The other day I was complaining to a group of friends how frustrated I was with my journey to better health. That I was so frazzled and stressed that even the smallest things seemed impossible. That I was so angry at how much I’d had sacrificed and given up in the last few years that I resisted like hell when asked to give up anything else. How exhausted I was all the time, and how this impacted my ability to make good personal decisions when all my energy for good decision-making was reserved for work.
I begged for their support. I was hoping for some other bit of miraculous advice, the perfect diet plan that would allow me to shed twenty pounds in two days, feel AMAZING with just some small tweaks in my routine, and take at least twenty years off my appearance. Okay, not really. But certainly that’s the expectation we have when starting any new ‘clean up your act’ plan. Miracles in 21 days or your money back.
The response I got startled me.
One of my friends said, “You wouldn’t expect a reactive dog to make huge improvements overnight. Why do you expect the same for yourself?”
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a reactive dog is one who over-reacts to things in its environment. This kind of behavior can be hard-wired into the dog through genetics (certain breeds, especially the working and herding dogs, have been bred to respond to certain situations and stimuli, and can be more reactive as a result), through poor socialization (not having seen enough different things as a young pup, which makes the whole world an intense place), or from a terrifying incident–like getting attacked.
Reactive dogs are tough to live with because almost everything sets them off: movement, sound, certain situations. They lunge and bark in public spaces, making them difficult to walk. The tendency is to keep them home, which makes the problem worse, especially if you stop having people come over. The risk of a reactive dog biting someone is high because their displays are often fear-based, and if you can’t calm them down, their response is disproportionate to the stimuli.
I’ve had two reactive dogs, so I’ve had to learn a lot about managing them.
The first was Abbey, a female German Shepherd that came from bloodlines that featured a lot of Schutzhund champions. Schutzhund is a dog sport that tests a dog’s performance during tracking, obedience, and protection work. That is not to say that a Schutzhund dog can’t make a great family pet, but the sport does prize drive as a characteristic, and reactivity can be a consequence of high drive.
Abbey would have probably been a tough-but-manageable dog had she not had a horrific experience. When she was about three years old, we were out walking after a heavy snowstorm. My neighbors had a litter of adult mixed-breed shepherds that lived in a pen with little human interaction. On this day for the first time ever, they decided to let their unsocialized, untrained dogs loose to play in the snow. Four dogs all about Abbey’s size jumped us as a pack with the intent of killing her.
Had it not been for the excessive snow, they probably would have. Abbey dove under the snow pack while I waded into the mass of dogs, screeching like a banshee, grabbing dogs by the scruff and slinging them across the yard. Their owners came charging out of the house to collect their dogs–with never a word of apology or to see if me or my dog had been injured, mind you.
And after that, if Abbey saw a dog even 100 yards away, she went into an impressive display of barking and growling, pawing the air while I held her back by the collar. Going for a walk was no longer fun. We were like victims of assault, constantly looking over our shoulders for another attack. Abbey thought a good offense was the best defense. She even reacted on garbage days when people set their trash cans on the curb. Whatever was new and different in her environment was grounds for being defensive.
Over the next three or four years I worked on her behavior, taking “aggressive” dog classes, working with trainers and behaviorists. It wasn’t until one such trainer helped me to see that she was over-reacting out of fear that I was able to start managing her better. In the end, we were able to safely introduce her to strange dogs, and pass another dog-walker on a six-foot-wide trail without her blinking an eye.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
When I got my next reactive dog, Sampson, I had a better handle on what to do. I’d made sure Sampson had been well-socialized as a puppy, but his problem was he had a strong prey drive. If it moved, it lit him up. I could always tell when he wasn’t getting enough exercise because he’d flinch if a car or a jogger passed us while we were out walking. I’d have to take him to the side of the trail if we met someone on a hike and ask him to sit while I fed him treats. This required me to be hyper-vigilant, always scanning our environment for something he might react to and heading off that reaction before it occurred. Fortunately, he was very food-motivated, and eventually it got to the point when he saw the jogger, the cyclist, the car, etc, he’d flip around, plant himself in front of me, and stare at me while drool streamed out of his mouth.
A wonderful dog, but not easy to live with.
I bring this up because much like all worthwhile things in life, retraining a reactive dog is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires patience, dedication, and consistency to see results. You can’t decide that this time, you won’t reinforce the behavior you want while discouraging the behavior you don’t want. The results matter because not following through will lead to a lifetime of trying to prevent your hysterical dog from hurting himself or someone else. Not to mention it is horrible to live in a state of such anxiety all the time.
And at no point did I tell either of my dogs they were fat, lazy, or stupid for behaving the way they did. I didn’t scream at them. I didn’t tell them they were ugly. I didn’t set them up to fail. I didn’t ask them to do something not very much fun without providing some kind of reward to make it worth their while. I didn’t expect them to get it right 100% of the time, either. I accepted anything that moved in the right direction until it became a consistent habit and I could ask for a little bit more. I acknowledged that if they got it wrong, I was usually to blame because I wasn’t paying attention.
Why would I treat myself–and the changes I want to make in my life–with any less patience and compassion?
I shouldn’t. And neither should you.
So remember the tenants of dog training when it comes to yourself and the changes you want to make in your life:
- Set yourself up to succeed. Look ahead for the triggers and plan redirects around them.
- Calmly and firmly tell yourself no when faced with a decision that isn’t good for you (like walking into the break room and discovering boxes of doughnuts from the best bakery in town). Be sure to reward yourself for making the right decision. This is critical! You’ll have to figure out what your “high-value treats” are. Try not to trade one bad habit for another (i.e. you’re trying to quit smoking so you’re eating lots of cookies, or you’re spending too much money shopping online).
- Be patient. You’re in this for the long-haul. Getting ten little things right can be set back by getting one major thing wrong, but getting something wrong isn’t the end of the world. Just do better next time.
- Remember that you’re making changes for a reason. Failure to stick with it has consequences. Failing to train your reactive dog may result in your dog biting someone or getting into a serious dogfight with injuries. Failure to make needed changes in your life may result in further damage to your mental and physical health.
- Remember that some of the behaviors you’re dealing with may have their roots in past trauma. I never blamed Abbey for over-reacting to the sight of strange dogs–we both could have died on that snowy day! Be kind to your wounded self too.
- Learn from your mistakes. Failure to plan is planning to fail. I wouldn’t leave the house without a treat bag full of high-value tidbits to distract my dog in certain situations. I also learned to recognize which situations were too overwhelming for her to start, and adjusted our interactions as a result. Identify your triggers and challenging situations and plan accordingly.
- Accept that it is up to you to affect the changes you want to see, and that you can’t necessarily expect help from others. When you’re out walking a reactive dog, you have zero control over what other people are doing with their dogs, or on skateboards, or with kids in strollers, etc. It is up to YOU to take yourself and your dog out of a situation that you suspect will be triggering. Same if you’re trying to alter your habits (be it food, alcohol, drugs, swearing, or a pervasive need to sing Disney songs, whatever). You cannot expect others around you to create a safe zone for you. Accept responsibility for your own life.
- Ask for help and support. Wait, what? Doesn’t that contradict the last rule? No, not really. Training a reactive dog will fail if some members of the house refuse to support the training efforts. It isn’t reasonable or fair to expect the world at large to cooperate with your efforts to make change, but it is reasonable to ask for help from those in your immediate circle. It’s okay to admit that a house full of cookies (or alcohol or Chez Doodles, whatever your poison) proves to be too hard to resist. You can sit your family down and explain that you have to make changes in order to improve the quality of your life, and while you’re not asking that everyone follow the same strictures you might be making for your personal health (for example, going dairy-free), you are going to need to set limits on how much of the high-temptation food is in the house, and that when choosing to eat out, preference be given to a restaurant that has more options than pizza or burgers. It isn’t wrong to ask for this kind of support, particularly in the early stages of change when you are trying to get a handle on it. You wouldn’t take a reactive dog to a dog park until you’d learned how to manage their reactivity in public. A dog park is too much for many dogs, not just reactive ones! You start out with smaller, quieter walks until you know how to manage your dog in more stimulating situations. So if you’re trying to affect change in eating habits, perhaps eating out with the family isn’t the best choice at first.
- Consider professional help. Sure, you’ve been training dogs (or feeding yourself, or dealing with your own issues) all your life. But sometimes you need the help of a trained professional to manage a specific issue. Sometimes that reactive dog needs medication to calm down to the point it can listen appropriately to your training. You might need therapy to deal with old wounds. Perhaps your current methods of coping, which come with consequences, have their roots in previous trauma, and you won’t really effect change until you figure out how to heal from that.
- Give yourself credit for the changes and improvements you make. They may not seem like much at first, but don’t discount them! A baby step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction. Eventually, you will no longer be satisfied with baby steps, and you’ll be able to continue pushing forward. Six months or a year from now, you’ll look back in astonishment at how far you’ve come.
So there you have it: why training yourself is no different from training your dog. If your dog slips its collar and runs off, you wouldn’t beat your dog for finally coming to you when you called it, would you? No, you wouldn’t–or you shouldn’t, at any rate.
Then stop beating yourself up for returning to the path you want after briefly straying from it. You can teach an old dog new tricks.