Yes you, the reactive dog owner who is trying to balance everything. I see you and I know your struggle. You are trying your best to help your dog be successful and yet, they continue to bark and lunge and behave inappropriately when out in the real world. I know you let them on the couch and I know you love them so dearly, that they sleep in the bed with you. I know that you have Googled and Youtubed and you feel like you have tried everything but you are still fighting an uphill battle. Before we talk about your dog, let’s talk about you.
It’s not your fault!
Oh for the love of dog, please say this one out loud with me. “This is not my fault!” Shout it if you have to, write it down on a post it note and keep this one in your pocket, always. YOU did not create your dog's behavior. You spoiling your dog most certainly did not teach them that they have to bark at all the things.
Sure, maybe some of the things you are doing aren't necessarily making this process easier for the both of you but nothing you did made your dog this way. Please remember this each day you venture out with your dog. You are a team. Your dog needs you and you need your dog! Together you will be the solution to this behavior problem, together you’ll reach your goals. You are the very thing your dog needs right now to be his best version of himself. So remember to remind yourself that this is NOT your fault!
Let it go.
The shame all reactive dog owners feel is immeasurable. I know because I feel it too. When Manzo first started barking at other dogs, boy, did I feel like a gigantic failure. Shame because I couldn't fix my dog on my own despite having lived with dogs my entire life. Shame because I didn't understand why my dog behaved this way. Shame because others so clearly judged me and my dog’s behavior.
Go for a walk down a busy street and every other person who watches you and your screaming dog will either look at you with eyes of pity or disgust.
“They shouldn't have that dog here”
“That woman clearly needs training help for her dog”
“That person should not have THAT dog”
“That woman must be abusing her dog!”
“That dog is aggressive!”
These are just some of the things I’d say to myself as Manzo barked at passers by and their judgemental eyes fell upon me. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” That’s right. What that stranger thinks of you and your dog. Yep. It literally doesn't matter. Who are they to have any bearing on you and your dog's journey. They couldn't possibly know all you have been doing for your dog. They haven’t walked in your shoes.
The shame we all carry will do nothing but hold you and your dog back. I’ll never forget taking Manzo for a training walk at a busy state park where no one follows the leash rules. I had so many treats, his favorite toy, all the things we’d need for success. He did great but I remember him launching into a full blown reactive episode when someone walked by with an off leash husky who literally did nothing but look at Manzo. I could feel the owner looking at me and I thought to myself that he must think I was some kind of crazy person and that I should reprimand my dog for such behavior.
You guys, this was what I thought in my head! The man said literally nothing to me. I quietly hushed Manzo saying things like, “No Manzo.” “That's enough.” Giving in to my own beliefs that he was judging me and that I must be wrong.
I got to my car and was baffled by my own behavior. What the heck was I doing? Letting some absolute random encounter with someone I have literally never seen again, change my journey with my dog? Whatever his opinions of us were, or were not, they shouldn't have any bearing on my training with Manzo. I was embarrassed that I had let them change me. I was committed to changing that.
Once I let go of the shame of having a “bad dog” I could move into the loving process of having a dog who was just struggling and it was my job to help him!
When we work with fearful dogs one of the main ways we build their confidence is by providing them with a sense of predictability. Predictability allows the dog to feel safe and gives them a sense of control in a likely scary situation.
When you are working with a reactive dog there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong and in the heat of the moment we’ll all make decisions that are different each time. Google and Youtube will tell you a million different ways to handle your dog in these situations, and that's fine. What's not fine is moving forward without a consistent plan. By bouncing around and trying this or that without any consistency two things happen.
Your dog has no idea what to expect each time, thus losing even more confidence. And,
You feel out of control!
Make a plan moving forward so you can have that sense of predictability, so you can feel like you have a sense of control in a scary situation.
What will you do when you see a dog?
What will you do when your dog starts to get stressed?
Simply answering these questions for yourself will be the beginnings of a training plan that will provide consistency for both you and your dog.
I see you. And I know what you are going through. Simply realizing that what you are going through is so incredibly common, helps to ease the stress of going through it. We have a whole Facebook community just for reactive dog owners like you. We’d love to hear your story and help you to let go of the shame and stress of trying to help your dog be the best versions of themselves. Consider yourself officially invited!