It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all – Elsa
Dog reactivity. If your dog has it, you know how it can rule your life. You feel as if you can only go outside for a walk with your dog during “off” hours – basically between 11 pm and 5 am, when there’s nobody else around. Every time you see a dog 3 blocks over, you clutch your pearls: What will Fido do? It can truly rule your life.
How did this start? Your dog probably wasn’t abused, nor were they used for fighting or as a bait dog (though it isn’t unheard of). There are quite a few dogs who are just naturally reactive. Remember, that other dog isn’t just another dog to Fido: it’s another predator who isn’t Pack. Try to look at things through Fido’s eyes, and you’ll be amazed at how nonchalantly you’ve been brushing off what they’re thinking and only focusing on how they’ve been acting. Your dog is most likely not aggressive: they’re scared.
A lot of dogs are fine with other dogs until the ages of 6-12 months. Gradually your gregarious little fluffball turns into a wary and unsocial dog. The first time your dog lunges or acts crazily towards another dog may take you by surprise. Fido has never done that before! You may blame yourself, and put Fido in more and more situations where he has to be with other dogs, trying to “socialize” him. But remember, those aren’t Pack members! Those are just other predators! And on top of that, you aren’t answering Fido’s questions: Are those predators going to hurt me? Should I protect you? Fido has no Pilot! So all you’ve been doing is placing him in more and more situations where you are setting Fido up for failure. The very cure you’re looking for is making his symptoms worse!
A few things to keep in mind: dogs are dogs. They aren’t human. Dogs are still very survival based. I truly don’t think they are domesticated – we haven’t dumbed survival out of them. Survival includes being wary of other predators. If you want domesticated, find a cow. You set a cow free, they go off and die. They literally can’t survive without a human. Dogs on the other hand, they can, and do, make it on their own. Not necessarily thrive, but survive.
Things have probably snowballed by now. Since that first time he barked at another dog during a walk, you felt the need to wrap the leash tightly whenever you see a dog in the distance. Odds are you’re making the leash tight, and pulling Fido up close as you can with no slack on the leash. You’re tense. You do all those things that inherently state you are stressed and you are preparing for fight or flight. Of course Fido is going to pick up on your cues!
Relax. I know this sounds like the silliest advice ever, but just do it. If you can’t, fake it. Win the Academy Award for best Actor/Actress. Convince your dog that you’re bored. Yes, you still need to answer their questions, but don’t start answering questions that haven’t even been asked yet! You don’t ground your kids because you think they’re about to come home after curfew.
My Sparta is very dog reactive. There aren’t many people who are comfortable walking her. I am, though. Not because she never reacts, but because I’ve accepted that she will, and I’ve let go of the tension. I don’t actively walk around anticipating her getting snotty with another dog, but I have made a profession out of acting calmly during high stress situations. I fake it. I have the knowledge I need to work through the situation (take a read here for the play-by-play on leash walking). Of course I’m freaked out, but I’ll never show it. Pretty soon I don’t even realize I’m faking calm: I am calm.
So, let it go.
Let go of the tension. A tense situation doesn’t need more tension.
Let go of the anxiety. Don’t react until you need to answer the question.
Let go of the anger. You are answering a question, not punishing a dog for asking.
Let go of perfection. Your dog is a mirror of you. Are you perfect? Of course not, and nobody expects you to be.
You can do this. I know you can. I’ve seen some amazing things in all my years training. Like this. Or this. If they can do it, so can you. Now go show your dog that you are more than capable of Piloting them past that ferocious Chihuahua.