Don’t dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next. Spend your energies on moving forward toward finding the answer.
– Denis Waitley
So often I’ll be at the park, on a Pack Walk, or just strolling the neighbourhood with my dog(s), and I’ll see the most intelligent, great, wonderful dog owner just gradually stop Piloting their dog. Typically the scenario involves something along the lines of a recovering dog-reactive dog. Fido used to lunge and bounce towards every dog he’d ever seen on his usual walk. However, through Piloting and patience, Fido is now doing very well on the leash. All of his questions are being answered (“Will this other dog hurt us, Mom?” “No, Fido, we’ll be fine.”). In general, things are going well.
Until you blink. You’ve brought Fido to a certain comfort level. Instead of expecting him to lunge at every dog you pass (because he would), you now expect him to pass quietly (because he hasn’t in foh-evah!). You’ve forgotten that he is still a creature with legitimate questions that need to be answered. He hasn’t asked a question in a while, so you’ve stopped paying attention to when he’s asking them. You’ve gone into a dangerous realm: Auto-Pilot.
Dog reactive dogs are never cured. They are managed, just like asthma is managed. If you manage it properly, you might even forget that you have asthma. Slip up on the management, though, and you are reminded indeed of your lapse. Just like asthma, having a dog-reactive dog doesn’t need to rule your life, it just requires the proper precautions and slight adjustments to your routine. This includes never ignoring your dogs questions. Will this other dog hurt me? Should we protect ourselves against that Goldendoodle? Does that Chihuahua looks suspicious to you? No. No. And, really, no.
Fido is able to get by on the Piloting that you had done previously, but Piloting is a huge piggy bank: whoever has the most money wins. Gradually, by ignoring your dog’s questions, you are allowing him to leech money out of your bank and put it into his. Fido probably doesn’t even want the money. But there’s no where else for it to go.
Then one day you go for your walk. You happen to meet a fellow dog-owner of your acquaintance, who is out for a stroll with their pup. Fido’s been so good, you haven’t even been paying attention to his body language as you walk up to exchange pleasantries. His tail is straight up, wagging stiffly (contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail doesn’t always denote happiness: it merely denotes stress, be it good stress, like “Mommy’s home!”, or bad stress, such as “Die squirrel!”). Fido’s ears are pricked forward, and he looks as if he’s standing on his toes. He may even have wrinkles form on his forehead between his ears from how hard he’s concentrating. He’s practically screaming his question with his body language. But you’ve gone on Auto-Pilot. But you blink. And Fido lunges. You have to wrangle him back under control. You resolve never again to take a walk with him outside the hours of 3 a.m. – 5 a.m., when there are no other people around. But all that really happened was you missed his body language. You slipped. You didn’t fall. Get back up and Pilot your dog again. Yes, you’ve got a lot of money you need to take out of his Piloting Piggy Bank, but you did it before, you can do it again. And remember, Piloting a dog (especially one with reactivity) is like driving a car. Check the rear view mirror occasionally. Be aware of your surroundings. Answer the questions as they arise. As you continue to Pilot Fido, his questions will start to taper off, but that doesn’t mean he will never ask another question again. Be aware. Don’t go on Auto-Pilot, and don’t blink!