are imported) they contain antifreeze—YUCK!!!
- lillies, holly, mistletoe
Have a happy holiday & happy hounds!
Scratching, scratching, scratching. I heard this in the morning, afternoon, even waking me up sometimes at bed. At one point in her life Oreo scratched her eyes so much she lost the hair around them, replaced by bloody scabs. So what do you do when your dog has allergies? How do you know it’s allergies?
Your dog may have allergies if they are constantly
- scratching at their face, belly, body
- licking their paws
- have hot spots
- get repeated yeast infections
- get repeated bacterial infections
- have upset stomach, diarrhea, and throwing up
- get ear infections
What you can do-First find out the CAUSE (otherwise you will buy endless products searching in the dark for a solution, yet you don’t know the problem):
- If your dog is throwing up, has upset stomach, or diarrhea, try an allergy food trial. Your dog could be allergic to certain ingredients in their dog food and the trial will be helpful to eliminate them. Food allergies can also lead to yeast, bacterial infections and itchiness.
- Get a food allergy blood test-they are a bit expensive, but I found out Oreo is allergic to 7 different foods. The test also gave me a list of foods and treats which are safe so I didn’t have to hunt around. You may end up spending more money on treating allergies and food trails than the test.
- Make sure your dog doesn’t have fleas. If so, get rid of them! Many dogs are highly allergic to fleas (like my dog). If they get one bite, they break out with bacterial infections.
- Get your dog tested for indoor & outdoor allergies. There is a blood test, but also a skin test (which I have heard is more accurate). This will tell you what your dog is allergic to (examples of things tested are cotton, tree & grass pollen, dust, mold, and feathers).
- Keep a calendar of symptoms-find out if it’s only at certain times-maybe you are a cleaning product at a certain time during the year, or maybe it’s seasonal allergies.
Trust me-you want to find out what the problem is-exactly-otherwise you will spend tons of money on treatments, vet visits, and different foods. It’s worth the time and investment to find out what the allergy is.
Coming up next time…my favorite allergy products (ones that work for Oreo).
Do you remember that moment when seeing a dog lunging, barking, and baring teeth thinking, “Oh my gosh, that is a horrible dog! Why doesn’t the owner yell at it or train it better? What a bad dog!” Do you remember thinking THAT? Okay, well the thoughts might not have been exactly that, but I remember hurrying my dog away while giving sidelong glances at the owner of a reactive dog passing by. At the time I didn’t know what “reactive” meant or that “reactive” was even a term to describe dogs.
What is a reactive dog? Well a reactive dog isn’t a dog who barks a lot, or a jumping kangaroo dog. Reactivity is seen when a dog overreacts to something. When a dog is scared they hide, bark, lunge, snarl, etc. If you’ve heard of flight or fight, this is where it takes place. A reactive dog will TAKE ACTION. It won’t stay frozen. You may see it freeze for a few seconds, but it will quickly decide whether to run & hide or try to scare away whatever it is truly scared of.
Before Oreo I had a childhood dog that lived 18 long years with me. I loved Snowy, the white-highland terrier. She was was stubborn as all heck and loved playing a good game of chase when we were 10 years old around the neighborhood for hours. She was your average behaved terrier, one with little behavioral problems who you could trust around many people. Did she bark? Sure. Did she overreact and seem to “lose it”? No.
When my husband and I decided to get a puppy, we didn’t think we’d have a lifetime of training ahead of us. We, like the average dog owner, thought we would take her to a few classes and she would be well-behaved. Do you remember thinking THAT? Well, how wrong we were indeed. As a puppy I tried to give Oreo many experiences with other dogs, training, and people. As a teacher and person, I am someone who “follows the rules” to the best of my ability. Being a good dog owner, I pleaded with my husband to take a walk with Oreo before we went shopping at the mall when she was 9 months old. That walk changed everything. A few weeks after that walk Oreo started showing signs of being reactive. See on that same walk, the walk I thought I had to take her on, she got attacked by another dog.
A week or so after the attack we took Oreo back to the vet to get checked out again. I remember sitting in the waiting room with her & instead of her cowering on my lap or on the floor next to me, she was now wildly lunging, barking, & snapping at a passing dog. When we got into the area where the vet examines Oreo, she snarled and hid under the chair, not wanting to be touched. This was very unlike her, a shy, but easygoing, sweet tempered dog. At puppy training she was recommended as a therapy dog.
Things definitely changed.
Those were the first signs and as they progressed to an event I call the “culminating one” (I’ll save that for another post), I knew I needed to do something. We called in a local trainer, who came into our home and Oreo was very calm & great. However, outside in the neighborhood she cowered, then barked and lunged at dogs in other apartments. He told us a few tricks and went home.
He didn’t seem concerned, but I WAS. I now have at least 20 or more publications & books on reactive dogs and training. I can’t thank Ali Brown enough & her training & book (Scaredy Dog!) which turned my life & saved Oreo’s life. I remember thinking dogs like Oreo were bad. Those dogs couldn’t be lovable, they must be like that all the time, unlovable. How wrong was I? I believe reactive dogs need MORE LOVE because they are afraid, because they do need self-confidence. Does this mean hugging them? HECK NO!! What I mean is attention, training, doing things fun for them, building confidence, and spending time with them helping them learn ways to cope with the scary world around them.
It’s been a long rode, from thinking dogs were bad, misbehaved, to really seeing what is going on inside a dog & its’ emotions. As humans and dog owners we must ask ourselves WHY a dog does certain things & how we can help them. We must give our reactive dogs MORE LOVE because boy do they need it!!
Can any amount of training or management be stressful?
Managing your dog means not allowing your dog to be in stressful situations. For example, if your dog is stressed out by parents, don’t bring your dog to the party. Management is thinking through what you will allow your dog to see/do/etc and where they will be…basically controlling the situation. When are times I manage my dog? I manage my dog every single day in many different ways without even thinking about it anymore, it comes naturally & part of the routine.
- Avoiding crowded parks & areas
- Avoiding big parties
- Turning away from an oncoming dog
- Getting more distance between us and a dog while on a walk
- Bringing the dog to another room or out back when someone is at the door
- Leaving her alone when she is sleeping
Can some management be too much? Yes, of course. There is a balance between training & management. Some people choose to manage more, other train. I like to have a nice blend of both. Everyone should do what works best for their dog & themselves.
If someone over manages this can lead to stress of the part of the owner and sometimes the dog. For example, if your dog is scared of other dogs that doesn’t mean you should lock your dog in the house and never let them go out or see another dog. You will need to use training in conjunction with management to allow your dog to move forward. With too much management, a dog cannot grow.
Can you over train your dog? I don’t think dogs can get tired of training if you do it correctly. If you use positive training & make it fun, your dog will love it! However, if you push for long periods of time and use negative punishment your dog may only get worse. Training should be in short periods, especially training which pushes them mentally or physically. If you see your dog getting stressed, stop and try another time-training is supposed to be fun!
For example, if you are training your dog with parallel walking with another dog 10 feet away, do a few walks back and forth. Observe how the dogs are reacting and if they are both paying attention to the owner and looking relaxed, move a few steps closer. Do a few walks back and forth (maybe 20 feet or so). After this probably only around 10 minutes have gone by. However, if your training your reactive dog, you know they may not be physically tired, but they are definitely mentally tired. Take a break of at least 15 minutes, but only do this a few times a day. Some exercises are particularly stressful for dogs, you need to gauge your dog’s stress levels.
Training & management=success. Too much of either could lead to disaster. You want to make sure you use management so you don’t put your dog in a stressful situation that may make them regress. Additionally, you want to train so management is easier and less. Both work hand in hand.
Oreo is relaxing here while her grandpa & dad are building a garden. In this situation she is managed because she is on-leash, but she is also getting training since her mom is standing nearby with treats when she sees a dog. Oreo doesn’t love strangers, but with time she learns to be relaxed and enjoy their company.
As reactive dog parents, we need to ask ourselves questions constantly that many other people don’t even take a second to think about.
- Should I take my dog to the party?
- How can I avoid that dog/person/bike/etc as I’m walking so that my dog doesn’t get over threshold?
- How can I bring my dog to the vet without causing too much stress?
- What will I do with my dog when I have people over?
- Should I consider anxiety medicine for my canine?
- Do I need window film so my dog doesn’t bark out the window all day?
- What do I have to cover the car windows so my dog doesn’t lose it?
- Did I remember dog treats on my walk?
The questions could go on forever and we are always asking them. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as any dog owner will ask and remind themselves of various things from time to time. However, we are often on high alert for things that stress out our dog, especially when there is change or they are outside their normal environment. I wanted to take a minute to thank all of the pet parents out there dealing with reactive dogs. It definitely isn’t easy and we are very stressed at times, but remember you are saving a dog’s life, your dog. You are taking the time to train your dog or manage the surroundings so your dog can have a happy life, even if your dog doesn’t get to go with you everywhere.
Sometimes we forget to appreciate all of the work we do until someone points it out. Recently I was at the vet and got an amazing compliment. My vet told me how amazing of a job we (my husband and I) have done with Oreo. She said it’s made such a difference and Oreo doesn’t need to be muzzled or anything during her vet exam. Furthermore, she told me without us, she knows Oreo would’ve been dead in another family and we have saved her life.
Life is crazy and there’s always things to worry & stress about, but little reminders of why we do what we do (help reactive dogs) make it all worth it. Okay, the dog kisses, happy wagging tails, and smiles also help!