How Real Listening Can Calm Your Reactive Dog

You may think that you’re listening to your dog’s wants and needs, but listening isn’t always what you think it is.

We all want to do what’s best for our dogs. However, sometimes, in the quest for a successful relationship, we can get stuck pursuing traditional training methods that just aren’t working. The reality is, truly listening to your dog can look very different from how you might have imagined it.

When you open up your mind and your heart to your partnership’s possibilities, that’s when things can really start to change ­– especially if you have a reactive dog.

Steph Taleb and her dog, Pow, are a perfect example of how real listening can build a strong, thriving partnership. Steph joined the Brilliant Partners Academy (BPA) back in 2018, looking for a better way to calm and bond with Pow. Three years later and they’re more than a BPA success story. Their partnership now shows how far you can come when you invest in openness. This is their story.

 

(Mis)understanding your new dog’s personality

Steph got Pow as a puppy shortly after her previous dog, Bug, had passed away. At the time, Steph was still mourning Bug and was looking for a quiet, reserved dog ­– Pow was the “perfect” fit.

From the moment Steph met Pow, Pow showed submissive behavior and disinterest towards others. She didn’t jump or run up to meet visitors and seemed introverted. But when Steph brought Pow home, this translated into Pow shutting down and going into herself each time she was exposed to her triggers.

Steph recognized early on that Pow had a different personality. Steph attempted to remedy Pow’s behavior by socializing Pow and exposing her to lots of new experiences. But it didn’t help. In fact, as Pow grew older and began to express herself, she became very reactive.

“I know now that it’s because I wasn’t listening to her. She was really trying to advocate for herself the whole time before that, but I wasn’t listening.”

 

Traditional training vs. true listening

Steph continued trying different methods to see what would help Pow. She tried being stern and commanding, using high-energy games training and food motivation ­– none of which positively impacted Pow and Steph’s relationship. Pow would be responsive at the time, getting excited, matching Steph’s energy, and enjoying the tasty treats! But Pow continued to display reactive behavior.

This is something I see a lot. People say that they are listening to their dog and that they do have a good relationship because of these moments. But the reality is, the fundamentals of your partnership aren’t changing, so something still isn’t right.

Looking back, Steph recognizes that Pow’s sensitive nature meant that these methods were simply stressing Pow out. Pow was unhappy, Steph was unhappy, and Steph even admits being unhappy with Pow herself. Then she found the BPA.

 

How the BPA transformed Steph and Pow’s partnership

The BPA was a completely different approach to anything Steph had tried before. While Steph always had the best intentions for Pow and loved her deeply, she believed it was her duty to “fix” Pow’s behavior. But the BPA helped Steph overcome her stubborn lizard brain and listen to what her heart had been telling her all along.

“What it feels like now to listen to her, is that it’s a flow between us. It’s a gentle flow of energy between us that is organic. It almost seems innate. It’s something that I don’t have to try hard to do. Whereas before, I was trying very hard to try to listen to her and try to figure her out.”

Now, Steph and Pow have a soft, natural, mutual, and respectful bond. It’s no longer a teacher-student or a top-down relationship. It’s a true partnership where they can meet each other as equals. So, what changed?

 

How Steph embraced real listening

One of the key things that Steph changed was her mindset. Before, Steph used to dream about having a “perfect dog”. Now, this idea “doesn’t even exist anymore”. Instead, Steph appreciates all their wonderful connections for what they truly are.

Every so often, Steph and Pow face challenging moments. But Steph no longer approaches the situation with fear or attempting to distract Pow. Since joining the BPA, Steph and Pow maneuver through things that are hard for them with trust.

“It feels light. It feels like I’m aware. I almost feel like I’ve woken up. When we’re on a walk, it’s me and her. It’s not me thinking, ‘Oh no, there comes the other dog!’. If I do see another dog, I make sure my energy is right back to us. And it’s so easy.”

It’s this trust that’s really transformed Steph and Pow’s relationship. Pow’s newfound trust in Steph makes Steph more confident as a loving leader, and with these qualities, they support one another.

So, in a situation where Pow follows her guarding breed instinct and barks, Steph doesn’t get stressed. She allows Pow to express herself, and then Steph, as her partner, takes over. In this partnership where Pow and Steph trust each other, co-regulation and self-regulation can finally happen.

 

Why erase the idea of compliance

Another big hurdle Steph had to overcome was her expectations for compliance. Steph experienced a lot of frustration when first extending the dance invitation to Pow because Pow wasn’t responding. But she quickly learned that Pow didn’t respond to pressure, but she did respond to love and understanding.

“Once I got rid of that pressure and stress of compliance, then she wanted to come to me, because I wasn’t putting out that stern energy. […] She prefers not to have that, she prefers to just have a mere love. Man, she must feel so much better. She must be like, ‘Thank God, you finally figured that out!’”

This is the difference between a genuine invitation and a command. With a command, you’re expecting to get what you want from your dog ­– no matter how happy, energetic and delightful you are! You’re applying pressure for your dog to behave in a certain way. But when you shift into being genuine, authentic, and accepting of your dog’s autonomy, that’s when your dog is more likely to accept invitations.

 

“Open your mind. Listen to your heart.”

 

What Steph and Pow’s brilliant partnership looks like now

Previously, Steph had relied on long walks and high-energy games, thinking that they’d help Pow release her energy. However, this wasn’t what Pow wanted at all. Her cortisol levels were constantly raised, and her stress buckets were overflowing because she was continually exposed to her triggers. Steph misinterpreted this as Pow being a high-energy dog and exercised her even more – getting them stuck in this cycle.

Today, life looks very different. Steph still plays high-energy games and goes on long walks with Pow, but now they’re for enjoyment rather than as a coercion tool. When Pow gets tired, Steph listens and lets her relax. Long gone are the days of attempting to hype Pow up and exhaust her.

Steph now knows that it’s much more beneficial for their partnership to listen to Pow when she’s communicating her needs, whether that’s to take a break from playtime or if she’s happy to go for a walk. With each supported experience, they build trust, and the more trust they have, the easier day-to-day life becomes.

I am so delighted with Steph and Pow’s incredible journey and love having them in the BPA community! I asked Steph what her final words of advice were for any other dog moms out there dealing with the same challenges her and Pow had, and this is what she said:

“When you try something new, if you make that room, it feels really special. You’re here because your heart brought you here. Open your mind to that. You don’t have anything to lose. It’s only going to make things better. So, open your mind and listen to your heart.”

 

If you’d like to work with me and learn how to create a partnership lifestyle for you and your dog, you can request an invitation to join us in the Brilliant Partners Academy when the doors open for the next enrollment!

You can listen to everything I talked about in this blog post over on my podcast – Enlightened By Dogs. It’s episode 156, which you can listen to here.

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