My life as a reactive dog…from chaos to a full life!
Last fall my husband and I met a sweet and charming dog named Buster. NOT! Last fall my husband and I met an out of control, hyper and highly reactive dog named Buster.
Buster was picked up as a “stray” on a country road when he was a puppy. He was adopted out to a family who four years later returned him with no explanation. What Buster’s life was like during those years with that family…I have no idea…if only dogs could talk. But I can safely say he was never taught any basic training skills and was very poorly socialized. After his “family” dumped him he was put in a kennel. Try to imagine, if you can, being dumped by your family and going immediately to a loud and unfamiliar kennel. How do you think an animal should react to that? Buster’s stay at the kennel was short…they wanted him out and labeled him aggressive. I think
we can safely assume Buster thought life dumped at a kennel sucked canal water. Buster went in to a foster home with a nice man who put forth a valiant effort to work with Buster. He tried exercising him…he took him for dog training…but Buster was more than he (or most people) would sign up for. Buster flunked his dog training class badly as he could not control himself around the other dogs. The trainer recommended Prozac.
I was asked to meet Buster and do an initial evaluation of him for training. It’s not easy to describe what I saw with Buster when I first met him. He was like a child with severe attention deficit disorder. So frustrated and bursting with energy that his whole little body seemed to rattle. He didn’t seem to be able to decide what he should focus on. He couldn’t relax. He didn’t know whether to bark, snap, jump, play, growl…it was truly heart breaking. His barrier aggression was off the charts. He was re-direct biting (biting his handler out of frustration at the sight of other dogs). This was not something I wanted to sign on for. Seriously…who wants to get bit by a dog? But Buster was low on options and I decided to take him on regardless.
I think its fair to say up front that I believe there is a significant difference between a reactive dog that can be worked with through training and cases of dogs with full blown aggression. It is heart breaking to encounter dogs with serious aggression issues and it is also far beyond my skill level as a trainer. I was fairly certain that Buster was not a case of full blown aggression because I witnessed Buster interact with a few dogs at the kennel that he had had a neutral introduction to. It was like watching a pack of humping, jumping and wrestling out of control lunatics…but it was nothing like the aggressive behavior he displayed in the presence of unfamiliar dogs and behind barriers. Buster also lived with a very senior dog in his first foster home. While he was a bit of a jerk to that dog he never showed aggression toward that dog. I also want to be clear that Buster had many great qualities from the start as most reactive dogs do. He was playful (albeit playful in a very obnoxious fashion) and also incredibly affectionate to some humans. I knew Buster was going to need a lot of work but I also knew there was a lot of hope.
I started working with Buster last November. I recommended moving him from his foster home to a new kennel as the backyard environment at the foster home (major barrier aggression problems with neighbor dogs) was reinforcing a really bad behavior pattern for Buster. Every other day, for several weeks, I drove to the kennel Buster was staying at (about 30 minutes away). I picked Buster up and brought him back to my house where I bonded, exercised and trained him for the afternoon and then drove him back to kennel. Over that first month I slowly introduced Buster to our pack of dogs. Eventually we fostered Buster and a few months later we adopted him.
Every time I take on a new dog I am always taken by surprise at how much I learn from them. The dogs are truly the experts on behavior and the closer I pay attention to them and what their body language and reactions are telling me the faster we can work towards solutions. Buster had a lot to teach me…perhaps more than any dog I have worked with.
Like so many reactive dogs…Buster is really easy to love. Seriously…one look at his goofy smiles in all these pictures and you can’t help but be in love with him. He is playful, energetic, enthusiastic, funny and he loves to snuggle and give affection to his humans. You should see him suck up to women who come to our home…huge flirt….HUGE. It was really easy for us to get attached to him. However, in the presence of unfamiliar dogs he was completely out of control. Out of control being defined as incessant and loud screech barking, growling, lunging, pulling, hackles up, lips curled and redirected biting of his handler. I lost count of how many times Buster bit me the first few weeks I worked with him. Buster’s play style with other dogs was horrible; he was obnoxious…lots of humping and he was unable to follow any commands around other dogs. Also problematic was that he had absolutely no leash manners…he was a mad dog pulling his human where he wanted to go. I am not a very big woman…he could have easily taken me to the ground. Leash manners had to be a priority for working with Buster.
In a nutshell my goal was to get a very strong (and strong-willed) dog with ZERO leash manners, a desperate need for exercise, major barrier aggression and a very high level of reactivity to unfamiliar dogs transformed to a state of mind where he could live a full life. While we still have plenty of work to do…Buster is living a full life now. He is a handful…he always will be…but he is worth every moment that we have invested in him.
Most of the people we consider friends are dog people but some are not. Bret and I laugh when we have guests over and they meet Buster for the first time. They usually comment that he is a bit of a spaz…Buster has an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm…most dog lovers can appreciate him as he is. Non-dog lovers…not so much. His grandma threatens to give him her Lorazopam…we laugh…if only they knew how far he has come. We love our little spaz and nothing makes us happier than to see him live a full life.
I am going to share how Buster went from “out of control” to “living a full life” in a series of blog posts over the next few months. I am not a novel trainer…meaning I am a total copy cat…plain and simple. I follow the advice and techniques of trainers much more experienced and knowledgeable than I am. I will tell you what we did and point you to in-depth resources from the experts I trust and give them full credit for the methods we used. I am simply sharing the techniques that worked for me and Buster in hopes that it can help others.
I know how frustrating it is to love a reactive dog. Buster is not my first rodeo with a reactive dog. Ten years ago I went to the trouble of getting certified to train dogs because I had an out of control Rottweiler that I loved dearly. I wanted to see him live a full life but couldn’t find trainers who were willing to work with him (can’t say I blame them). My only option seemed to learn to train him myself. I know all to well the diligence and hard work involved with working with a reactive dog. Pet parents who go the distance to give a reactive dog a full life…are very dedicated and special folks in my opinion. I hope Buster and I can be a resource by talking through our experiences and pointing you towards the experts and methods we looked to in our journey to build a better life for Buster.
Following is the summary of the series of upcoming posts I am planning:
1) Building Trust…beginning work with a reactive dog.
Getting Buster to work hard for me didn’t come instantly..in fact it was quite a bit of time and work on my part. I had to become the most interesting and fun thing in the world to Buster. Our first training sessions were, from a dogs perspective, all fun and games for him and work for me (and of course lots of affection) but they were crucial to laying the foundation to train and work.
2) Breed characteristics…why they can matter.
Breed matters when training any dog. In Buster’s case, once we figured out what breed he actually was it unlocked the door to understanding his behavior and played a significant role in how I worked with Buster. Once I understood his breed (which is one that I had never heard of) I understood his behavior and planned exercise and training methods that suited him better.
3) Basics and generalization for a reactive dog.
All dogs will fare much better if their training includes a lot of generalization. For reactive dogs I train a few really key commands before I start working in public places. For a reactive dog, particularly Buster, generalization of commands is crucial…it is how we use commands to navigate his most stressful situations. For us generalization meant not just changing the scene of our training but very gradually increasing the distractions and stress level. It also meant that I, as his handler, had to pay close attention to his stress signals…always avoiding pushing him to the point of failure. This was a long and patient process with Buster…but it worked.
4) Solving the circular problem…How do you safely exercise a reactive dog with zero leash manners?
A reactive and very energetic dog needs exercise…duh…but that is not easy to do though with a dog that has zero leash manners and melts down around unfamiliar dogs. I will walk through how I taught Buster leash manners (his leash manners are incredible now) and what training methods we used to prepare to go out for walks and not have melt downs. Exercising a reactive dog takes a level of attention and focus on the part of the handler that is more intense than what is required with a well adjusted dog. My role as Buster’s handler is to be alert to everything around us and never to put him in a situation he can’t handle. It also means having a rock solid plan for what we will do when something unexpected happens (i.e. loose dogs charging at us).
5) Can dogs learn a better play style?
Buster was such a jerk around other dogs (this is with dogs that he is familiar with)…and I mean a real jerk. I wondered if it was possible to work on a better play style…was it trainable? Buster’s play style has improved dramatically and I will write about what we did to work on that.
6) Ending reactive behavior before its starts.
Buster, like most reactive dogs, can get really worked up at doors and windows. We worked hard at finding a balance between harnessing his natural breed instinct to guard his home/family and our desire to keep Buster from having a melt down every time someone walked passed our house.
I hope you find this upcoming series helpful. If you love all things pet and pet rescue please follow my blog. I blog weekly about different pet topics and daily on my facebook page and pinterest page.