My Journey With a Reactive Dog: Part One
I didn’t know I wanted Manzo. I only knew I wanted a little red puppy. Yes, I know I know. I picked my first puppy out all wrong. I initially wanted to adopt my first dog, but when I applied all the shelters and rescues turned me down. That’s okay, I can imagine that to most people a 20 year old, living at home and balancing working part time with college full time, wouldn’t seem like an ideal situation for a Cattle Dog. After being turned down for a number of dogs I decided to find a breeder. I didn’t research one, I picked the first one I could find with available puppies, and wouldn’t you know it. They had a litter with one little red boy. Out of 10 puppies Manzo, Rocky at the time, was the first born and the only red dog.
When I went to meet them for the first time, to pick out my puppy, it was a simple choice for me. I wanted a red, male cattle dog. And there he was. 6 weeks old, sitting in the back of the pen while the rest of the little puppies greeted me happily at the gate. Perfect. He’s the one.
Spoiler alert. This is a red flag for anyone who wants a social, balanced, and happy dog. Especially if you want to do sports with said dog. Which I did!
When I picked up Manzo at 8 weeks of age I remember the breeder scooping him up and handing him to me. Most of the litter had already gone to their new homes and Manzo must have been frightened by his family being suddenly split up. He was a quivering ball of nerves in my arms. He was already drooling and I was already in love. “It’s okay baby. I’ve got you.”
The entire ride home, all 3 hours of it, Manzo sat in the backseat with my friend crying, drooling, and throwing up the entirety of his stomach contents. We had to stop for cleaning products just to make it home relatively clean. This was the first time Manzo had rode in a car. The first time he was exposed to car rides was the very same day he was forced to say goodbye to all he had known. Of course he was stressed out and physically ill!
Spoiler alert: This is not the ideal way to expose your young puppy to riding in a car. Hindsight is 20 20. 10 out of 10, would not recommend.
When we got back to my parents house, where I was living at the time, I walked Manzo around a bit and I had his room set up. Which was just his little corner of my half of the room I shared with my sister. He had his crate, his dog bed, water bowls, the whole 9 yards. I knew that first night was critical. He slept in his crate, right next to my bed, He was a tightly curled up, little red fur ball. Afraid, exhausted. And I slept next to his crate all night with my hand through the bars touching his teeny little ears. At the time I knew he was my best friend but I had no idea the journey that lay ahead for us.
Manzo was the easiest puppy to potty train. To this day I speak with other puppy owners and friends raising puppies and I just turn to Manzo and smile. Three days. Three days of living with me and he knew he was supposed to go potty outside. I attribute this to the breeder having both inside and outside living spaces for the puppies. That, and Manzo’s vast intellectual abilities. The only area he struggled in as a youngster was when I’d come home from work or school. He’d be asleep on my bed waiting for me, he wasn't left home alone loose my mother was home with him. The moment I’d walk into the room he would roll onto his back, tail slapping my bed with excitement, whining and smiling at me. This is an appeasement gesture many young dogs make when excited and nervous. To me it seemed so sweet and cute except for one part. He was peeing everywhere. All over himself and my bed. Cute right. He eventually grew out of this and I invested in a bedliner very quickly.
I was working at a pet store at the time and going to school for Dairy Management. Yep, cows. I had hoped to become a large animal veterinarian. A dream that was quickly sidelined when my advisor suggested I take a canine learning theory class. That's a story for another day though, this is about Manzo! The store I was working at, Pet Quarters, had an amazing trainer there teaching puppy classes and I knew I wanted to sign up to work with her. We registered for Puppy 101 with Staci Stanley, who is amazing and still training dogs! The first puppy class we ever took was at The Yellow Dog’s Barn in Barrington. It was so much fun! I learned all about clicker training, and shaping behavior, rewarding good things and managing or preventing the bad. It was awesome!
It was here I should have known what was ahead for Manzo and I. There with his classmates, Clementine, Sammie, Rose and a few others (Yes, I still remember them!) Manzo showed me the early signs of dog reactivity. He was timid and wouldn't always eat food in class. I went crazy trying to find the right treat for him, though he always liked the trainer’s treats more! I did my homework religiously. I socialized him like all the books say to. I did everything I could to help my little nervous puppy to be bold and confident. And yet, there he was. Every week he'd walk into class barking and we’d have to walk around for 10 minutes until he’d settle and remember they were his friends. After the 6 weeks of class he was a true gentleman. He would run to me from distractions, he’d stay if I asked him to. But when Manzo saw another dog, outside of class, it was like my sweet little puppy turned into something I didn't recognize. I knew training dogs was important and that he did so well in class, so we were off to the next level group class.
Only, when I went to sign up with our previous trainer, class was full. I had to take another similar class with another trainer. We were so excited or, I guess I was. Manzo was nervous going to a new place and was barking even in the parking lot. We walked into the building and someone at the front desk asked my name to check me in. Manzo was nervous and I could tell he didn't want to be there. She pointed me down the hall to the classroom. Manzo and I walked into a room of 15 or more other dogs and people. I remember it like it was yesterday because I knew immediately, in my gut, that this was not the place for us. I stood awkwardly at the edge of the room with Manzo, silent at this point and clearly overwhelmed by the environment. No one greeted us. No one approached us at all. At some point a woman walked into the center of the room and commanded everyone to start walking clockwise around the room with their dogs.
“All of us. At the same time?” I thought.
Trusting an authority figure, I followed suit. I encouraged Manzo to fall in step with me and walk around the room. I kept speaking to him softly. He was hypervigilant and his ears were going every which way trying to evaluate his space. I had no idea what we were doing. I looked around the room trying to mirror what others were doing as there had been literally no guidance. All I saw was a room of adolescent dogs, much like my own, feeling overwhelmed, scared and intimidated. This wasn’t right. I felt it in my stomach. At one point the trainer approached us and told me to pop Manzo’s collar anytime he looked away from me.
“But he is scared,” I said.
She replied with something along the lines of he must learn to work through that and obey you.
I wanted to scream in her face. I was so frustrated. I was frustrated with myself though too. I should have been able to choose if this type of training was what I wanted, but I didn’t know at the time that training was, and remains, an unregulated field in the state of New Hampshire. Manzo and I muddled through that first exercise. I simply offered him food and spoke softly to him, reassuring him that things were okay even though I knew they in fact, were not.
The last straw for us was this. We were lined up in the hallway, almost shoulder to shoulder. I had to hold Manzo’s leash so tight because I knew he would explode if he got nose to nose. The trainer instructed everyone to take their dog’s leash, close to their collar, and yank it to the ground and hold it there until our dogs laid down.
Im sorry. But what the actual F*!?
I spoke up. “What about asking them with a hand signal, treat, or cue?”
The reply, “They must learn to comply.”
I was fuming. I could feel my blood pumping in my face and I knew if I felt this way, Manzo probably feels worse.
I walked out.
I wish I could say that I made a big scene and that in that moment, I stood up for all of those other dogs in the room and their owners. That I could have told them that guys, there is a better way! That I could have told that ‘trainer’ that what she was doing was wrong and why. But I couldn’t. I didn't know then that dog training was a science. I barely even knew about body language. I just knew that I would advocate for my dog and never let anyone tell me what to do with him when my gut said no.
This was just the beginning. Manzo and I have been together ever since and he continues to teach me lessons and make me a better person and trainer. Stay tuned for more parts of Manzo’s story and my journey with a reactive dog.
Do you have a reactive dog story to tell? Share with us in the comments below!