Confessions of a Dog Trainer: I have reactive dogs

Working as a dog trainer I get frequently, “Oh, your dogs must be so well behaved!”, and my general response is a laugh with a, “Sometimes!”. The reality of the situation is that my dogs can be jerks at times. All three of them love barking at people when we’re in the car. Boris has a lovely habit of barking at strange men if they get too close, and Nina, well she likes to “talk” too.

If you own a pit bull type dog, you’ve surely heard the catch phrase, “It’s all in how you raise them!”. And that if you get a pit bull at the right age and give it all the love, attention and “socialization” (and I use this in the loosest terms) that they need, they’ll turn out to be bombproof and you’ll have the perfect dog. If there’s anything I want you to take way from this post today it’s that this idea of it’s all in how you raise them is somewhat untrue. While there is validly in the benefits of age appropriate and lifelong socialization for dogs in order to keep them animal and human tolerant, there is still a chance you can end up with a dog who you may need to manage around animals or people.

Take my oldest dog, Boris, for example. I got Boris at eight weeks old and wasted no time introducing him to people and other animals. He was the perfect gentleman, a friend to two and four legged individuals alike. I felt pretty proud of myself for raising such a polite dog- that was until he hit adolescents. His behavior did a one eighty. My happy, silly guy who would excitedly greet guests at the door with kisses was now charging the door and nipping guests. And other dogs? He couldn’t even be around them without starting a fight that would result in punctures. Admittedly I fell into the hands of a force based trainer when Boris’ behavior issues started to arise. We’ve done some pretty questionable and scary things that I still feel guilty for to this day, all in the hopes that I would bring back that carefree puppy I had several months prior. After several incidences of redirected aggression from the use of these aversive techniques, we abandoned these archaic methods and searched for an alternative approach to his behavioral problems. I’ll be honest with you, in those months my relationship with Boris struggled and I could see day by day as we used punitive methods on him that the relationship we had as a puppy was quickly deteriorating. I felt like I failed him as an owner and wondered maybe he was just one of those “bad dogs” that were unable to change. I would spend hours going through moments in time, hoping I could pinpoint the cause of Boris’ change. Maybe I didn’t give him enough affection. Or maybe he didn’t get to play with enough dogs. Maybe it was just me? Regardless of how it happened, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself it doesn’t matter. How or why his reactivity happened doesn’t matter anymore- it just is.At this point in time I was faced with two options: do nothing or do something to change the situation.

As I stared to get involved in pit bull rescue I begun to open up to the volunteers about my training experiences and issues I had with Boris and thankfully I was connected with a local reward based trainer who helped me get past the ugliness of his reactivity and see it for what it really was: a cry for help. It was like a light switch going on, through the use of counterconditioning we slowly set up situations in which Boris could be successful and

Boris at his first Feisty Fido class.
Boris at his first Feisty Fido class.

rewarded him accordingly for making better, braver choices. It’s been three years since we started our training journey but with the use of reward based training Boris is now comfortable with most people who approach him as well as guests in the house. We’re no longer members of the midnight walker’s club as we can now go for leisurely walks in our neighborhood without fear of having to drag my dog way while apologizing to the other dog owner. We set up little victories for him and go at his pace because in reality these problems just didn’t develop overnight and I shouldn’t place such illogical expectations that all these issues should be fixed instantaneously.

In order to make progress with Boris (and my other dogs for that matter) I had to drop that belief that it’s all in how you raise them. Socialize your dogs, train them; but don’t fall in to that false sense of security that reactivity could never happen to your dog. And if you find yourself in a situation like I was, frustrated and desperate for a solution I want you to remember something: I had to see that there was more to Boris than his reactivity because it’s just a speck in the complex masterpiece that makes up my wonderful, loving dog and there’s more to your dog than the reaction they give to the triggers that bother them. Always remember that they’re not bad dogs and you’re not a bad owner and that we can always change undesirable behavior with compassion, some counterconditioning, and some exciting rewards. No dog that can make your heart swell with joy and your face hurt from smiling could possibly be “bad”.

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