I love to hate my reactive dog.
And that’s okay.
Those of you who have not had a reactive dog may not understand, but those of you who have know it all too well! I mean what even is love without hate?…. Right?….
Every single time that dog made me want to scream, yell, curse, and break things (often all at the same time), it just made me fall in love with him even harder. No, this isn’t the making of a toxic relationship… I didn’t love him because he made me angry. I loved him because I realized that no matter how difficult things were for him, he tried. And, anthropomorphizing be damned, I think he did it for me.
I am what many refer to as a ‘crossover trainer.’ This means I built my initial understanding of animal behavior around the dominance theory. I thought that you needed to be the ‘alpha pack leader’ and discipline your dog into compliance. I mean, so many trainers recommended it. There were books, articles, and even television programs condoning this. So it couldn’t be wrong, right?…. Right?…
I spent years jerking leashes, yelling, ‘tapping’ (which, come on, people; this is really hitting no matter how ‘gentle’ you are). Training was exhausting and frustrating – for both of us! Don’t get me wrong, Otto learned a lot of cool tricks in those years. He knew how to stand on his back legs and walk or hop along (yes, he knew the difference between walking and hopping), crawl, jump, give high-fives. But honestly, all of those things we did for fun. I never got frustrated or embarrassed when he didn’t perform them well.
Loose-leash walking and recall… now those were a different story. As instructed by dominance theory, I punished Otto every time he did not come back fast enough on a recall. I jerked his leash when he reached the end of it with tension. For years. But the behaviors never got any better. I had this dog that would excitedly do all of these really cool behaviors, but I couldn’t get him to just walk on a loose leash or come when called.
In comes reactive dog training.
Honestly, a lot happened in between but I’ll keep it concise for you.
I enrolled Otto in a class for reactive dogs with Amie at Oscar Winning Behavior. After that first class, I had never felt more heard, understood, or horribly guilty for misunderstanding Otto and his intentions all along. He wasn’t stubborn. He wasn’t being difficult. He was AFRAID. And his body language was screaming it – I just had never bothered to learn the language of my most favorite living being on the planet. But I wasn’t alone! Everyone in the class, including Amie, had been exactly where I was and felt exactly what I was feeling. It was a safe place. A safe place to hate our reactive dogs!
It took me years to figure out that Otto and I spoke two different languages. But once I did, our relationship just got stronger and stronger. He was still what I would consider a ‘reactive dog’ until the day he passed away. But he made so much progress – scratch that. I made so much progress. He had been telling me the whole time that he needed space and time and reassurance. And once I listened and gave him those things, he didn’t need them as much or as often anymore.
Heather Dize is a former client with Oscar Winning Behavior.