This post is part of a WOOF Support bloghop!
WOOF stands for Working Out Our Fears, and WOOF support is a wonderful community of pet lovers who have in their lives a dog with fears or anxiety. I feel really privileged to be a part of this group, and have already learnt a lot through the experiences of others and from the friendly, kind support I have received there. If you would like to join, check out the facebook support group here. If you would like to read some of the stories of the many wonderful members of this group, please see the links at the end. Happy reading!
My Reactive Rover: Beginnings
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Billy. I was working for an animal shelter at the time, doing health checks on all the stray and surrendered animals, as well as neutering and spaying dogs and cats prior to adoption by loving new owners. I was walking past the barking dogs in their concrete pens, minding my own business, when something made me stop in my tracks. Brow furrowed, I took two steps back and peered into kennel number 16 at the little tri-colour boy within. He was leaning his whole, scrawny body up against the wire, tail wagging furiously and big eyes staring up longingly. After a quick sideways glance around to ensure I wasn’t being watched, I dropped my clipboard and stethoscope, unlatched his gate, and slipped inside to say hi. After the initial excitement, this smelly, matted little dog settled quietly onto my lap and closed his eyes while I stroked his dry, brittle fur. That was the end of me. I was done.
I mean seriously, look at that face!
After passing his health check and scoring an A+ from the trainers on his temperament testing, I neutered, vaccinated, wormed and microchipped this 10 month old pup and took him home. In that sequence of events somewhere was an earnest conversation with my husband about why we had to have this dog, but realistically the decision was made the moment I laid eyes on him. Although Darren will argue this point fiercely, he agreed that the dog would be his responsibility and he was the one that named him Billy.
Awww, you guys!
As it turned out, I was the one to take Billy to dog training, where we started with a basic course. I didn’t mind, I loved spending the time with him and it was a lot of fun. At first. Then one day, maybe about week four, it all fell to pieces. One of the class members, a boisterous chocolate labrador called Charlie, showed up late and came bounding in after everyone was already busy doing their thing. Billy freaked. To this day I don’t understand why, but he started barking hysterically, and lunging! On the trainer’s advice I removed him from the situation. We made several more attempts to integrate him back into the group, but he wasn’t having it.
The trainer and I had a serious chat and together we decided it would be best to pull Billy from the class and move to a session specifically for ‘reactive dogs’. It was the first time I’d heard the term, and little did I know how familiar with it I was to become!
Why Might a Dog be Reactive?
Reactivity towards another dog may manifest as barking, snarling, snapping, lunging, or in Billy’s case, a whine/bark/lunge combo routine. It could be caused by fear or frustration or a combination of the two. In cases where the behaviour is based on fear, it may be fear of
1) approaching dogs due to poor socialisation as a puppy,
2) a traumatic previous experience, or
3) even fear because when the dog has previously been ‘reactive’ out of excitement, the owner has responded with punishment like a jerk on the leash.
With the latter, aggression is then increased in future encounters because unfamiliar dogs are now associated with a nasty experience at the hands of the owner. Of course it’s always possible that the individual dog’s genetics play a role in his or her predisposition to being fearful also. Regardless of the cause, the problem is aggravated by every new exposure to a similar situation that does not end with a positive outcome.
Back to Billy
I don’t remember a lot about Billy’s time in the reactive dog class, other than walking around in huge circles at specified distances from the other dogs with strategically placed objects for the dogs to go behind if it was starting to get overwhelming. And of course lots of emergency U-turns. Long story short, Billy failed this class miserably and was moved again, to private one-on-one classes with the trainer and her bomb-proof dog, who interestingly also happened to be a chocolate lab. After only three sessions and no discernible response to the techniques tried, Billy and I officially failed the last option the trainer had available to us. She looked at him sadly and shrugged “there’s nothing more I can do for this dog”.
Looks like we’re on our own buddy
I felt like somehow this was all my fault. I had adopted this dog who ticked all the right boxes in his temperament test and turned him into a bundle of nerves. When I brought it up with one of the trainers at the shelter, I was even told “he was fine here, it must be you. You must be projecting your own anxiety onto him, or inadvertently reinforcing this behaviour”. The guilt I have carried around since then has weighed heavily on me.
Things Billy and I Have Tried
- Gentle Leader/head halter, on a loose leash
- Establishing threshold and working just outside of it with desensitisation and counterconditioning – using awesome food rewards
- DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collar
Captain Bill-dawg chillin in his Thundershirt
My Reactive Rover: Present Day
For the most part, Billy and I practice avoidance. We walk late at night, early in the morning, or when the weather is bad. If I spot another dog before he does I abruptly change course. And we never, ever go to the park. I walk him and my other dog, Anika, separately as it’s too much for me to manage them both (and a toddler and a baby!) if he’s presented with a difficult situation. We play together in the backyard a lot, and he’s quite eager to please so we have our little training sessions at home. But I never challenge him. He becomes aroused and I can almost see the adrenaline rushing through his veins as soon as I reach for my shoes or pick up his leash. This is before we even get to the front door! I’m sad to admit I’ve let his behaviour damage our relationship, and there have been moments when I’ve felt so defeated and just stared at him blankly thinking “you’re hard to love sometimes mate”. I’ve been embarrassed. I’ve been angry. I’ve been upset. But at the end of the day, there is so much to love about this dog. He adores us and tries really hard to be a ‘good boy’. He has lovely manners in every other respect, and his favourite pastime is snuggling up together and being petted – especially on the couch.
Ever vigilant, searching for danger
So Where to From Here?
We are going to go back to basics and try something like Dr Sophia Yin’s foundation exercises at home, but very slowly, in baby steps. I’m considering also purchasing a Calming Cap, and would be very interested in hearing if anyone has experience with one of these and whether the decrease in stimulation was helpful. If we continue to struggle, the next step is a home consultation with a veterinary behaviourist. It’s something I’ve been holding off on for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is my stubborn feeling that I should be able to manage this. I am a vet. I have done postgraduate study in behavioural medicine. I’m no stranger to reading scientific literature and working out what’s evidence based and what should work for me. But I’ve learnt through personal experience how difficult and frustrating behaviour cases can be, and it’s given me a new empathy and understanding for my clients going through similar experiences with the animals they love.
I hope this post has given some insight into what it’s like to walk in our paws/shoes, and I think if Billy and I have anything to offer others in the same situation out there, it’s that it’s bloody hard! I’ve done quite a bit of study in this area and for me it’s hard, so don’t beat yourself up if you are having a tough time. It’s not your fault, and it’s not the dog’s fault. And there are many others out there going through similar experiences – you are not alone.
My dog is not perfect, and neither am I, but we’ll work on it together with kindness and patience and trust, and just do our best.
Thanks for reading!