How to Deal with the Embarrasment of Having a Reactive Dog.

My young rescue springer x collie Cloud is a very sweet, pretty looking dog, but my goodness she can make some noise! When we arrive at our daily walking destination in the van, she starts screaming as soon as she hears the hand-break! This is just over-excitement, which is fine! She has learnt to quickly lie down and be quiet, before her crate is opened and I release her with the ‘ok’ command. The problem arises if another person or dog comes near the back or the car, then her excited squeals turn into a much deeper alert and aggressive bark. When she goes into this state there nothing I can say to break her behaviour. No commands, treats or firm voice will stop her. She has gone ‘over the threshold’. The only thing I can do is close the door, wait for her to calm down and wait for the scary thing to go further away! A couple of years ago that would have been out of the whole carpark! Now this isn’t the case, they just need to be further away. Ideally I wait until there is no one there before I open the door, but people and dogs often suddenly appear from nowhere! Cloud is a very excitable dog, she is also fearful, anxious, protective and territorial. This combination results in an over reactive dog.

We got Cloud about six months after I have finished my level 5 advanced diploma in canine behaviour and I had started Black and White Dog Training. As a tiny puppy she was quite shy of people and dogs, but I made sure she was well socialised to plenty of different people, dogs and situations. But unfortunately she still grew into an anxious dog. Cloud's mum was found in a shed in Ireland pregnant, barely an adult herself. Motherhood proved very difficult for her, so the puppies first experiences were not great with dogs. She had an excellent foster mum though, who’s family she remains with ever since. Genetics have also likely played a big part in Cloud’s behaviour, her siblings are also nervous in different situations too. Even her experiences as early as being in the womb could have contributed to her behaviour.

Cloud would bark at strange dogs and people aggressively and cower away from things like the vacuum cleaner. My husband had chosen her with high hopes for his next agility dog. But she proved difficult to train, she was scared of everything in the beginning, even a simple cone and a clicker. She had to be desensitised to everything. So we agreed that I would train her for my next agility dog, as I’m not quite as competitive and have heaps of patience!

The first couple of years with Cloud were very stressful for me. I felt like everyone was judging me on the behaviour of my own dogs. We already had four others, (three rescues) each with different issues to deal with. I thought my business was doomed and the three years I had spent studying lost. The stress at one point was really wearing me down and I had to make a few adjustments in my life to help.

I meet lots of people who are in similar situations as I am. The fear of being judged is awful and social media doesn’t help. When I see posts about reactive dogs with comments like ‘that dogs needs sorting out’ or ‘there is no such thing as a bad dog’ etc etc…. The trouble is this causes people to walk their dogs in constant fear. Dogs pick up on this, they can smell subtle changes in how we feel. The more relaxed you are when you walk your dog, the less likely they are to react. This is easier said than done, but it can be worked on with training and practice. This builds confidence in both owner and dog.

I’m certainly not saying that it’s acceptable to let your reactive dog run up and bark at every dog and person they see. This is a bad idea as the dog will learn to do the behaviour even more. Dogs realise it works for them when the scary things back away! But if you have your dog under control and you are doing everything you can to manage your dogs reactive behaviour, you shouldn’t have to worry about other peoples opinions. They don’t know your dogs history and how much you have been through to train them. I avoid Cloud reacting as much as I can, but there are always going to be unexpected things occurring, like someone jumping out of the bushes or a sudden bang!

So you are probably wondering how I manage Cloud’s behaviour and my own mindset! Here are a few of the things I do…..

  • I manage my own stress. I find ways to relax, discuss my issues with other friends and trainers and keep educating myself. There is no point in taking Cloud on a walk if I’m really stressed. I walk with other people and their confident dogs a lot. This really does make a difference. I avoid other nervous dogs, this includes Cloud walking with one of my others!

  • I train Cloud everything I can. We keep training agility too and she enjoys it now! If I see something she will react to, I can call her back and take her away. I can ask her to wait too if there is a bike or jogger coming along. I train her without distractions to start with then gradually add them in. A well trained dog is a more confident dog. It is also important that she gets enough exercise and mental stimulation in her life. Boredom can cause anxiety for some dogs too.

  • I desensitise and counter-condition her to the things she is scared of as much as I can. I introduce things gradually to her, decreasing proximity to them over time using plenty of high value rewards and praise. Some things have taken ages like training the seesaw for agility (two years!) and children running in the park (still working progress!) You can’t rush these things and you should get professional help for your own dog.

  • I avoid situations that I know she will react to as much as possible. I give a wide berth to strangers and unknown dogs when I’m out. This used to be a whole field away, but that distance is much less now thankfully! I always put her on the lead if I’m not sure. But I would rather use distance if possible, as the lead can cause problems of restriction for her. She can’t escape so it makes the reaction worse, like when she is in her crate in the car.

  • I don’t fight fire with fire. If I shouted at Cloud every time she reacted in fear from something or I dragged her away angrily, it would reinforce that reaction even more. She would start to make an association with the fearful stimulus and my hostility. Some dogs will also think you are joining in with their barking too! If I become stressed with her it will just make matters worse. I have to calmly remove her from situations and ask for an alternative behaviour. I don’t give her treats for a reaction. She can have them if she looks and sits quietly without reacting. I don’t allow her to bark at things aggressively, but I don’t get angry with her either.

  • I avoid stress stacking. (That’s one stressful situation after another and another…...)Once she has reacted once, it’s very likely to happen again, and worse. Sometimes it’s best to take her to a calm place for a few hours so she can relax. Stress hormones can take days to lower in the body.

Cloud is now nearly three and instead of being the dog I thought would ruin me, she is the dog who has helped me to become a better trainer, as I have learnt so much from her. People have seen her confidence grow and her behaviour improve. Cloud is not ‘fixed’, she will always be the way she is, but she is making great progress. So if you see me out walking, I’m not being rude and avoiding you, I’m just protecting her and managing her behaviour. I’m hoping one day she will make a half decent agility dog, one small step at a time. I no longer let other people’s opinions effect the way I think. That is their problem not mine. I do the very best I can with Cloud, I love her to bits and I wouldn’t swap her for the world.

Please share this to help raise awareness of the difficulties of having a reactive dog and the hope that things can improve.