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Training a Reactive Dog – A Labour of Love: Part One

Published on 13th January 2017

Part One : Uh-oh, dog ownership isn’t quite what I imagined…

We loved the look of Binx when we first saw his amber eyes in the dog rescue shelter. He was a 1 year-old black lab-pointer, and ever so beautiful. The rehoming centre didn’t know anything about his past life, but their basic assessments revealed he was both dog and people friendly and had a bouncy puppy-like nature. We couldn’t wait to give him a forever home.

On bringing Binx home, however, it didn’t take long for us to uncover some issues. Despite no previous training he actually settled quite quickly into a routine around the house, but whenever we took him out on a walk he became incredibly anxious and reactive. Binx would tuck his tail down, pin back his ears, fix his gaze, weave frantically, pant heavily and pull strongly on his lead. He barked at other dogs and even some people and lunged at most small fast-moving objects. He was nervous around so many seemingly normal things. It was as if he’d never been exposed to the outdoor world, and all normal doggy behaviours were completely foreign to him.

We quickly sought the advice of the canine behaviourist from the rescue centre, who simply recommended starting a herbal calming medication and advised us to avoid the anxiety triggers. We live in a busy residential area so kids, balls, dogs & cats, bikes & traffic cannot be easily avoided. His anxieties meant it was physically and emotionally challenging (for both us and Binx) to take him anywhere outside the house or garden. Binx also started to develop some bad habits such as demand barking and chewing. All the advice pointed towards using exercise to help reduce these, relieve boredom and improve our relationship. “A tired dog is a good dog”. Being an energetic young pup he was clearly in need of a good run, but it was really hard to wear him out without pushing him over his anxiety threshold. Short of joining the ‘3am club’ and walking him at absurd times, I needed more help.

The early realization that Binx needed so much input made me feel very guilty. With both my boyfriend and I having full-time jobs we didn’t feel like we had the hours in the day to give Binx the attention he required. Had we known before bringing him home that he had as much ‘baggage’ we would have considered that we were not ideal partners. We had always planned for having a weekday dog walker, but Binx needed a one-to-one approach and most dog walking services are not able to cater for this. After a couple of failed attempts with group walks, and lots of phone calls to various pet services, I was advised to get in touch with Social Paws. I was encouraged when I read the website describing their bespoke service. The founder, Helen Eade, specializes in reactive dogs and when we met her and saw her interacting with Binx I knew we’d found the right kind of assistance. I was somewhat obsessively reading whatever advice I could find on the Internet, in books and asking other dog owners for tips. So much information was given that it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Through bringing the guidance together, selecting out the bits that seem to work best for us, and with support from Helen I have found my own ways of working with Binx.

Now, not a walk goes by without some form of desensitising and counter-conditioning. For us, dog walking requires more than a simple lead and poo bag, but pockets full of different value treats, a clicker, squeaker, ball, plus my total focus and attention. My right hand is constantly clutching a tasty treat, poised and ready to distract or reassure Binx if he becomes nervous, as well as rewarding any desirable behaviours.

Owning a reactive dog means I have learnt to be very observant of both Binx’s body language and our environment on our walks. As I am getting to know him I am more able to predict Binx’s reactions to different things and therefore react quickly to build up his confidence. If I spot a trigger in the distance I closely watch to see how Binx is reacting and respond appropriately. This often involves a swift change of direction to avoid another dog or focusing Binx with a treat or a command if he starts to get worked up. Unlike other carefree dogs and owners in the park, our walks often end up monotonously trotting up and down a couple of streets on which Binx feels at ease.

Trying my very best to protect Binx’s welfare whilst carrying on with normal life can be very stressful. I sometimes find myself trying so hard to do everything right that it is easy to slip into a somewhat ‘neurotic mother’ role about the specifics of Binx’s routine, training techniques, commands & signals. Another challenge is other people’s reactions to Binx. To the untrained eye Binx’s nervous behaviour could easily look like aggression. If we are out on a training walk and Binx becomes hyper-vigilant and starts pulling on his lead, other people will sometimes give judgmental looks or even comment “control your dog”. This is very disheartening as I am putting in so much time and energy, and Binx IS showing some improvement.

Things have started to improve. Helen works with Binx twice a week for calming techniques, counter-conditioning and helps keep us on track with our own training. She is also a great help in reminding us of the progress being made. She understands how hard it can be to own a reactive dog, and offers invaluable advice and support to owners, not to mention incredible kindness and patience towards our dog.

Our walks are gradually becoming a thing of pleasure, and with his increased confidence we have now started to be able to explore further afield. Binx is a clever dog and has learnt all the basic commands, plus some extra fun things to keep his mind active (I had great fun teaching him to “beg” and “crawl”). Binx is able run off the lead a lot more now as he is sociable with other dogs and his recall is really improving. His little personality is now emerging, and he is an incredibly friendly, affectionate, playful pup.

To be continued…