Living with a reactive dog, a dog like Manzo, is so incredibly challenging. You have such high hopes bringing home a new dog. You think, “together, we can do anything!” In some ways yes, you can absolutely face the world and take challenges head on! That can be so exhausting my friends. Not just for you but for your dog too!
I knew how critical socialization was for young dogs. I needed to make time in my busy schedule to get Manzo out into the world. We did that. We went to the pet stores, to the parks, to new trails, and people’s homes. It was amazing. We had so much fun together in those early months. We were gearing up for greatness. We were gearing up, to be let down. Or at least I was.
I was walking around a pet store with Manzo. I thought with my new found clicker skills we could do anything. Walking nicely, click and treat! Listening to his name, I’ve got a treat for that! At the time I thought Manzo was just picky about food. I didn’t know how stress and threshold worked so I thought I was just using bad treats. Not this day though, I had taken a block of cheese and diced it up into tiny pieces. I walked around that store feeling confident, like I knew what I was doing and that my dog, Manzo, did too. We would round a corner and see a dog and Manzo would scurry to get behind me. I would give him some treats and he’d walk by. “Great! We survived that one!” I’d say to myself.
I didn’t know that exposure was not enough. I didn’t know that simply exposing my dog to other dogs could actually be making him more scared.
He would sniff the small animals with excitement and lower his head when he saw an adult human. He took food but I could tell he was not thrilled to be there. I was proud of him though! He was trying and he was trying for me, because I was asking him to, but not because he wanted to.
What happened next I will remember forever. A young boy, maybe 6, asked if he could pet my puppy. I thought to myself, “YES! A perfect exposure for my dog to meet children!” I crouched down to the floor, Manzo crouched behind me, weight shifted to his back end. I spoke to the young boy and his mother and said, “Of course you can!” I proceeded to hand the little boy a few pieces of cheese and explained that Manzo seemed nervous today. I asked the young boy to sit on the ground with me and hold the cheese out to Manzo.
If you know young children and dogs, then you know he did not even hear what I said and even if he did, he was not capable of self control when around a puppy.
The young boy screamed with excitement and lept toward Manzo! Startled, I jumped too and then Manzo exploded into deep barking and lunged toward the boy. As you can imagine, his mother had words for me. Manzo, now in a full blown fit of reactivity, barking at literally everything, was terrified. I was horribly embarrassed. I was so angry at that young boy for not listening to me. Days later I would be horribly mad at myself for asking Manzo to do something so hard.
I had set him up to fail. I had asked him to dive head first into the deep end before even telling him about the pool in the first place. We scurried to the car where Manzo continued to whine, pant, and drool until we got home. I continued to bawl my eyes out. It was awful, you guys. I had never seen Manzo lunge toward someone and this, this was a child.
Knowing what I know now, I clearly should have done that either differently or not at all! Manzo was clear in his body language that he was not okay with the situation. I asked a young boy to make decisions a child of his age is clearly not capable of making. And I ignored everything my dog was saying because I thought to myself, “if he just takes the cheese, he’ll feel better about children.” Wrong, wrong, so flipping wrong. Exposure is not enough. Even if your dog takes the dang cheese, if they still feel unsafe, if you still ask your dog to do something they feel unsafe doing, they will lose trust in you and the whole entire situation.
I broke the trust bank on that one. But you know what! Dogs are incredibly resilient creatures. Somehow Manzo found it in his beautiful little heart, to forgive me just moments later. When we got home, we took a walk in our quiet woods. While I tried to help Manzo feel comfortable and safe, deep down inside I felt horribly lost.
Manzo was always great when off leash. This was the one thing I could rely on, that he’d make good choices for himself when he was free to do so. Come when called was, and remains, his jam. He LOVES to run back to me and crash into a sit for his treat. He was just perfect off leash. We would hike in the woods and he would never go too far. I remember going for his 6 month check up before his neuter and one of the technicians there telling me that while it was great he could be off leash, it was important for him to listen on leash. To myself I thought, “well she’s rude!” She didn’t even acknowledge that my dog was amazing! HA! Guys, she was 100% right. I rarely had him on a leash and I did not know that would be a problem until much later.
We would frequently go to Wagon Hill, a beautiful off leash dog park close to Great Bay with trails and fields. It was great! He’d run around the tall grass and get back to my car soaking wet! Those were the days. He’d make friends in an instant and it was Manzo and me, against the world. Until one day. We were heading back to the car after a nice game of fetch in the water. Suddenly a large giant Schnauzer popped out of the woods behind us. I could hear its owner screaming for him to come, which he most certainly did not do.
The dog towered over little Manzo, who was curling his body and crouching low. The dog stood tall and walked over to Manzo with his tail high and stiff. They went nose to nose and in a split second the dog barked loudly and jumped onto Manzo with his face in his mouth. I screamed, no, shrieked at the Schnauzer to let Manzo go. I don’t really know what happened after because I was so utterly terrified for Manzo. I know I was able to get the dog to let go of Manzo and that the owner eventually came out of the woods for the dog and I most certainly yelled at her. Manzo, covered in spit but otherwise unharmed, was barking and yelling at the other dog who was silent, but showing his teeth.
I had never seen anything like that before. I thought the dog wanted to say hello. I thought they would be fast friends. We were walking back up to the lot as the Schnauzer and his owner disappeared back into the woods when I saw someone else let their dog out of their car. Manzo was on leash now and clearly stressed. I saw a Dalmatian pop out of the trees near the lot, the owner not in sight and he did the same damn thing. Body tall, stiff, tail flagging.
I now knew that this was NOT a friendly gesture. Manzo puffed up, hit the end of his leash and started to bark while the dalmatian trotted, very stiff towards us. I knew this was not going to be good. I snatched up Manzo in my arms, luckily he was still small enough for me to do that, and I turned my side to the dog. The dalmatian rushed over to me and began growling and circling both of us. The owner finally showed up and said nothing. Just walked away and eventually the Dalmation did too.
That was the last time I went to Wagon Hill with Manzo. That was the last time I would fail him. From here on out I was going to protect him. From here on out, I would help him not just do better, I would help him FEEL better. Everything I knew about owning and raising a dog had been minimal up to this point. We had dogs growing up, but they were not trained and we did not leave the house with them. I needed to learn more to help Manzo.
Remember in my last part I mentioned I was going to school for Dairy Management? I needed another elective credit and my advisor convinced me to take Canine Learning Theory. I had no idea what that meant. I just knew we would get to work with dogs. I registered, and man, was I surprised! This course, at the time, was taught by Dr. Michelle Posage, a veterinary behaviorist in NH. We learned so much and I soaked it up like a sponge. We learned about classical conditioning, Skinner’s box, Premack Principle, and the history of dog training. We also had a practical at the NHSPCA. Once a week we would go to the shelter to apply the theories we learned and to actually train the dogs. Man. If you’ve never tried to train a dog who has never learned to learn, go do it. It will teach you everything you need to know about patience! It was here that I met another positive trainer and when I learned that they had an intern program. I signed up immediately!
I observed every class I had time for. I think I ended up observing every class that was taught for more than 6 months. Addicted? Yup. Obsessed? You betcha. Then I learned about a class being offered for reactive dogs. Dogs who barked and lunged at, well, anything. I was scared. “You mean, you want me to bring my dog to a class with other dogs who bark and scream?”
The first class I could shadow, I did. I saw dogs being set up for success. I saw owners coming to class full of shame and leaving with confidence and a greater relationship with their dog. It was what I needed. It was what Manzo needed. So, It’s what we did!
When you are in it, you are so incredibly in it that you feel alone. You feel like you are the only one in the world with a “bad” dog. You feel judged. You feel lost. I promise you friends, that you most certainly are not. I have been there and countless others have too. We are your people. And we will be here to listen when your dog lunges unexpectedly and we will let you know that we have been there too. Manzo and I have taken this journey together and we are so excited to share more of it with you!
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