Updated: Jul 9, 2019
If you are someone who is easily offended by colourful language, and unfiltered dialogue - read no further. If you are someone - like me - who finds unabashed humour in the fact that their dog is the epitome of asshole-ery then this post is for you.
Rewind to the summer of 2017. Luke (my boyfriend) and I were relishing in our first full summer living together. I had just landed my dream job with dogs, and things were right peachy. At this point I knew that I wanted to train dogs, and had a keen interest in canine behaviour - however I wasn't sure where that was going to lead me. At that point I think the dream was to become a service dog handler or something badass like that.
At the end of July I started training in behaviour counselling. I walked into a pod to work with my first dog and there he was. Sitting at 35 kgs with shining golden fur, gleaming gold eyes, the cutest pink nose I have ever seen, and a smile that just wouldn't quit - Bo (now Carter/Carter Bo/Carter Bo Bo Berino/Dooder/Goon). The connection was instant, and I knew that I needed this dog in my life. I sent Luke a snap of this beautiful golden creature, and we added him to the family shortly thereafter.
We were on cloud 9! We had just adopted our first dog together - and for the first week it seemed like life was in full equilibrium. We had the house, we had the perfectly behaved dog, we had it all.
*Cue the dramatic themed music*
After a week of having Carter, his behaviour shifted drastically. While he was very eager to meet new people when we first got him, he was now more reserved and fearful, with explosive reactions that - at the time, being uneducated in canine behaviour - seemed to come from no where. He had originally come from a rural home, so I can only imagine that lack of socialization and overstimulation was key to the escalation of his reactivity - however, I cannot say for sure, but can only speculate.
Long story short, we found ourselves working with dog "aggression" in a way that neither of us had dealt with before with our past family pets and we felt lost. With this feeling came a spark of exhilarated and innate passion.
We have now had Carter for 2 years and I still learn from him daily, and I've learned a thing or two.
1 - I've learned that it's okay for him not to meet everyone we see on the street. I'm going to do what's best for my dog, and have started to take up the "screw what other people think about it" policy, because let's be honest - majority of the people who walk up to your dog on the street know absolutely nothing about dog behaviour.
People can be THE WORST for that. Everyone has this unfounded notion that they have some sort of right to come up to your dog, regardless of what you say. And that being said, for some reason the first year we had him, I legitimately felt embarrassed when I had to say "no"! LIKE WTF! Why should I feel embarrassment over not letting some rando put their hands all over my dog.... anyways, it's not detrimental for your dog who is scared of strangers to not meet the elderly woman walking down the sidewalk wearing big ass hater blockers - if anything, it may be detrimental to allow it if you're not properly prepared, or have not started a behaviour modification program. IT'S OKAY TO SAY NO!
2 - There are going to be good days, and bad days... then there are going to be some fucking unreal, or fucking horrible days.
Starting to help a dog work through their fears is not an easy task. It is full of insane ups and downs - and turns and dips and flips and all types of shit.
Let's talk about trigger stacking for a quick sec.
Triggers are anything that "trigger" a stress reaction in a dog. A stress reaction is something physical, and isn't something that your dog can control. Their stress reactions are their innate survival response to a threat. For example, if you have a dog who is stranger-reactive, their trigger would be a stranger.
When a dog is triggered by something high-stress, it can take up to 36 hours for them to come down from that intense rush of cortisol and adrenaline. If they experience more triggers before they are able to completely come down, those triggers will start to stack - which can result in an intense reaction to something they normally wouldn't react so harshly to. This is something that can happen during the day while you're at work - if the mailman comes, then someone bikes past the window, then two cars honk right outside the house, etc. It is also a big contributor to reactivity in dog daycares, and why it is important to give your dogs a break from daycare every once and a while.
I like to use the human example of being in a mall during Christmas time. When you first get there, you may be totally fine - you're just on a mission to get some dope ass gifts. But after 10 minutes there's a group of 4 people slow walking in a line that has now formed a wall that you cannot escape, then another 20 minutes go by and you have to now wait in a line a mile long to purchase anything - by the end of it all, you're probably feeling some mad road rage on your way home... that my friends, is trigger stacking.
One day, you'll see this insane progress, and the next it may seem worse than when you started. This is normal. The important thing is one day you'll look back and have more good days than bad days - and that's when you know you've made it!
3 - YOUR DOG DOES NOT NEED TO BE AROUND OTHER DOGS/PEOPLE! I know this is kind of what is stated in #1, but I feel as though it needs to be said again. Yes, I know we live in a world where our dogs are our children and that we want them to have dog friends and do everything with us, but if you have a people-reactive dog - please don't force them to meet your Aunt Marsha (sorry if anyone has an Aunt Marsha out there - I tried to make a name up ha) who comes around once every 2 years, has only had cats, and instantly goes up to kiss their face. It's not worth it.
You also don't to need to bring your dog-reactive dog to a busy off-leash dog park. If they're scared shitless to be there who exactly are you going there for? Them, or you?
Work hard to get your dog comfortable with the people/dogs you see on a regular basis. Get in touch with a trainer and learn proper counter conditioning techniques that you can use at an ON-LEASH park where it is more controlled - there's no point forcing your dog into an extremely scary situation just because we want to be able to say our dog goes to the dog park.
Also, I don't know about you guys, but I don't love everyone I meet...why are we expecting our dogs to?
4 - Reactive dogs are actually smart, and funny AF. Honestly, some of the absolute smartest dogs I have trained with have been ones that I have met for reactivity issues. Now if you have a dog who's non-reactive, I'm not saying only reactive dogs are smart, I'm just saying they have this personality and intelligence behind them that not a lot of people get to see because it's masked by fear and insecurities. Once you crack that hard exterior there is always a smart, intelligent, and fun-loving dog underneath.
Carter and I have conversations with each other on the daily - my roomie prob thinks I'm a complete loonie because when Carter starts barking sometimes I really just try to talk it out with him.
He's also the funniest dog with THE BEST facial expressions. I feel judged by him everyday and it makes my life brighter.
5 - You don't owe anyone an explanation or an apology for doing what's in the best interest of your dog. You're the one who is responsible for them.
When someone asks to meet your dog while on a walk and you say no, you don't need to apologize for it. If you're having people over, and your dog is having some time to relax away from people and someone wants to go say hey and you say no, you don't need to apologize for it.
When you don't allow your neighbours over-excited golden who constantly ignores your dog's signals trying to tell it they're uncomfortable to come up to them, you don't have to apologize for it.
You are doing what is best for your dog. Stop apologizing for it.
DISCLAIMER: being a responsible pet owner means taking responsibility for your dog's actions, so if your dog does any harm to someone or someone's dog, you absolutely do have to apologize for it.
6 - Take your time. It does absolutely no good trying to rush the process. Think about it for just a second - you are literally trying to re-wire your dog's instinctual fears... that shit takes time. It's not going to just change after one or two thirty-minute training sessions.
So in conclusion...
Stop fucking apologizing, and be okay with saying no.
Relish in the joy of seeing your fearful dog start to gain confidence and show their true, vibrant colours.
Laugh about it. Because let's face it - sometimes there's really nothing else to do but laugh.
One time when we needed to clean Carter's ears, we muzzled him up and Luke distracted him with a plate full of peanut butter to lick while I walked around and squished cleaner into his ear... needless to say he wasn't a fan, and all three of us had our adrenaline pumping by the end. If you were to see that from an outsider's perspective, it probably would have looked fucking hilarious... honestly half the shit I do probably would. It's important to not just focus on the negative aspects, but that you are also finding joy in the positive ones, and sometimes even poking fun/joking about the more serious ones... for your own sanity.
Don't rush the process - rushing won't work.
My dog is a 35 kg, 3 year old American Bulldog X. He's a golden lion without courage, and has scared the shit out of a few people a time or two. He's people-, dog-, and object-reactive. He gives our vet a run for their money, and keeps me on my toes during walks. He's a patient brother to Indy, a huge couch potato, and loves a good nap in the sun.
He makes me laugh literally every single day. My dog is a bit of an asshole, and that is 100% okay.