Having a reactive dog can make you feel incredibly alone as a dog owner. It feels like everyone else is enjoying the dog park, taking their dog to meetups or restaurant patios, or even just enjoying chatting with people after class without constantly having to manage their dogs in order not to find themselves with a barking, anxious dog flailing on the end of the leash.
It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone. Many of us – dog trainers, and other dog owners in general- have been there.
Dogs come in many different sizes, breeds, temperaments, energy requirements, and behavioral differences. Most of us – yes, even trainers- struggle with our dogs sometimes. Reactivity is a very common problem, and it can really impede your enjoyment of doing things with your dog; but it doesn’t have to. Most reactivity can be worked through, with patience, consistent effort, and understanding of what your dog is going through.
One of the biggest hurdles in truly working through reactivity is that for every scary experience your dog has had, is knowing that it takes many trials where he is set up to feel more positive about the source of his stress. (Most commonly, this is other dogs, but sometimes it’s other things like people, cars, bicyclists, or livestock!) As trainers, we work to find volunteers to assist in setting up those positive experiences (our significant others, family members, and friends are all used to being asked to bring themselves, a chill dog, and a book to read, to hang out 50 or 100 yards away while we work with a reactive client dog. The more we are able to find volunteers and create these experiences, the easier it is to provide client dogs with them. There are people in your life, too, that will also help you create these experiences yourself (although we highly recommend doing it with assistance until you’re very comfortable with the process. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and push your dog just a little too far when you’re distracted by handling your dog AND observing AND managing your volunteer.)
As much time as it takes, working through reactivity is worthwhile. Involving your own village allows things to progress faster and makes it less lonely. So if you hear a friend bemoaning their reactive dog? Let them know they aren’t alone, too.