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I have to post this absolutely wonderful blog about what to do if you think your dog might be reactive or anxious. It's a great introduction for people who don't know where to start.

Find the original here: Reactive Champion: Help! I think my dog is reactive! What should I do? (and, if you go to her blog, you can see a very blurry picture of me and Shanoa working at CU class with the author and her dog :) )

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Help! I think my dog is reactive! What should I do?

It was the fall of 2008. I was all settled in at my first post-college job, and I finally had the time needed to pursue dog sports. Excited, I signed up for an obedience class at a local training club. Maisy was just barely two years old, and while there had been warning signs that she wasn’t exactly normal, I didn’t know enough to recognize that. I’d heard of reactivity, but was thankful my dog wasn’t like that. So the first time she barked and lunged at another dog in class, my heart sank.

I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I knew so very little. I couldn’t read Maisy’s body language, I didn’t understand how stress impacted dogs, and I had absolutely no clue what I should do next. What I needed was someone to help me, but our instructor- as wonderful as she was- couldn’t. This is not unusual; there is a huge difference between training obedience skills and modifying undesirable behaviors, and most trainers are experienced in the former with little understanding of the latter.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve chronicled much of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this knowledge came a bit late, so today, I want to share what I wish I’d known back then. If you’ve just realized that you have a reactive dog and are wondering what you should do next, here are my suggestions.

Take a Break
One of the biggest mistakes people make with reactive dogs- myself included- is to keep putting their dog in situations they can’t handle. It’s easy to do this. At first, I simply didn’t understand what was triggering Maisy’s behavior. It’s hard to avoid things if you don’t know what those things are.

Later, I kept putting her in those situations in order to “socialize” her and “train through it.” This was a mistake. Every time I put Maisy into a situation she couldn’t handle, she learned that I couldn’t be depended on to keep her safe. Maisy is a resourceful little dog, so when it became clear I wasn’t doing anything about the situations that made her uncomfortable, she decided to. She barked and lunged. And every time she did, she got better at it. Reactivity became a habit, and anyone who’s tried to break their own bad habits knows how hard it is. This really slowed down our progress.

This is why my first (and possibly most important) suggestion is to simply take a break. Stop exposing your dog to things he can’t deal with. This might be training classes. It might be trials. It might even be going for walks. Don’t let your dog rehearse behavior you don’t like!

Consult an Expert (or Two)
Of course, it’s both impossible and undesirable to avoid the world forever. Most of us want to do things with our dogs and to take them places, so while taking a break is good in the short run, it’s usually not a long-term strategy.

While on your break, you should use the time to consult with an expert. If the behavior change is sudden, a vet check may be in order. Medical concerns can change the way a dog acts. Although Maisy’s issues aren’t solely the result of her health, they do get worse during allergy season or when her back hurts. Get your dog checked out.

Next, find a trainer. I’ve written before about why I think you need a trainer. Reactivity is a spectrum; there’s a huge range of behaviors your dog can display, and the reasons behind them can be just as varied. It is highly likely you will need some help parsing it all out. As I already noted, you don’t want just any trainer. While there are very talented folks teaching obedience, agility, etc., you need someone who’s had experience and success with behavior issues.

Read, Watch, Go
If you have a reactive dog, you need to learn and you need to learn fast. If you’ve hired a trainer, it is possible to skip this step… but I don’t recommend it. There are many ways to approach reactivity, and it’s helpful to understand multiple perspectives. Even if you have the best trainer out there, sometimes hearing things from a different point of view will help give you the clarity you need.

Start by learning about different training methods. I strongly favor positive, reward-based methods. It’s not that other methods don’t work- they can- but there is a higher risk of fallout. Check out this position statement by the AVSAB for more information.

Next, learn about dog body language and stress signals. It’s amazing how much we miss simply because we don’t know to look for it. There are tons of DVDs, books, and websites devoted to learning to understand what you’re dog is telling you.

Continue your education by learning about the different protocols designed for reactivity. From basic desensitization and counter-conditioning to more sophisticated programs like Control Unleashed and BAT, there are lots of ways to approach the problem. Find out more about them, and discuss them with your trainer. Find out what she prefers and why. Together, choose one that you both feel comfortable with and that seems like a good fit for your dog.

Finally, build up a support system. Blogs, email lists, and in-person friends are all places you can go to exchange ideas, commiserate about set-backs, and celebrate successes!

Keep Records
I know, I know. It’s really not that much fun, but records can be incredibly valuable. It wasn’t until I started logging incidents that I realized just how anxious my dog was. I was so accustomed to her behavior that I didn’t really recognize it as abnormal. Seeing it all in black and white helped me understand just how much help she needed.

This doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. Your records can be as simple as a brief note on a calendar or as complex as an Excel spreadsheet. The format is less important than simply doing it. They will help you identify triggers, notice subtle behavior patterns, and track your progress.


These are the things I wish I had known almost four years ago. I’ve learned much since then… most of it the hard way! Although there is no shortcut through reactivity, the sooner you enlist help, the quicker it will be.

For those of you who have been there, done that, what do you wish you’d known? For those of you who are new to this, what other questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you!
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
And a second, fantastic blog post on the five phases of reactive dog ownership:

Five phases of reactive dog ownership Love and a Six-Foot Leash

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Five phases of reactive dog ownership

We’ve done a lot of thinking and learning about reactivity over the past years, but a lot more over the past week or so since we’ve started to understand that we’re dealing with a bit of it in our Doodlebug. Just yesterday morning I was thinking about the phases of caring for a reactive dog — the long period of not understanding or not admitting it, then the scary journey toward facing our fears and moving forward, and finally that sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing that we have a plan for whatever situation we find ourselves in. Our journey with Chick’s reactivity has been lifelong, but we spent years in the pre-action phases and reinforced a lot of bad habits before we found the courage to move forward. With Dude, we figured out what was going on in a snap. It may still take months or years to get to our end point, but just knowing that a positive path exists and we’ve taken the first step is a huge sigh of relief.

Our five phases are based solely on our own experiences working with reactive dogs in our home — everybody’s phases might be different!

1. Realization. Maybe your new dog took a while to come out of her shell, and was perfectly polite and neutral toward dogs at first. Or maybe your puppy didn’t start showing signs in the first year of his life. Or maybe you built up a high wall around your dog so she never had a chance to express her reactivity before. There is a whole catalog of reasons that you may not realize you have a reactive dog on your hands — these are just three. With Chick, we were in this phase for a few months, and with Dude, we were there until last week.

2. Denial. Then something changes, and maybe you start to see hints of reactivity here and there. A surprising growl at a motorcycle whizzing by the house. Or a lunge and snap at a cute puppy on the trail. Or some extreme pulling, panting, and whimpering every time you pass a dog jogger in the neighborhood — suddenly more intense and focused than in the past. But obviously, these incidents are flukes — easily explained away . . . right? The motorcycle just startled him. He was just excited to play with the puppy. He is jealous of dog joggers and wants to join in. She can’t be reactive, she lives with other dogs and three kids! But, you’re in denial. Denial is one of the two dangerous phases of reactive dog ownership because during this stage, we’re constantly testing our dogs. We assume that the growl or lunge or bark or whine was just an isolated incident, and we keep putting her into situations where she should prove us right — after all, she is not a reactive dog! We keep running them through crowded areas or bringing them to the farmer’s market, and they keep proving to us that they’re not comfortable. We keep making excuses “She’s just nervous,” or “He’s not feeling well.” In the meantime, our dogs are getting more and more practiced in the art of growling, lunging, barking, staring, or — in rare cases — biting. We spent about a year in this phase with Chick, and only about a week with the Dude.

3. Panic. After sufficient testing in which the dog proves that she does not, in fact, know what is expected, most of us with reactive dogs get to this phase. And it’s not a fun one. Only the experienced dog handler — or the person who came into the situation understanding that she is dealing with a reactive dog — can skip over this stage altogether. The panic phase is characterized by the kind of handling that actually exacerbates the dog’s reactivity rather than helping the dog make better choices. Every time we seize up on that leash or yell at a dog who is barking and lunging, we are sending a message: “There is indeed something to be worried about. I am worried too.” For sensible and experienced dog handlers, this phase is short-lived. You realize that you don’t know what to do and your dog certainly doesn’t know what to do, and you call in professional help. For others of us — especially novices like I was when I adopted Chick — the panic phase can last months or years. During this time we can accidentally be training our dog to be aggressive, by sending the exact wrong signals during moments of stress. We sometimes joke that you have to first train a dog to be aggressive before you can become a good dog trainer — and at the center where we train, it’s true of almost all of the staff. The panic phase is a dangerous one, so it’s best to take a deep breath, have a stiff cocktail, and regroup as soon as you’re able. You can work through it! We panicked for a year and a half with Chick before we sought help; with the Dude we were in this phase for two days — from last Sunday until this past Tuesday.

4. Progress. Eventually, you might realize that you don’t want to live in fear, looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re walking your dog. You want to be able to proudly take your dog in public and understand what to do in a variety of scenarios. So you seek help. The bravest of us pick up a good book — like Patricia McConnell’s “Feisty Fido,” and go it alone. Others will look for an experienced private trainer. Still others will join a group class — whether a simple obedience class or a specialty class for reactive or fearful dogs. We reach out to friends and colleagues for advice, and we start to take baby steps. Eventually the baby steps add up, and we start to see a positive change. We gain confidence and keep moving forward. Sometimes we take a deep breath and congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments.

5. Management. I’m so lucky in my new line of business that I get to be exposed to dogs in all stages of the reactivity. The most inspirational — obviously — are the ones who started out totally wild when exposed to their triggers, and have gone through all five phases and learned so much in the process that they can now comfortably go anywhere and do anything. This is where we all hope to end up. But management is a broad spectrum — some dogs are cured, so to speak, of their reactivity, while others still need to be worked, reminded, and handled skillfully in challenging scenarios. Chick falls into the latter camp. If we let our guard down completely and let him be in charge of his interactions, he might get into trouble now and again. But as long as we keep him focused and working in tough situations (like when walking or hiking around off-leash dogs), he can really shine. For Doodlebug, we’ve set our sights even higher. Follow along on our journey as we help him work on himself!

If you’re a dog owner caught in the denial or panic phases right now, please seek help. There’s no shame in reaching out for assistance. Reactivity is rooted in a million different causes — fear, frustration, playfulness, panic, medical issues, and others — but the common elements are usually (1) a dog not understanding what is expected; and (2) well-practiced inappropriate reactions. Both of these elements can be countered, and the sooner you start working on it, the sooner you will succeed!
 

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Eat Poo and Die
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Thanks! What a great post. And it can get better, over time. It's not something that can be fixed quickly for sure. It's been a little over three years since we had Niz, and I still have to manage his reactive behavior on leash. But in those three years, he went from wanting to murder other dogs (and himself if he ever caught his reflection) on leash to today, where he kept his cool while other dogs rushed him and got in his face, barked at him, and gave stink eye. I could see it took every ounce of Niz's self control, but I kept my voice happy, kept telling him what a good boy he was, and he didn't even piloerect. I was RIDICULOUSLY proud of him. (And yes, he got a massive bully stick for his efforts.) A week ago, a dog ran to him and started barking/snapping right in his face, and Niz took a step back and let out a low growl, and we continued our walk when the owner got the other dog under control. I don't let him have any prolonged interactions with other dogs on leash because I know that his threshold isn't very high and that it will reach a point that Niz is too uncomfortable, and certain things just aren't cool in his book, like getting attacked. The off lead dog went straight for Niz's neck and Niz defended himself. I'm okay with that.

Having a private trainer well versed in positive training definitely helped us get Niz to a walkable state. A CGC came two years after that, and after building confidence and a working relationship through agility, we're here. And I'm sure it'll just keep getting better. On a day to day basis, it can suck as there's worse days and better days, but lately, it's just been better, better, and better.
 

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Excellent blogs !! Thanks so much for posting. I really need to work on my reactive dogs since I now have 3 of them
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Excellent blogs !! Thanks so much for posting. I really need to work on my reactive dogs since I now have 3 of them
It's not easy, that's for sure. It often feels like 2 steps forward, 2 steps back. But it's very rewarding when you do make good progress.
 
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