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!!